The future of the People’s Food Co-op

MLive reports that the People’s Food Co-op is in financial trouble, having lost money since 2012.  I joined PFC shortly after moving to Ann Arbor in 2009 and have been a supporter and shopper since.  Here are my thoughts.

The competition became too great. Even since I’ve moved here, the number of places selling organic and natural foods have exploded.  Whole Foods (2), Plum Market (2), Lucky’s, Trader Joe’s, not to mention that larger retailers like Kroger and Meijer sell organic food too – and more cheaply, with more parking.  I am fond of Argus Farm Stop, a newer competitor, but it really goes toe-to-toe with PFC on local food.

East Lansing’s food co-op closed in 2017, facing similar competition.  Their study found that there was no place to re-open under a similar model, and they’re exploring more radically-different options.  Their website provides a look at a possible future for PFC.

For background reading on other factors leading to this point, see coverage in the Ann Arbor Observer, “Midlife Crisis” (2015) and “Co-op in Turmoil” (2017).

What’s at stake

This would be a great loss for Ann Arbor.  Recently-closed stores like Aunt Agatha’s and Vogel’s have been mourned as losses of long-time town icons.  But locksmithing and mystery novels are niche products.  Downtown hardly clamors for key copying, and book buyers have Literati just down the street from the old Aunt Agatha’s.  If PFC closes, the practical effects will be much greater.  It is an icon of the hippie era of Ann Arbor and the those supposed Ann Arbor values; the Observer calls it “One of the few survivors of Ann Arbor’s counter-culture era.”  Here are some of the things at stake.

Decent jobs.  In an age of declining labor power, PFC employees recently unionized.  A shopper can see at a glance that it gives staff more leeway than a typical employer, with staff wearing a broad variety of styles and playing esoteric music.  This job is highly accessible via transit.

A flexible, fast eating option.  The PFC hot bar at their Cafe Verde is one of the quickest meals downtown and provides choices that will suit any mix of dietary restrictions and preferences.

A downtown grocery option.  Downtown already hurts from a lack of a drugstore.  This compounds the problem.  PFC is the only option for a downtown business that runs out of coffee filters, or for someone already downtown running errands to grab a jug of milk on the way home.  Such one-item shoppers have not helped keep PFC in business, but they will miss it if it folds.  Edit: Tom Brandt points out Sparrow’s Meat Market in Kerrytown shops.  I never shop there, as it’s not well-aligned to my vegetarian shopping list.  But I know it’s not just meat.  Do they have coffee filters and toilet paper?  If PFC goes under, would they change what they carry?

An alternative to corporate power.  PFC members own the business where they shop.  They elect the board and, in profitable years, receive dividend checks.  Members have a voice in the store’s policies and the products it carries.  The other grocery stores in town range from massive, tightly-controlled corporations (Trader Joe’s/ALDI) to world-dominating corporations (Amazon/Whole Foods).  The exception is Argus Farm Stop, which carries only a tenth as many products as PFC (lacking in dry goods, for example).

Public restrooms.  Downtown Ann Arbor suffers from a lack of public restrooms.  There’s the Ann Arbor District Library and the Blake Transit Center.  Is that it, officially?  Maybe city hall?  In practice, the co-op offered itself as a public restroom, offering transgender-friendly single occupancy access to anyone, customer or not.  This is particularly important for Ann Arbor’s unhoused people.  PFC provides this service for free and in a fair world would be compensated.  Germany’s Nice Toilet network is the example to look to.  The city should pay PFC a monthly fee in exchange for formalizing PFC’s offer and making it a truly public toilet.

What’s next

Ever an optimist, I hope PFC can turn the corner at its current location.  Could its members shop it back to fiscal health?  Are there other ways to remain solvent?  I once suggested exploring becoming a supplier of snacks and beverages to nearby businesses, as a possible source of recurring sales to folks with a vested interest in keeping a neighbor afloat.  It seemed likely that hundreds of new neighbors would land in the Core Spaces building, some of whom would patronize PFC, but that was dashed with the passage of Ann Arbor’s Prop A (2018).  Perhaps any pivot at this point may be too little, too late.

If that becomes the case, who has a bold vision for what the PFC can do?  Now is the time for that discussion.

Is there an entity that could infuse money to keep it going?

Could it relocate?  Pursue a new business model?

If it shutters, I’d be interested in what ends up in that location – perhaps a national chain would take a shot at a small convenience store? – but it will be the landlord who has the say there.

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