What follows is one owner’s recollection of the beginnings of the Port Townsend Food Co-op. If you would like to share your stories about the Port Townsend Food Co-op please submit your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Short History of the Port Townsend Food Co-op
by Gale Wallis, Co-op Owner
Most lively and alive organizations begin with the heart, not the mind. The Port Townsend Food Co-op is no exception.
The Co-op began with a football hero who went to Vietnam expecting to further his heroic career. His name was Grant Logg. When he returned, his closest friend was a young conscientious objector he had met in Vietnam. This man altered Grant’s sense of values and redefined his ideas about heroism.
In the first years of the 1970’s, Grant was an early advocate for whole foods – none of which were available in sleepy backwater Port Townsend. He dedicated a corner of his candle shop, The Funk Candle, to sacks of whole wheat flour, rice, grains and buckets of honey, selling enough to finance the next run to Seattle to restock his “store.” Interest in whole foods grew and more people became involved, leading to an uptown storefront on Tyler Street and incorporation under the name The Food Co-op in 1972.
In those early years, only volunteers staffed the Co-op, and they considered selling $40 in bulk flour and herbs a red-hot sales day. In 1975, a grant paid for two staff members and the first steps were made towards being a “real” business, reflecting ever higher sales volume, wider community patronage, and a broader range of foods. These two paid positions led to more paid positions over the years.
The Co-op has survived many rocky moments. The most dramatic in these early years occurred in 1978 when a group of members sought to buy out the Co-op and move it downtown in an effort to reach more of the community. No agreement was reached, so the Co-op stayed uptown while a core group followed their vision to a downtown location. There were three natural food stores in Port Townsend in 1978, all politely sharing the whole food pie. With sales as low as $2500 per month, the Co-op experienced shaky times.
However, commitment to a cooperative store kept volunteers and member-shoppers focused uptown. But the original building felt dark and not very inviting, and some disparagingly called it a “hippie haven.” The store’ s image needed to improve and member-shoppers desperately craved natural light. When the opportunity came to move around the corner, volunteer labor and low-interest member loans transformed the Wonder Works bus barn into a clean and brightly lit space. The new location opened for business in August 1979 and included 128 panes of glass which Co-op volunteers had faithfully re-puttied into the 80-year-old window panes. By 1982, a short three years later, sales were topping an amazing $12,000 per month, with healthy growth each year thereafter. In its “new” space, the Co-op continued to be a community focal point, and staff oversaw several small expansions over the next 21 years.
With growth and more commitment needed on the part of workers to help the store provide good food and good service, The Co-op hired more staff. By the mid-80’s, the paid employee structure consisted of a five-person Coordinator Team plus “stewards” leading a large volunteer staff who earned significant discounts on food purchases. By January 1995, legal and insurance pressures led to the final shift toward a paid staff, leaving only a small handful of volunteers who earned minimal discounts.
As success caught up with The Food Co-op it became clear that the large five-person Coordinator Team had become an unwieldy structure for running a growing store. Another painful and rocky period followed as the Co-op transitioned into having a single manager leading the store. As traditionally happens with co-ops in this transition, our first General Manager lasted barely one year in the job. In 1998, the Board used the learning experience of the first General Manager and advertised for a Senior Team Leader, a single person in charge who would emphasize participatory management.
A growing awareness nationwide and in our community of the need for good healthy foods continued to push the Co-op into higher and higher sales volume. The old bus barn location needed a serious remodel or the Co-op would finally have to face leaving uptown. Twenty years had passed and the question remained the same: How best to serve the whole community – stay uptown with its charm of a mixed residential/ commercial neighborhood or find a location with better access, stronger long term growth potential and increased ability to serve the entire community? After much deliberation, the Board decided to relocate and asked the membership in March 2000 for permission to incur the debt needed for expansion and relocation.
Permission granted, the membership stepped forward again to support their co-op. An amazing $492,500 was raised through low-cost member loans to finance remodeling and moving to the old bowling alley on Kearney Street. Again, the membership stepped forward with sweat equity to help transform an old building into a thing of beauty and light. The scale was much larger, but the project satisfyingly echoed the member support in the move to the old bus barn.
On April 7, 2001, a parade of members and well-wishers walked from the old location to the new, singing, playing musical instruments, waving to passersby, and pushing the final grocery carts full of inventory to the latest incarnation of cooperative energy. With increased visibility, better parking, more grocery choices, and a much expanded produce section offering the best of local growers, the Co-op realized its vision to reach more of the community. Retail space jumped from 1,800 square feet to 8,000 square feet. Employment grew from 35 to 80. And finally, the true test of success — thousands of new members joined in the first year, reflecting a heartening diversity of the community.
In May 2005, the membership voted in favor of purchasing our building, so we not only own the store, we own the building!
And the community of co-owners continues to grow….