Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Community Co-Op

Posted By on August 7, 2014, 10:30 PM

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One of the more impressive feats of the buy local movement in Utah has to be The Community Co-Op, an organization started up by the Crossroads Urban Center years ago that has transformed into a resource for locals to buy produce and other food items that are locally grown and made. As this interview was happening, the Co-Op has grown beyond its South Salt Lake facility and is making the transition to a new building around the University District, putting them in a more central location to provide for the city. Today we chat with two of the co-op's organizers, Kris Jones and Jared Kemp, discussing the organization's history and their current happenings. (All photos courtesy of the Co-Op.)

Jared Zemp & Kris Jones
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TheCommunityCoOp.com

Gavin: Hey Jared and Kris, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Jared: I'm an entrepreneur, I've started about half a dozen companies or turned them around. I've had a lot of fun doing it. I teach entrepreneurship at the LDS Business College. Along with my wife Jenny, we have four kids and a dog: 7, 5, 3 and a 1 year-old. Our dog is named Chop Suey, we have a lot of fun living in our house just west of the University, a great walking community with a “get to know your neighbor” vibe.

Kris: Kris loves to build. Building businesses provides quite a rewarding challenge.

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Gavin: Prior to the Co-Op, what experience did the both of you have with local business and community involvement?

Kris: During graduate work at the University of Utah, Kris worked with various organizations focused on local economic development including the USTAR, the Utah Entrepreneur Challenge, and University of Utah TCO. Doing so allowed Kris to help local students, businesses, or university professors create businesses and take their ideas to market.

Jared: I own a few math schools, one on Orem called Ology and one in Ogden called Acer Placer, so I've been involved with the local education scene and helping students. And teaching at the Business College gives me a lot of opportunities to mentor students in starting their businesses. I've also mentored at the U of U's Business Plan Competition, now called the Entrepreneurial Series. I'm also a member of Utah Angels, too.

Gavin: How did you first hear about the Community Co-Op?

Jared: I was first introduced to the co-op by my wife, Jenny, who was introduced by her friend, Marissa. Back then it was operated by the Crossroads Urban Center who do poverty advocacy, so they're really involved with anything that has to do with helping people in poverty get healthy food. They found that the co-op addressed some key needs in the community, and when my wife heard about it she decided it was just the things she needed to be involved in. Getting groceries delivers to a church meant she could send me to pick it up and she didn't have to do it with three kids at the time, and also save from me going to the store and coming back with all the wrong things while being gone all day, because I suck at finding things in a grocery store. So this was a good solution to that and was helping out in the community. When my wife heard that Crossroads was going to close it down, she said I should contact them and see if I can pick it up. I contacted them and said I'd really like to look at taking over this project and what's it gonna take? That's about it.

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Gavin: What was it like planning it out and formulating a plan to make it a sustainable business?

Kris: Information gathering, analysis, experimentation, iteration, hard work, repeat.

Jared: You never can tell what's going to work and what's not. When we got involved the project hadn't been sustainable for quite some time. At first we thought they're delivering a week's worth of food once a month, why wouldn't we just start delivering it every week and suddenly the co-op pays for itself? Turns out it didn't quite work out that way, because we had been dealing with volunteer at each of the church sites, asking them to volunteer once a week rather than monthly was just too much. So we thought that if we hired people to build the orders and dropped it off at the church, if they're there it only takes a half an hour. At that point they felt they weren't needed anymore and wanted to move onto other projects where they were needed, so we went too far in the other direction. Some of the churches were worries we were becoming a for-profit business instead of a non-profit, so our customers stayed the same but our community changed quite a bit. We had to re-brand and restart the business, so we started again and started offering home delivery as well as delivery at parks, and that was going well, but ultimately what happened was that people tried it out and thought it was cool, but it's was just too much of a change to their current buying habits. They like buying their food whenever they want, rather than pay a week in advance and pick it up at a park. That brought us to our latest changes where we moved from the warehouse district to 1300 East by Graywhale, that will be our retail location where we'll do our deliveries, and instead of once a week we'll do it daily.

Gavin: For those who may not be familiar with the Co-Op, how does it work from getting the food to selling it to local consumers?

Kris: Food is sourced from a variety of local sources including small businesses, farmers, and produce houses. Some of the food is delivered directly from the business owner each week and sent out right away. Other products are warehoused at the co-op for sales on demand. Local consumers shop directly at our market or order online for weekly delivery. We used to sell our food directly out of the warehouse, but we thought we could do better in a more traditional store setting. Basically we'll go to the Farmers Market or local food producers will contact us and keep food on the shelf as sort of a consignment basis. Then for deliveries we'll use the stuff we have in stock to make the deliveries and then send notification to the vendors of what we've just sold.

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Gavin: What's the process like in choosing what companies and resources you purchase food from?

Kris: We love to support local businesses, especially the little guys. Many local businesses have a hard time getting into larger distribution channels without a little bit of track record. That is where we can help. Small businesses can sell through the Community Co-Op, improve their product, and establish themselves in the local community. We are always open to new businesses and partners.

Jared: Because we work on consignment and have online orders, we're not horribly picky about what we'll list. If we feel like the product is going to do well we'll put it up online and ask if anyone likes this to our 35,000 customers. Its a great way to announce to the valley that there's a new vendor in town ad this is what they provide.

Gavin: How much of a challenge is it running the co-op, and in what ways does it differ from a regular grocery store?

Jared: The expectation of having a community is one of the biggest differences. Truth be told, an actual co-op is structured a little differently than what we have as we've evolved since the inception.

Kris: The largest challenge we deal with is pricing products inexpensively enough to attract local consumers while still compensating the vendors we work with all while keeping the doors open. We also deal with the challenge of working with local businesses to get the right amount of product to sell in stock in time to deliver. A larger grocery store has established distribution channels, robust product tracking systems, and far more resources. We live on the other end of the street. Often times our operations are loose, lean and last minute.

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Gavin: When did you start donating back to other organizations like Donation Share, and how has that program worked out for everyone?

Jared: People would donate the cost of a food share and then that would go toward the cost of the food we gave to Crossroads. Truth be told, the food we gave to crossroads has always been worth more in value than what we ever collected in donation shares.

Kris: We’ve love to give back. We’ve donated back to Crossroads, to local churches, to needy businesses and needy individuals.

Gavin: What made you decide to start incorporating home delivery, and what kind of a challenge was it integrating that system into the current one?

Kris: Many of our customers liked the idea. We had already established a park delivery system, including free home delivery to the home bound. Adding on home delivery was the next step. If our drivers were already in the neighborhood, we could offer a premium home delivery service. Also, dropping off the food while we were in the neighborhood made it so our members didn’t have to take an extra trip thus saving gas and pollution.

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Gavin: At the time of this interview, plans are underway for you to move to 1300 East in the University District. What brought about the decision to move, and how will it impact your business?

Kris: We have been looking into better retail space for a while. Being on 13th allows us to create a small community grocery store to serve not only the local market, but anyone looking for a great little shop to buy local. Moving out of the industrial district of Glendale should increase participation in the market which should also provide greater publicity for our delivery service.

Gavin: Are there any plans at this time for expansion after the move or are you going to mainly focus on getting situated?

Kris: Right now we are getting situated while maintaining our delivery service. Once the dust settles, we’ll be ready to increase both deliveries and foot traffic.

Jared: The plan is to go to next day delivery once we move, that's kind of our expansion plan. We'll shrink down our delivery trucks down to 2 so it decreases our expenses and increases our order volume.

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Gavin: For those who are interested in taking part in the Co-Op, how do they sign up or get involved?

Kris: Find us on the web, you can see a list of our local vendors and learn about the great local products. If you want to take a more hands on approach, you can help fix up our market on August 13 – fair warning, bring your painting clothes.

Gavin: What can we expect from both of you and the Co-Op over the rest of the year?

Kris: Striving for sales, human resource turnover, a few more business model iterations, a few more cash crunches, and by in large, a steady amble to greater success.

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Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?

Kris: The creation of a local vendor delivery network – The co-op delivers. The amazon of local. Also, come help paint!

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