By Jessica Kronzer and Katelyn Waltemyer, contributors
What started as a two-aisle “little natural food store” has grown into the now decade-old Friendly City Food Co-op — which just keeps growing. The store spent much of the last year gradually phasing in its 2,000 square foot expansion.
And as the store celebrated its 10-year anniversary last week with a series of in-person and online activities, store leaders are dreaming of opening a second location over the next decade.
Steve Cooke, the store’s manager, said expansion of the store on Mason and Wolfe streets transformed the general layout of the store from a square to a “long, thin,” rectangle. The produce department doubled in size. The store aisles, which previously ran east-west, now are arranged north-to-south and offer more space.
“We just needed more room was the biggest part of it,” Cooke said. “Pandemic aside, just having more aisle width and more room for people to navigate around the store is really a good thing.”
Six new windows allow more daylight into the store, and the addition of a new kitchen provided a dishwasher to save time handwashing dishes. The meat department extended to “six doors of refrigerated meats and three doors of frozen meats.” The wellness department has been warranted more shelf space.
“It’s more space and more products of everything that you like,” said Lindsey Denny, the marketing and brand manager. “But still the same small, intimate feeling that the co-op has always had with the same friendly people.”
Denny helped to plan last week’s celebration while maintaining COVID-19 guidelines by spreading events over a week rather than having a one-day event. Some virtual activities included social media giveaways.
Denny said she hopes people are “pleased” with the additions to the store. Many said they are.
“I really like that they’re expanding and growing,” said Sam Suggs, a JMU music professor, who has been shopping there since moving from Connecticut five years ago. “It feels like it’s a representation of the community expanding and growing.”
He said he’s had to adjust to the new layout and where the different foods are located, but he said he’s happy to see the “friendly” place grow and likes having access to fresh, local food.
Tim Evans said he has been a regular since the co-op first opened, and 10 years later, Evans still shops there about twice a week. He said he values the co-op’s selection of organic produce and appreciates its convenience.
“I shop in a very small section, and this grocery store’s section of organic produce is as big or bigger than every other grocery store in the area,” Evans said. “As soon as I walk in the door it’s right there.”
On top of his regular staples, Evans special orders products from the co-op “every-once-in-a-while” like cases of quart-size lime juice for his partner’s matcha tea. He said it’s easy to order the cases while checking out, and the employees are always happy to help.
“It’s a super … customer-centered … friendly store,” Evans said. “It excels at that, too.”
From an idea to a fixture
While the natural food store did not pan out, the community bound together in 2007 to form a Food Co-op and three years later they found the enough “member owners” and the perfect location on Wolfe Street. They chose the location because it had space for parking and the opportunity to expand, which the Co-op did after the Dollar Store next door closed. Cooke said forming a co-op was no easy venture.
“There’s a lot of networking and a lot of community building,” Cooke said. “The goal was to have a store that was focused on local natural and organic products and environmentally friendly goods.”
Cooke, who was previously working for a co-op in Atlanta, Georgia, got involved in 2010. It was a bit of a homecoming for the JMU alumnus. In 2011, the store opened its doors.
“I wanted to apply all the things that I had learned about customer service and local foods and sustainable agriculture … (by) starting this new co-op here in Harrisonburg,” Cooke said.
Because it’s a co-op, in which shoppers can be member-owners, the board of directors decides how to divide up the store’s profits among its members every year. The more a member spends as a customer in the store, the more profits they receive at the end of the year.
“It’s about the local food and the local shopping movement,” Cooke said. “Co-ops are really the epitome of that because they keep the dollars circulating in the local economy.”
Over the last 10 years, the co-op has also expanded its employment. It has gone from 18 workers to 42. Recently, the Friendly City Food Co-op became certified by Harrisonburg Rockingham Living Wage as a silver level business because the store pays its employees “$12.50/hour or $11.00/hour plus healthcare benefit.”
“I think it’s just the camaraderie and that we listen to what people have to say,” Cooke said. “We value people’s opinions.”
That camaraderie has helped to fund their expansion. Denny said half of the funding for the expansion came from loans from member owners.
Expanding in the present … and future
The next step for the co-op could be opening another store, but Cooke said that won’t come for another five or 10 years after the Co-op has grown into its current space.
Cooke said he is most proud of how the co-op has supported local vendors and farmers while selling a variety of products. He said these local growers and entrepreneurs increased production because of sales at the co-op.
“You can just come in and walk around and window-shop if you like,” Cooke said “But we think you’re going to find some pretty interesting things that are also delicious and tasty and are made by people from right here in the Valley.”
Denny said she is grateful for the community’s support in helping the Co-op to run and to expand.
“We wouldn’t be here without this community and the support that we’ve had,” Denny said. “We owe a huge debt of gratitude to them and we’re looking forward to another 10 years.”
In the meantime, the co-op is still winning over new customers.
On Sunday, for instance, Gary Winthorpe was at Klines Dairy Bar downtown and decided to check out the co-op for the first time. Winthorpe, a JMU student, drinks kombucha at least twice a week to help with stomach health, and he said he was impressed with the co-op’s selection.
“I figured they’d have a good selection and they did,” Winthorpe said. “They had stuff I had never seen before — It was a good first experience.”
But it’s not just the food but connections that keep other customers coming back.
Deirdre Hulvey has been shopping there since she attended Blue Ridge Community College’s satellite campus across the street and stops in frequently enough that she knows many of the staff.
“They [are like] my family, and they check in with me,” Hulvey said. “It’s nice to have that rapport.”
Hulvey said the expansion is “wonderful,” and she’s happy there’s more space for people to gather in the building, especially in the colder months when the co-op occasionally serves free coffee to those in need, such as people experiencing homelessness.
“They are so sweet to the local community,” Hulvey said. “We have that friendly city aspect here that I really think is great.”
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