As a produce buying club founded by a group of neighbors in Philadelphia, the early days of Weavers Way were modest, and focused on filling a simple need: to provide the neighborhood with access to quality produce. And while the focus in 2020 is still on filling the basic need of providing healthy food to the local communities, the impact is now far more wide-reaching. Today, the co-op has three main locations, and membership has increased to more than 9,000 households representing more than 20,000 people.
“We’re a consumer cooperative, so at our core, the mission is to meet the needs of our members,” Jon Roesser, General Manager, Weavers Way Cooperative Association, tells WholeFoods. That mission has evolved organically since the first Weavers Way opened in an old rented storefront in Mt. Airy in January 1973. As the business grew—with Weavers Way Chestnut Hill opening in 2010, followed by Weavers Way Ambler in October 2017, with satellite locations added to deal with growth and space demands—the focus expanded to supporting the local food economy. Roesser explains, “The core mission these days tends to be related to serving as the link between our members, who are largely values-driven consumers, and the Philadelphia food shed—the farmers that surround the city, the orchards, the food producers in and out of the city.”
And in 2020, three urgent needs are being emphasized and addressed:
Fighting racial injustice. “We consider racial injustice to be a matter of fact—institutional racism is not a debatable thing for us,” Roesser says. “And so what is the co-op’s role going forward in terms of being a better business in a society in which institutional racism is real?” To answer that question, Weavers Way considered what the co-op spends money on. “There are two overwhelming things that we spend our money on. The first thing is cost of goods—65 cents of every dollar that we take in at the registers goes to pay vendors for the products we sell. The second thing is employment—25 cents of every dollar that we take in at the register goes to wages. So that’s 90 cents of every dollar that we take in. Those are the two areas that, if we’re serious about this, we’ve got to improve. Over the next few years, we have to show progress in terms of the number of black-owned businesses that we support by buying products from them. And we need to improve the racial diversity of our staff. That’s how we as a business can have the most impact.”
Weavers Way can take other actions as well, Roesser notes, and they do, including supporting local community organizations that are doing good work. “But in the end, it really comes down to where do you spend your money. We need to show real progress there, and I think that we can..that is how we would measure success.”
As others in the industry have done this year, Roesser acknowledges that not enough has been done, and stresses the need for real action. “Quite honestly, I think a lot of what the big corporations say about this stuff is just optics to make people feel good. If you’re a big corporation, think: What do you spend your money on? Be more deliberate about how you spend your money. And we haven’t done a really good job of that. We’ve done a lousy job of that as a society, I think. But as a co-op, we need to recognize that up until now we haven’t given that the proper attention.”
Supporting community members facing economic uncertainty. “We are very aware that a lot of our customers are facing economic uncertainty because of the state of the economy,” says Roesser. The co-op eases the burden with a food access program called Food For All. “It allows you to become a member of the co-op for five bucks a year, and you get 10% off your purchases all the time,” Roesser says. “We’ve seen a growth in our Food For All program since the start of the pandemic. And we expect Food For All is going to play a critical role in the next couple of years as there’s more economic aftershocks, and more people lose their jobs.” Food For All is a needs-based program, and both new and existing Weavers Way members can qualify if they currently receive food stamps (SNAP), Medicaid, TANF—Cash Assistance, WIC, SSDI, SSI or Military Disability. The Food For All discount applies to items beyond what is covered by SNAP and WIC, including prepared foods in the deli, pet food, and bath and body products.
Going beyond that 10%, shoppers can earn an additional 5% off purchases by completing six hours of volunteer work a year. “We’ve got a bunch of different community partners,” Roesser says, adding that some people volunteer to help out the stores, while others go into the community to help with neighborhood or park cleanups, after school tutoring, Meals on Wheels deliveries and more. “You can do six hours of volunteer work for the Boys and Girls Club, for example, and you get 5% off.” He adds that the discounts are stackable, so doing six hours of service as part of the Food For All program nets a total 15% off purchases.
Supporting local businesses facing hardships due to the pandemic. “A lot of our vendors are small local vendors,” Roesser explains. “They are bread bakers and farmers and coffee roasters, granola makers…and a lot of them have been devastated by the pandemic and the economic upheaval because they’ve lost a lot of their businesses—a lot of retail outlets, like restaurants and bars, that bought from them are no longer buying from. And so they’re more dependent on the co-op than ever.” Roesser says Weavers Way has been making a plea to customers to pay particular attention to the local products sold in the store, and also to support local businesses. “We really think that we’re in a critical place when it comes to supporting the local food economy in a way that was important before the pandemic, but now it’s critical because a lot of these businesses have just lost so much of their wholesale.”
#BuyLocal: “Buying local and being knowledgeable about where something is coming from is the smartest trend that has been around for a while but also isn’t going anywhere,” says Anthony. “The co-op has been doing it for decades and has incredible relationships with its vendors because of it.
#QuarantineBaking: “There’s no doubt that we saw our share of members trying out bread making in quarantine,” Anthony shares.
Fall flavors: “We are getting in local apples from local orchards, local apple cider, and everyone’s favorite apple cider donuts,” says Anthony.
Home delivery: “We have had to evolve our home delivery business from a few a week to dozens a day,” says Anthony. “I don’t deal with the logistics of that, but we have adapted to fill this need for our members who need this service.”
Prioritizing During the Pandemic
In terms of long-term goals, fighting racial injustice is one of the only forward-looking changes Weavers Way is focusing on at this moment. “We don’t have any specific future goals beyond navigating through the pandemic,” Roesser shares. “We actually made a very deliberate decision back in March. We were just about to embark on a strategic planning process. And the kick-off meeting was supposed to take place in the third week of March. We canceled it because that’s when everything went crazy. And we had this kind of vague idea that we were going to reschedule for sometime later in the spring. But later in the spring, we had a conference call and said, ‘You know what? This is not the time to be having strategic discussions. We can’t really take our eye off the ball.’ It’s a little hard to think much beyond the day to day. So we’ve made a very deliberate strategic decision not to talk strategically for a little while.”
Alexander Anthony, an employee at the Mt. Airy location, working in the produce department, seconds that. “It’s hard to see very far into the future to be honest. It’s been a pretty crazy year and taking it one week—or more realistically, one day—at a time has been my strategy for surviving 2020. I would really like to continue working with and supporting this company that has supported me and continues to support me.”
In terms of supporting employees and customers alike through the pandemic, Weavers Way prioritized health and safety. “Here in Philadelphia, we were basically just a little bit behind New York/New Jersey in terms of the the curve in the springtime, which was actually very advantageous to us because it gave us a couple of weeks to prepare in a way that New York didn’t have, with tragic consequences,” Roesser says. “We in the end, at least for the springtime, were much better off as a consequence of that. But the curve was essentially the same in terms of just a few weeks behind.”
As an essential business, Roesser notes, “We are one of those places where people come together, so risk is heightened. When it comes to both employees and the customers, as it relates to the pandemic, it’s about mitigation. It’s about what can we do reasonably as an employer to keep our employees as safe as we possibly can?”
Weavers Way focused on keeping the doors open by stressing the importance of never coming to work sick, always wearing a mask (nose covered), calling for frequent hand sanitizing, hand washing, and disinfecting of surfaces, and social distancing. Roesser admits that the last one was challenging, especially in the Mt. Airy store, which is the smallest of three. “To maintain social distancing, we have to have customer caps. We only let 12 people at a time in Mt. Airy.” Chestnut Hill caps at 20 people, and at the larger Ambler store it’s 50 people. “Those are the mitigation efforts that really matter the most. And that has to be part of our workplace culture for the foreseeable future until the pandemic is no longer a threat.”
While mitigation strategies helped the stores stay open, Weavers Way, like so many retailers, had a lot to overcome. “We went through that period in April and May where there was a lot of fear, and the demand for home delivery and curbside pickup was through the roof during that period. Emotions were really, really high.” Roesser estimates that eight out of 10 consumers were positive. “Like, ‘The co-op means so much to us. We are so appreciative that you guys are doing this essential work, keeping us fed.’” The other 20%? “They were kind of the opposite: “You should shut down the co-op. It’s too dangerous.’ The feedback that we get tends to come from our members who are owners of the business as a cooperative. That’s how it works. They’re speaking not just as consumers, but they’re speaking as a member owners.”
Anthony recalls the situation in Mt. Airy: “It was initially very challenging to deal with the initial panic buying that occurred. Our store is relatively small, and it was hard to keep up with the demand. I didn’t know if we were ever going to stabilize our supply of some things. I think our community and our store adapted well to both the changing nature of buying habits and to the demands of keeping our customers and staff safe. Certainly there were evolving policies on an almost-weekly basis, but people have been understanding and compassionate for the most part. I am proud overall of the way my city and my community is coming together to meet the challenge of overcoming the virus.”
Overwhelmingly, Roesser says, feedback was positive regarding mitigation strategies. “You hear these horror stories of people who work at Costco and Wal-Mart, who have to deal with the customers giving them pushback about wearing masks and all that. We’ve had a few of those things, but overwhelmingly, our customers feel like we’re all in this together. And so they’re doing their part.” In addition to waiting in lines to respect the customer cap and wearing masks, shoppers are heeding the call to send one member of the household to shop ,as well as to shop less frequently. For the most part, he says, customers have rallied to the cause. “They’re shopping less, but their basket sizes are higher.”
Customers have also shared how grateful they are. “After the dust started to settle from the initial panic in the early days of COVID, we would get cards (and still do) that our managers would hang up near the punch clock,” says Anthony. “Some really nice, heartfelt things are said on a regular basis to show appreciation to us for being open and welcoming. We have a member that is inspired to write poems for specially selected employees to brighten their day. We had a musical serenade posted to our Facebook page. It’s great after really putting in a tremendous amount of effort to get some acknowledgement from the community that we matter to them. We also started accepting tips from customers at the register due to popular demand at the height of panic buying; there were just so many requests from our customers.”
Weavers Way staff also has received $2/hr “battle pay” and increased access to sick time due to COVID-19, and a virtual tip jar was started when members expressed interest in offering a token of their appreciation to in-store and delivery staff.
A sampling of the thanks customers shared on social media: “Thank you so much to the staff who are working their butts off and are not able to isolate because of the service they are providing to the community.” “Thank you so much! We did curbside pickup today and it was great. We miss shopping there and seeing everyone and our neighbors. Big shout out to you all, you’re the best.” “Thank you for working So hard for us. #localisbest”
Lesson: Don’t be a Victim of Your Own Success
In 2002, Weavers Way purchased more property with a plan to open a prepared-foods takeout and sit-down café. It didn’t happen—instead, the Co-op nearly went bankrupt. “It predates my time at the co-op, but in the early 2000s, the co-op nearly went out of business,” Roesser recounts. “There was a financial crisis. There was no illegal activity; there was nobody who was taking money from the co-op or anything like that. But the co-op had grown pretty substantially in the decade prior to that, yet it was still operating under very casual sort of “Lucy Goosey” business practices that, when it was a much smaller organization, worked out fine. But it had gotten to the point where we needed to have systems in place. We needed to start running the co-op as a serious business, and it got away from the people who were managing it at the time. We had to have this kind of emergency crisis mode where a committee was formed and there was a plan that was put together to get the co-op back on firmer financial footing. The lesson learned: We actually have to start treating this as a real serious business. And so now today, what happened back then really couldn’t happen today because of all the checks and balances that we have in place. And we have an annual third party audit. We followed GAAP accounting. There was this realization that the days of the co-op just being like a casual, laid back neighborhood club were over and it was time to start behaving like a real legitimate business.”
There’s a lot going on at Weavers Way—we could fill these pages with the outreach, events and special initiatives. A couple that help set the co-op apart:
Weavers Way Farms
The Weavers Way farm department operates working farms covering roughly five acres in Northwest Philadelphia that provide learning opportunities for the local communities as well as fresh, environmentally responsible food. “We operate the largest farm in the city of Philadelphia, which is not saying much; there are not a lot of farms in Philadelphia,” Roesser says. One of the farms is located at Saul High School in Roxborough, and students are involved with every aspect of the farm, from hands-on fieldwork to newsletter writing, applied research and summer internships.
As for the crops: “The farms are market farms, with produce exclusively,” Roesser says. “The produce that is grown either goes to our CSA shareholders or it goes into our stores. We operate the farm in part to practice what we preach when it comes to local food and organically grown food.” He adds that the food from the farm is not organically certified, but it is organically grown.
“Being in produce I really love our urban farm,” says Anthony. “We are able to provide such amazing quality, hyper-local produce all throughout the growing season. We can engage members and customers and stakeholders at all levels; it’s a real perk to being involved with the co-op.”
Roesser agrees. “It’s kind of one of the coolest things that we do. I love our farm. While it is a relatively small portion of our overall business, it is outsized in terms of its overall importance because we are not just in the business of operating grocery stores, we’re also in the business of farming. And the model works because farming is not exactly a profitable industry. Tying the farm with the grocery stores and the retail operation allows us to make a more sustainable farming operation.”
The Shuttle and Socials
“We have our own newspaper that I think is an unsung success,” says Roesser. “It’s called The Shuttle. It goes out to all of our members, and it’s available online as well. It has proven to be a really effective tool at raising awareness of issues that are important to us, to people who otherwise might not know about them…I think the people who shop at our stores tend to be more aware of issues related to food and the environment, and fair trade and animal welfare and all that, and so we’ve been successful in helping to tell those stories.”
In terms of social media, Roesser feels it’s important for small independents like Weavers Way to play that game. “I don’t think that we have a choice. I think failing to do so and just relying on kind of the traditional brick and mortar model and word of mouth and good customer service, I mean, that might pay the bills, but I worry that a lot of small mom and pop operations are setting themselves up for future problems because they aren’t investing time and effort when it comes to social media and an online presence.”
The Founding of Food Moxie
Food Moxie was founded in 2007 as Weavers Way Community Programs, the nonprofit affiliate of Weavers Way Cooperative. “We founded Food Moxie to help achieve our goals related to education around food, and especially a lot of kids from the inner city don’t know a whole lot about, for example, where a carrot comes from. Food Moxie folks work to educate kids and adults on food, natural food, and on healthy eating habits.” Today Food Moxie is an independent organization, closely affiliated with the co-op but operating with its own board of directors. According to the website: “We partner with schools and community organizations to activate educational growing spaces that offer experiential learning in gardening, farming, nutrition, and culinary arts. We encourage our partners to engage with our growing spaces in ways that meet their individualized needs. We also provide the tools and resources necessary to inspire our communities to grow and cook at home.”
In the future, when COVID mitigation efforts are no longer consuming the co-op’s focus, Roesser looks forward to getting back to more business as usual. “We’re still going to have to contend with whatever the economic situation is then. But at some point, we do have to take a look at what we’re going to do about the capacity issues that we have and some of our stores, especially in our original store here in Mt. Airy, which is just bursting at the seams [and is already complemented by Weavers Way Across the Way, which houses the Wellness and Pet Supply departments]. We’ve talked about at some point in the future, we might need to look at another store relatively close by just to simply take some of the pressure off of this store.”
In terms of expansion, Roesser adds, “We don’t have an eye towards expansion the way a for-profit business would. We have eyes toward expansion when it comes to demand being so high that to really meet demand we need more retail outlets.”
The success of Weavers Way can help inspire others, but Roesser readily admits that there’s more to know and room to grow. “I don’t I don’t really give advice to other retailers. I figure they probably know as much as I do or more. I’m sure that everyone is feeling the same level of stress and frustration and anxiety and strain that I am feeling. But I would just tell everyone to persevere and we’ll get through it together. And they know this too shall pass.” WF
Congratulations to the 2020 ROTY Runners Up!
Narrowing the list of outstanding retailers down to just one winner was no easy task. There are so many dedicated and essential workers in the natural products industry going above and beyond. Two more retailers that we would like to recognize this year who are supporting their local communities and raising awareness of key issues to support people and the planet:
Mandela Grocery Co-op, with one location in California, is dedicated to supported businesses run by people of color and has a deep commitment to create opportunity for interdependence in the food space, where POC entrepreneurs generate livable incomes that support their families.
Co-opportunity Market, with two locations in California, connects people to local growers, suppliers and producers with health, sustainability and ethics in mind. The goal: to strengthen community through a commitment to a strong, local food system, clean ingredients, and responsible sourcing.
Check them out on social media, and if you are in the area, visit the stores to support their work.