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Will work for food: Small members-only grocery store to celebrate grand opening
Missoula Community Co-op store manager Kate Keller checks out a basket of groceries for a customer earlier this week at the store. The 462-member co-op is having its grand opening on Saturday from 1 p.m to 6 p.m.
Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

A small grocery store with a mission to provide healthy, local food at affordable prices holds its grand opening Saturday afternoon near the corner of Burns and Cooley streets.

At the Missoula Community Co-op, shoppers can find deals, like local lettuce heads for 90 cents apiece and $1.50 baguettes made in Missoula. They can also find signs that the budding health-food store already has solid ties to the community.

A sign over a basket of shallots reads "Montana homegrown," and a set of stone mosaics made by young women from the GUTS! program - Girls Using Their Strengths - decorates the entrance.

The co-op began as a buying club a few years ago, and in December, it moved into some 800 square feet of retail space at 1500 Burns St. Now the shelves are stocked, the membership list is growing, and the co-op is throwing open its doors to the public to celebrate the official arrival of the member-owned grocery store on the Westside.

Co-op board member Maxine Jacobson said food cooperatives started in the late 1800s for much the same reason they're springing up across the country today. With food prices soaring and the economy faltering, money is tight.

"And that has to do with people just feeling like they can't really afford to make it, to buy their own groceries," Jacobson said.

Still, the price of every individual item may not be cheaper now than what shoppers can find elsewhere, said coordinator Kate Keller. But the co-op model aims in the long run to make a dent in huge labor costs that are normally passed onto customers at the checkout line.

Jacobson, who just returned from an immersion in Brooklyn's legendary Park Slope Food Co-op, said labor costs account for some 75 percent of a grocery bill. At the Missoula Community Co-op, though, members put in three hours of work every month. They can work in the store, serve on a committee, and even do computer work from home.

"So again, the principle that keeps those prices low is that everybody contributes in labor," Jacobson said.

And part of the deal is that only people who work at the co-op can shop at the co-op. Keller said the working-member model can be difficult to launch, but it's also egalitarian and leads to a rich environment.

"It also makes it a really dynamic place. It makes a co-op what it is," Keller said.

As planned, the hours members work will end up pushing down the usual markup. Jacobson said most grocery stores mark up their products anywhere from 35 percent to 50 percent - or more. But she said at Park Slope, which uses the model Missoula is adopting, the markup is just 21 percent.

For now at the Missoula co-op, it's more, but not by much. Keller said the co-op adds 25 percent across the board to all products. That means if the co-op gets a bargain price, it passes that deal directly onto its customers. It also means the store won't sell products at cost just to bring people into the store.

The books are open there, too, as one tenet of the co-op is that any member who wants to see the store's finances can take a look. Some 460 people belong, and the membership goal is 800.

While Keller said more members could mean a smaller markup down the road, shoppers who belong to the co-op aren't only interested in cost.

"I don't really look at it that way. I look at it as, this is my co-op, and I own a share in this co-op," said Valerie Coulter, who belonged to the buying club.

To her, that means shopping at a store that carries Alden's Ice Cream in Cookies 'n' Cream. So she requested the organic product from Oregon, and soon enough, it appeared in the freezer.

"If I could buy everything at the co-op, I would," Coulter said.

Part of its mission is strengthening the local food system, and that means ordering products from farms in the area. Keller said it also means working on food policies with the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition about how to preserve valuable farmland in the area.

On the Westside, the co-op is part of a neighborhood transformation. It operates out of an old freight building on the northern end of Burns Street Square, a housing development of the North Missoula Community Development Corp. The NMCDC owns the warehouse, too, so the neighborhood is sprucing up.

"It's always been this wasteland, as long as I can remember," Keller said.

She said the co-op applied for a $1.5 million appropriation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and will learn this summer if the application is approved. If so, the store will move ahead with plans to create a larger retail space, a community kitchen and cafe, and gathering space.

In the meantime, folks at the co-op say neighbors have been happy to see a neighborhood grocery store reappearing on the Westside.

"I don't think you can necessarily sell people on the philosophy of it being a member-run co-op. But I think at this point in time, something that speaks loudly to everyone is being able to afford and have access to really good food," Jacobson said.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at 523-5262 or at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com.

Party time

The member-owned Missoula Community Co-op, located at 1500 Burns St., holds its grand opening from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, June 14. The Rattlesnake Ramblers and Tom and the Tomatoes play tunes from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Festivities include a local foods photography contest; at least seven local vendors, such as Garden City Salsa and the Art of Good Food, and barbecue, and beer and wine. Food is free. Beer tickets will be $3 and wine tickets $5. Children can participate in a cake-walk - like musical chairs, but with cake.

Own (part of) your own grocery store

The Missoula Community Co-op is owned by its members. Members decide how the store runs and volunteer three hours every month to keep prices low. People must be members to shop at the store, though the co-op encourages people to shop there on a trial basis to give the store a test drive. Membership is a one-time fee of $125, and the co-op accepts payment plans. Membership begins upon the first payment. University of Montana students pay $25 a year. Income-based memberships also are available to those who qualify. For more information, contact the co-op at 728-2369 or at coop-kitchen@

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