Business Matters

Change Coming to SLO Natural Foods

After four decades the SLO Natural Foods Co-op has joined a national organization for more consumer discounts and greater selection. The Co-op’s mission statement is, in part, to, “provide our members with products and information that empower health and wellbeing.”

Another way to explain what they do for the SLO community might be, “better living through networking.”

Now rounding out 40 years in business, the Co-op is owned by their roughly 1,100 members and governed by a volunteer Board of Directors. But, said General Manager Gwen Schmidt, they’re still open for anyone to come on by and get organic local produce or hard to find health foods. There are perks and discounts involved with membership, but the old image of a co-op grocery store with “volunteer” cashiers is somewhat dated. Schmidt, the cashiers and stock clerks are paid employees although members still help with backroom functions from time to time.

Aside from the unique offerings and small location in an industrial and residential zoning corridor near the railroad tracks, the shop functions as a normal grocery store in every respect. In fact, it’s the last remaining locally owned one inside the City of SLO.

Four years ago the Board voted to move to their current location and take out a peer-to-peer financing package through the nonprofit group Slow Money SLO, which advises food and farm oriented businesses to support sustainable small business growth. The larger Slow Money nationally facilitates lending to help such complimentary businesses, well, stay in business.

Former co-op Board President Aimee Wyatt, currently working in an advisory role with the organization explained that the Co-op became among the first Slow Money SLO borrowers to be able to payback their loans in full.

Now there are new changes coming as the SLO Natural Foods Co-op joins the National Co+op Grocers (NCG), a business services cooperative.

Just like the local co-op is formed by individual members, the NCG is essentially a co-op of co-ops, with 148 members nationally, 200 stores – of which SLO is one – operating across 38 states.

What the affiliation will give them is buying power, and that means discounts.

“As a member of the NCG, we’re able to purchase products at a lower cost and are then able to pass the savings onto you through the Co+op Basics program,” Schmidt told members in a newsletter, “We’re committed to improving our product selection so that everyone can find more value when shopping here at the Co-op. Beginning on March 1st, you’ll find Co+op Basics items in the store. Just look for the purple tags with the Co+op Basics logo.”

“What I’m most excited about,” she later told the SLO City News, “Is getting the brands that our members want at much lower prices…Organic Valley Milk or cans of black beans…a one third price cut on apple juice.”

Important to note, Eric Michielssen, current Board President and owner of Pozo Organic Farms, “We’ll still be selling great, organic local produce. That’s what people come here for.”

The trio then posed for a photo in front of the produce section, flanked by banners featuring local sellers.

The SLO Natural Foods Co-op is located at 2494 Victoria Ave., one block off Broad Street up Caudill St. Their website uses the new designation “.coop”at: www.slonaturalfoods.coop

Story and Photos by Camas Frank