Doylestown co-op grocery to open Saturday

Lisa White (left), an organizer of the co-op, chats with a shopper. The store has had a soft opening before its official debut.
Lisa White (left), an organizer of the co-op, chats with a shopper. The store has had a soft opening before its official debut.
Posted: February 06, 2014

DOYLESTOWN Lisa White and John LaSala have spent their adult lives in the corporate world.

They had no idea how to open a grocery store.

But after years of planning - and with lots of help - White, board president of the Doylestown Food Co-op and a management consultant, and LaSala, a fellow board member and a former Johnson & Johnson executive, are days away from celebrating the grand opening of the co-op's 1,400-square-foot store on West State Street in the heart of the Bucks County seat.

"I came to this almost exclusively out of passion and available time," White said last week at the boutique-style shop, surrounded by fresh produce, local dairy products, and organic items from wall to wall.

Now she hopes shoppers will come, too. The ribbon-cutting ceremony is set for 10 a.m. Saturday.

Co-ops - community-owned and -operated groceries that sell predominantly local or organic goods - are abundant in the Philadelphia region, and stores in Swarthmore and Mount Airy have enjoyed success for decades.

The concept is growing across the nation, experts say, though not all the news is good. Creekside Co-op, which opened in Elkins Park in 2012, struggled to make enough revenue in its first year, and recently cut back on employee hours.

Still, according to Stuart Reid, executive director of the Food Co-op Initiative, more than 70 co-op groceries have opened across the country over the last eight years, bringing the number of stores to about 350.

Mike Beall, chief executive officer of the National Cooperative Business Association, said there are hundreds more groups exploring the possibility of opening a store as well.

Consumers, Beall said, appear to be "unhappy with all of the unhealthy attitudes in food, and saying, 'We want to control our own destiny.' "

White said the Doylestown co-op, which started as a food-buying club in 2009 and has grown to include more than 300 members, has taken an approach that will lead to success.

The organization has not taken on debt to open the store, White said, and members donated a large amount of labor to help prepare the location for opening.

"It's truly astonishing how many people's hands - their fingerprints - are on this," she said, noting that walls were painted and shelves were built by members, not contractors.

The snug shop has welcomed customers during its soft-opening period in recent weeks, and is filled with items not typically found at supermarkets, from locally baked artisanal cookies to organic mayonnaise.

The prices may be a step up from big-box chains as well - a 13-ounce bag of kettle-cooked potato chips sells for $5.79, and olive oils range from $14 to more than $30.

But White said the most important aspect of the store is that shoppers can know where their food is coming from. Nearly all the items are labeled to show their origin and whether they were produced using sustainable methods.

The co-op still has some kinks to iron out, White said. She'd like to find additional cold-storage space, and LaSala noted that more room is needed to display produce in the spring.

But members refer to the store as "ours," White said, exemplifying the sense of collective pride to have made it this far.

"The fact that it's actually come together and happened," she said, "it's like birthing a child."

609-217-8305 @cs_palmer

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