Fast-growing food co-op now seeks just a bit of profit |

Fast-growing food co-op now seeks just a bit of profit

John Seelmeyer

Posting a sales increase of 38 percent during 2013 compared with the prior year, Great Basin Community Food Co-op was one of the fastest-growing cooperatives in the nation.

The trick for General Manager Jolene Cook this year is turning that strong sales growth into a bit of profit.

Not a bushel basket full of profit, mind you, because Great Basin Community Food Co-op has strong roots in movement that places higher value on community than profit.

But Cook, general manager since September of the store that’s the only grocery in the heart of Reno’s downtown, has set her sights on profits of somewhere in the range of 1-3 percent of sales.

Last year, the cooperative posted sales of $2.5 million — but generated a loss of $148,346.

Part of the loss, Cook says, represents the final growing pains from the cooperative’s move two years ago from a 1,000-square-foot location near Plumas and Tahoe streets to the 7,000-square-foot building it now occupies at 240 Court St.

“We’re over the hump now,” says Cook, noting that sales at Great Basin Community Food Co-op have grown from $248,388 in 2008 to last year’s $2.5 million. Its board has budgeted sales growth to $2.8 million this year.

A key element of the cooperative’s push toward modest profitability is boosting sales to consumers who don’t number themselves among the cooperative’s nearly 6,300 members.

Members historically have accounted for about 75 percent of the cooperative’s sales, but a television and direct-mail campaign targeting non-members boosted their share of the co-op’s sales by 4 percentage points.

The co-op also has built a share of the lunch business from nearby downtown offices — its kitchen provides grab-and-go as well as catered lunches — and Cook says it’s positioning itself as a place for downtown workers to grab the groceries they need on their way home each evening.

At the same time, the cooperative is targeting wide range of markets — the nutrition-conscious group dubbed “yummy mummies,” students at the University of Nevada, Reno, and consumers who are eager to support local food producers.

About 10 percent of the store’s sales come from a cadre of more than 85 farmers and ranchers in northern Nevada. The cooperative’s leadership looks to boost the share of locally-produced food it sells to 25 percent within five years.

It’s actively recruiting growers to fill gaps in locally grown produce, and it’s working with restaurant owners to muscle up the orders that are placed with area farmers and ranchers.

That focus on locally grown foods, Cook says, reflects the mission of Great Basin Community Food Co-Op as something more than just another grocery retailer.

Its seven goals include improving access to organic foods, strengthening a sense of community, educating food consumers and — not as an afterthought — operating a strong, environmentally sound business.

It was launched in 2005 as an all-volunteer buyers’ club for consumers of natural foods. It opened its first tiny storefront on Wonder Street within a year before moving to Plumas Street.

The cooperative’s newsletter these days is filled with articles about food justice and environmentally sustainable agriculture, and its recipes section provides instruction on dishes such as java tofu cups.

Cook notes, however, that food activism is increasingly mainstream, driven in part by the education efforts of big retailers such as Whole Foods Market.