40 years at Central Co-op: People? Yes. Self-checkout? Probably not.

You have plenty of time to select a gift. Capitol Hill’s Central Co-op turns 40 this October — but the party planning is underway. You might want to think about a practical present, something useful on both offense and defense as the cooperative looks to thrive for another four decades against a growing array of competitors.

“We have grown and continued to thrive over the decades thanks to the participation of thousands and thousands of people who have joined in our collective-efforts,” CEO Garland McQueen said in a statement on the anniversary. “They have become owners, running for and serving on our board of trustees, working to keep our shelves stocked, and investing to keep our community effort strong for future generations. We truly are a community-grown grocery store.”

In the process of expanding to Tacoma — a new store for its southern partnership has faced construction delays but is now on track for a late summer opening — and having pulled back from ambitions that would have placed a second store on Broadway, Central Co-op remains a unique and robust force in local groceries with some 14,000 members and around 12,000 shoppers visiting its E Madison store every week. As it faces renewed competition and marks the four decade milestone, Central Co-op is also touting its local economic connections and a study that found 20% of revenue spent at the store went to goods purchased in Washington vs. 4% at grocery chains like QFC, Safeway, and Amazon’s Whole Foods.

It will have to do more to mark another 40 years. “Unfortunately we’ve become victims of what we do,” McQueen tells CHS about the high bar Central Co-op has set and mimicry from the big chains. “We’re going to have to be better.”

Lydia’s domain as a lead with “Center Store” department stretches from the front cooler, all the way around the store through the dairy, beer and wine, dry goods departments, excluding the deli, produce, and the front end of the store. “My responsibilities are ever shifting, ordering things, orchestrating sub departments, making sure needs are attended to. Prioritizing staff on hand with needs of department. Customer interactions that crop up, figure out where something is, difference between items, kind of a go to person.”

I’ve been here about 3 years, originally from Indiana. This is also the first Co Op I’ve not only worked in, but been in. In Indiana there was only one to speak of. I like the environment that comes with the Co Op, both the customers and the values you can ingrain in the company that doesn’t come with working for a place like Starbucks or Trader Joe’s. Aside from checking email, I get the lay of the land, I like to walk the store, make it look pretty if I can. Check in with each of our buyers. As the day gets started, we jot down things that need to happen at each department. Helps me prioritize and see where we’re at. We get a truck about every other day.”

“I was at Trader Joes before I moved to Washington. It was kind of serendipity that delivered me here and it’s really the spirit of the place that’s kept me here. I really love the community of the Co Op. We live in a very colorful community and I like that it’s very multi-faceted. At Trader Joe’s I felt very micromanaged. I’m an idea person and I feel like it was shut down over and over. Here, not only are we more autonomous in many ways, there’s a lot more room for those kinds of ideas. There’s room for connecting with distributors, featuring new products. We just hired a dry buyers, so some of that will end up on their plate, but it’s been really illuminating being able to work with them and be like hey, can you come demo, because I know if people put this in their mouth, they’ll love it.”

“It’s cool to be like oh, compared to this company who have questionable practices, we’re going to put forward these products. Things like that, that I had never even considered, because in Greenfield Indiana, you shop at Wal-Mart and you buy what’s there, and you buy what’s cheapest. With the minimum wage that we’re guaranteed to make at $15 an hour, it’s afforded me a lifestyle where I can be more conscientious about what I purchase and as a result it’s opened up my awareness of things that go on in the world. When you’re forced to be aware, oh, that comes from this kind of farm, versus a factory or whatever, you kind of conceptualize food differently and it changes the way your purchase food, it changes the way you consume food, and all those components come together at the CoOp in kind of a magical way. As an employee, I’m not just pumping my labor into a machine just to get food on the table for myself. I can show up to work, and as you see, I’m involved in a lot of different parts of the store. I’m always learning, from my coworkers to the customers asking about different types of cinnamon and where it’s sourced from, what’s the difference in goats milk and cows milk and how does that affect my digestion. Why is this the only place in the state I can buy it raw, xyz, that we can offer. Everyday I come to work and learn from customer questions and inquiries. Things like Kombucha, I’ve never heard of until I moved her and now it’s like one of my favorites and I ferment my own Kombucha. The bulk department has changed the way I shop, I have my own jars and it makes you think about every plastic bag you use and the amount of waste we produce. It’s been transformative in ways I didn’t expect. It’s a good thing. You’re evolving with the times and constantly learning, which constantly informs your decision making. Favorite thing about the job: The people. On the ground level, every department has it’s own character, compared to some places where I’ve worked that have been really gossipy and mean, here I show up and feel such a sense of camaraderie with my coworkers, but also the customers, there’s beloved folks that I see that charm you and disarm you. The people are what make it worth it and keep the machine rolling.”

“Technology,” McQueen said, “is going be be a big factor.” But with Amazon sizing up one corner of the neighborhood where Whole Foods will open in the next year and making plans for an even more tech-focused grocery play on E Pike, McQueen said you shouldn’t expect the technology at Central Co-op to play out with robots and automation in the shopping experience. “We pride ourselves on being a personal contact,” he said. “We want to see our customers and they seem to like that too.”

You probably won’t even see self-checkout at Central Co-op. “You can also be efficient if you have the right person doing the job,” McQueen said. “Reaching out is more important to us.”

Employees will be a big part of marking 40 years at the co-op. The store employs 121 people as of recent weeks paying an average hourly wage of $22.19 an hour. Workers start at $16.65 per hour and 100% coverage for health benefits is provided at 28 hours or more per week.

Central Co-op opened its doors on Capitol Hill on October 16, 1978. In those days, the store was at 12th and Denny on land the cooperative owned. It sold that property to help create a new store at 16th and Madison as well as taking on the significant chunk of debt to finance the project. It opened on E Madison in 1999. After nearly 20 years, its E Madison store needed a few updates. Shoppers are now greeted by an overhauled storefront, improved elevator system, and new staircase. And, nope, no self-checkout lines.

Before October 16, 2018 rolls around, Central Co-op is hopeful the new Tacoma store will be complete and open following a challenging start to the marriage that included a search for a new location. After that, it sounds like Central Co-op’s ambitions will focus more on the stores it has. In 2016, Central Co-op was vocal about its push to be the anchor grocery store in development around Capitol Hill Station. But a year later, the co-op said it was dropping its labor-backed bid citing cost concerns. The development led by Portland-based Gerding Edlen set to finally break ground this spring still does not have an anchor tenant signed, officials told CHS last week.

Produce Lead Clea Aguera-Arcas is originally from Mexico, “then Baltimore, Portland, then Seattle.” “We get a lot of direct farm deliveries, that some of those guys, they not like your typical carrots, but we try to get as many direct orders as we can but obviously, in the middle in the winter, you only get so many. Most places let them stay in the ground the cold months.”

Why does she like working in produce? “Well, it might still be widgets, but they’re widgets that are actually alive. Nothing is ever the same, not even day to day. Hour to hour things can change. We have a connection to the people who are making the product usually, we know most of the farms directly, some we know by name, their family, their farm managers. It’s a lot different than stacking cans. It’s pretty much as close to the source of things as you can get, as far as working in a grocery store. Even another fresh department like meat or something like that, it’s still a little bit farther than actually going and visiting the farms. We do a lot of that, as much as we can. We do try to focus on local, but a lot of the stuff we get are from places in Arizona or Mexico but we still have pretty close relationships with them. It’s really nice to have that connection. Even beyond the actual farms, the distributors that we work with, we’ve worked with for many years. Even before I worked here, I’ve worked with those same representatives for a long time. I’ve worked at a couple other produce companies, Spud, Pioneer Organics was one of them. It’s been over 10 years working with produce. I went straight to the organic side because I needed a job and it sounded like a place that would treat employees nicely. It changed the whole course of what I was doing.”

How does your normal day start? “I normally work in the evening. I stand around, see what’s new. There’s always at least something new. Things change by the hour.” What’s new today? I’ve noticed when I walked in that Limequats are new, we’ve not had those in a while. We just finished our citrus days. These guys are pretty much sour warheads candy. We have 30 different kinds of citrus. When i grew up you had your Valencia orange, your Navel orange, and your red grapefruit, that was about it. Same with apples. Working with an organic produce company changed what I was doing. I was working at the University of Washington pharmacology department. When it grew up, it was Granny Smiths, Fuji’s if you were being fancy. During the height of apple season, we’ll be cycling 20 varieties at a time. It gets a little bit tricky. If you look at enough of them, you’re going to recognize them. It’s nice to see them from year to year, because like with wine, there’s good years and bad years. This was a particularly good year for citrus. Partially because of all the fires, floods, all the damage to the crop. It’s a much smaller crop than in previous years, but because of the stress, the fruit is really good.”

Would you say the way a company treats its employees is very important to where you work? “It is. I honestly don’t think that you can be a company that’s working directly with organic in general without having a concern for the actual people involved. It’s intrinsic to the entire idea of what you’re doing. I know that there are some people who buy natural foods or organic foods just for personal health reasons, which is important too, but honestly, if you’re in the industry, you can’t divorce the idea of organic standards from ideas of basic standards of your workers rights, the quality of the earth that you leave it better than you started, are people getting a fair shake, all that sort of stuff.”

What would you say is your biggest challenge of the job? “Space constraints are a big one. This is a very small store that was not designed to be a grocery store. We definitely make the most of the space, but the amount of product we move through every day, finding places for it, making sure it’s not getting trampled, making sure you can find it, it’s pretty tricky. Especially because we focus on having tons of varieties of things. Making sure that you’re keeping up to date on things is a challenge. I try to keep up to date on the weather in Mexico, keep up to date on what’s going on in the South Pacific. As we start moving into southern hemisphere fruits, that’s a big deal. Keeping up to date on what the heck’s going on with the new NAFTA deal, which affects things a lot. Especially because staple items, like avocados that we almost always get from Mexico, pricing and availability is always just on the edge, depending on local conditions. Changing organic standards is always something you have to keep up on. There’s always updates in terms of what kind of treatment is ok. Literally changing all the time. Have to keep up with immigration policy, because that affects this stuff hugely.”

Central Co-op’s 2018 will be all about what it is building in Tacoma and what it has built on E Madison.

“Over the course of the year we plan to celebrate, through events and storytelling, not only the members who make up our in-store community,” McQueen said, “but also the larger co-op community including the wonderful Washington producers who support us.”

McQueen said the celebration is also about some of the longest running members of the cooperative including the 20 people still shopping Central who were among the 100 founding members. Those “veteran people who have been here for years” are also a good marker of what should come next for the market, McQueen said.

Central Co-op is located at 1600 E Madison. You can learn more at centralcoop.coop.

With reporting and photography by Alex Garland


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11 thoughts on “40 years at Central Co-op: People? Yes. Self-checkout? Probably not.

  1. Their “no self-checkout” policy is quite a contrast to the Broadway Market QFC, which has added more and more of those kiosks. Pretty soon, you won’t have to interact with a single human being in order to shop there! But jobs are being lost as a result of this technology, not to mention the “personal touch.” But, hey, kids today love their tech stuff!

    • Human interaction isn’t always needed or wanted when buying things like groceries, for some of us. It’s nice to have the option to interact or self-check. I most often choose to self-check.

      I have no issue with cashier jobs being lost as a result of technology. Your logic we should retain coal mining to protect those precious jobs instead of teaching them new skills in different trades.

      Great to know the central co-op pays their employees a decent wage and offers benefits. That makes me more likely to shop there.

    • It’s not clear to me if you’re pro- or anti- self-checkout. That said, I find the self-checkout experience generally far slower and more tedious at QFC than checking out with a cashier…on the rare occasions when I can talk to a human being.

    • I didn’t realize squeezing out a minimally-civil “hello” was such a big effort. 75% of the time I use a human for checkout, the full extent of my interaction is a perfectly painless “hi”, or “hello”. It’s not horribly painful.

    • Jeez, people. It’s not just those darn kids and their phones. I’m 50 and have little interest in interacting with someone when buying toilet paper. I do prefer human interaction with, say, the butcher or some other specialist. Otherwise, if I’m ringing up small numbers of items, I’d prefer to do it myself and not waste someone else’s time.

  2. Wow!! Here I thought they were had been in business for quite sometime when I discovered them around 1978 after moving here in 1977. I love the Coop. Generally I find that self checkout is not as handy as or more efficient for the customer than checking out with a human. Self-checking is just for the store’s bottom line. BTW, bulk produce would be difficult with self checkout. I shop there not only because they have the organic products that I want, but also due to perceiving them as advocates for organic and earth friendly products. I hope that they keep up the good work.

  3. What this article leaves out is how the Central CO-OP screwed Tacoma when it took over and closed our only existing coop two years ago. On top of it it did no behave according to its own “solidarity” principles: top down versus member driven; valuing individuals versus valuing community, exclusion versus inclusion. That situation was handled so badly, which the Co-op management has newer tried to rectify or make-up for it. I could see that the Tacoma community hasn’t quite forgiven this and that it will have a serious financial impact on the new store.

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