The story of the Yelm Food Co-op.
By Iris-Arla Moore
(with some help from those who remembered)
September 2005 through June 2011
When you walk into the Yelm Food Co-op, do you ever wonder what it took to bring all those wonderful organic and natural goodies to our local community? If you have, then you can be amazed and grateful as we track the story of how it all happened. You may want to buckle your seatbelts, as there was a bit of turbulence along the way.
Like most good stories, this one also starts with “Once upon a time.” There was a woman named Laura Losada who had a passion for organic, natural and local ingredients that she ate and cooked for others. At the time, she was cooking for RSE, and making frequent trips to local farmers for organic and fresh produce.
One day, at the Olympia Food Co-op, where she would often fill up three grocery carts of food to bring back to the Yelm area, she asked the magic question: “Is there anyone here who could help the people in Yelm form their own food co-op?”
Laura also had a deep passion and conviction for the need to have a central place in our community where we can buy produce from each other, working toward that abundance and sovereignty. She sent out letters to the people she knew who might be interested in sharing her dream and helping to make it come true. Jim Shulruff from Olympia Food Co-op came to the first meeting where nine people of approximately forty present, agreed to help get this project started. It was September of 2005.
The meeting was at the Yelm Earthworm and Casting Farm on Lawrence Lake Rd. So YFC literally sprang from the good earth, and it was there we shared a luscious garden with the owners, Hunt McClean and Kelan Moynagh. Bouquets of gratitude to these two who gave generously of their resources and time to help YFC get its start there.
First leaders of the pack, called a Steering Committee (original, replacements and add-ons included: Ektara Jarecki, Laura Losada, Jackie Reid, Carolyn Sheldon, Maggie Sayer, Christine Virgadama, Fran White, Beverly Wright, Alexandria Roberts, Marilee Wallace, Iris Moore, Debbie Burgan, Tom and Jutta Dewell, Patricia Everheart, and Eleanor Biernacka.
The first monthly meetings were held often at Mail Unlimited with Fran White, sometimes at the worm farm, or at the home of anyone on the Steering Committee who could play host. Extra meetings became necessary for plans concerning store opening.
Jackie Reid took a leading role in getting the required legal documents. She recruited Andrew McLeod and Jim Shulruff from the Olympia co-op to come to committee meetings for nine months to help walk them through the necessary hoops to finally have a store.
Jackie found an attorney who could help with Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws. With this service also came the Yelm Co-op Corporate Book and the Seal. She also helped design and operate the first website, and a Yahoo group so that members could communicate via e-mail between committee meetings.
FUND RAISING and MEMBERSHIP RECRUITMENT
It takes a lot of cash to start a co-op and open a store, so fundraising took off in high gear. By September 20, 2005, Carolyn and Jackie had obtained our first YFC Master Business License. Laura, Carolyn and Jackie met with the Nisqually Valley Newspaper to get publicity for the first fundraiser, held at the Yelm Park.
The first Yelm Co-op T-shirts were designed and created by Carolyn, then by Debbie, and eventually had our adopted logo on them; a design that was created and won the logo contest. THANK YOU Cari Von Sternberg! This logo was later used on our huge Banners and on YFC Membership cards.
Fund raisers included “treasure sales,” where donated items were sold, including items like double glass doors, and a car given by Bob Foster and Jane. By the Fall of 2006, we had luscious produce to sell from the earthworm farm garden. Iris even managed to sell the surplus winter squash to Olympia Food Coop, while Ektara, queen of the raffle baskets and turkey raffles, created funds from ticket sales. YFC t-shirts sold well at all the fund raisers.
In the meantime, Christine, Maggie and others on the Steering committee did the research to find a grant to help get a store front open. The Yelm Food Co-op was awarded a $10,000 grant from “Co-op 500,” a National organization. To qualify, we had to raise an equal amount.
Membership recruitment took on a faster pace. At one meeting held at Yelm Middle School, an educational film was shown on GMO foods. It was then Iris Moore joined, and was recruited into the Steering committee in January, 2006. When she heard about the grant, she asked Jackie if membership fees could count toward our “matching funds.” After checking, the answer was yes, and this helped recruitment, as people began to see the light at the end of the tunnel (the door to the store).
Carolyn had set up bookkeeping on the Peachtree Accounting System. In March of 2006 Carolyn gave this over to Debbie Burgan, who began keeping track of YFC membership. Debbie also sought out and attended workshops where she could learn aspects of running a co-op. When possible, the co-op paid toward her expenses.
With enough membership, it was time to start a Buy Club, which is the foundation of any co-op. In January 2007, the Co-op agreed to purchase and start making payments on a large walk-in cooler that was at the worm farm. Because Ektara and David had run a buy club of their own for 17 years, they helped get this in motion by transferring their business papers to the co-op so we could begin purchasing from their suppliers. Items were ordered and kept in the cooler.
Purchasing was done initially by Carolyn and Debbie, and Jutta Dewell took over Azure Standard purchasing when Carolyn left. Jutta assisted with the Buy club until 2010, taking orders from members, checking in the merchandise, then notifying them when the orders came in.The Buy Club was the foundation upon which the store opened.
THE STORE IN SIGHT
The fundraising had gone well. We exceeded the required matching funds for the $10, 000 grant and had a total of $23,000. It became clear that we needed someone on board who had serious business experience. Tom and Jutta Dewell joined the Steering Committee in September 2006. Tom had previous business experience, although not in a food store. So to launch us into the store operation phase, the Steering Committee, having steered us in less than two years (a record!) to the open door of our store, voted in officers that would become the first official Board Members of the Yelm Food Co-op.
Debbie Burgan had been President, and at that time Tom Dewell who was Vice President, took over the Presidency and the huge business responsibilities. (Debbie took absence from the Board, and in Sept. 2010 was elected to serve again; this time as Secretary).
On March 1, 2007, the co-op took possession of a store that Marilee Wallace had located in the Frontier Village strip mall at 404 First Street SE. With funds below the recommended amount to start a store, and $900 rent, the expenses for new plumbing and electric wiring, all the shelves and appliances needed, this was a huge leap of faith.
As President, Tom Dewell had a lot to do with the setup. He and Marilee volunteered days and sometimes nights to make sure that all necessary permits were obtained. Plumbers and electricians had to be scheduled. The first refrigerators, cooling and freezing units had to be located and purchased.
Shelving had been previously purchased by Carolyn Sheldon, with an eye to the future. All members of the Steering Committee and Board volunteered to help with cleaning and putting up shelves. Cari Von Sternberg, who designed the logo volunteered to paint the interior of the store, as well as getting the outside signage created and in place.
STORE DOORS OPEN
The “Soft Opening” was TUESDAY, APRIL 24, 2007. The “Hard Opening was FRIDAY, APRIL 27, 2007. The “Grand Opening was not until JUNE 28, 2008 when we had the mayor of Yelm and the Chamber of Commerce attend , complete with ribbon cutting. At first, store was open Tuesday-Saturday, and sometimes Sundays. Monday was added as more money and volunteers showed up. Now we are open seven days a week.
The main supplier of organic and natural foods, United Natural Foods (formerly Mountain People) helped stock the store. We chose from a variety of products at 50-100 percent off wholesale. By choosing the products with the highest discount, we were able to fill the shelves. We purchased about $18,000 worth of merchandise for just over $5,000. So the first offerings were a lot of what was given. We had at least one entire isle of “chips.” so the store then had to wait for more income to stock it gradually with what members really wanted to buy.
It was not unusual for a volunteer to grab someone by the shirttail and say something like, “Oh please don’t just walk away. Tell us what you would like to buy here, and we could stock it for you. Please have a party with lots of chips, and next time we should have some dip.”
Marilee worked at the store daily for the first few weeks. All members of the Steering Committee/Board were there as much as they could be. Volunteers did not show up easily in those beginning days. Jutta Dewell put in long hours, working multiple shifts each week at the store, ordering and receiving merchandise, helping train new volunteers and running the store. Tom also spent time in the store, and at the same time, he spent a huge amount of time researching and getting our bylaws up to date.
Debbie set up the cash register and designed the first template for the YFC gift certificates. Peggy Mauk created and placed orders for the high quality, very special herbal tea section, and Rebecca Galbreath set up the coffee section.
At first, Ektara and Jutta placed the orders for the store, with Debbie helping. Jackie would go straight to the store after she left work, stay until closing, and count the money, preparing the bank deposit. Usually it was 9 p.m. by the time she left. Gradually as other volunteers came on board, she didn’t have to come by every night.
Lots of thanks to all the volunteers who worked so hard to get the store up and running, especially to the long running founders: Tom and Jutta, Ektara, Carolyn, Marilee, Debbie and Jackie, and all those who stood in the midst of the chaos, some “sibling rivalry,” and disagreements on how to run things. Volunteers learned on their own sometimes; each making it up as they worked in areas where there was no expertise or leadership at first.
We were all learning. Emotions could get on edge easily some days, often because the same volunteers, who had launched the “good ship YFC,” were still the only ones putting in the long hours, treading water long after the sun went down.
In July of 2007, salvation came in the form of Florence Vincent, an experienced business person and Buyer. She volunteered to do that for the co-op, beginning at three days per week. It was everyone’s hope to be able to pay her someday. She joined the Board in September of 200
To establish continuity, the Board decided in Jan 2008 they needed to hire a Store Manager. Until that time, Tom and Jutta acted as defacto store managers on a volunteer basis and Jutta took on the role of volunteer trainer that continues to date.
Florence volunteered to take the position and became the store’s first paid employee at $12 an hour. She was actually putting in 40 hours per week, so obviously still volunteering a lot of her time..
The buying and managing just could not be done in 30 hours a week, so the managing suffered. Because of the shortage of volunteers, Florence spent approximately 20 hours a week at the cash register, so only had 10 (which turned into 20 more hours) to buy and manage. .
In the Spring of 2008, Debbie Burgan was hired as Back Office Manager to take care of all the admin duties, set up systems, fill in other places as needed, and to set up bookkeeping. The Board decided in Aug 2008, that we could not afford the position any more. By December of 2008, we had a bookkeeper on board (Judy Holsinger).
Some welcomed relief came in the summers of 2009 and 2010 when four student workers from the Thurston Co. Youth Program chose the co-op. The students were paid for their work by the County.
The Board eventually hired another part time Manager. Florence left to re-coup her health, and once again it was double duties for one person who really didn’t know that much about buying food or running a food store. And things were also complicated by conflicting personalities on a new Board.
It was the storm before the calm, and those who survived this deserve a huge acknowledgement , and a free life-jacket.
During this time, the five remaining battle weary members of the Board of Directors were busy making policies for smoother operations on the Board and at the store for volunteers, e-mail communications, and much more. Peggy Mauk, one of the Board members, offered to mediate a “Conflict Resolution” for those who could not work out their differences.
Rebecca Galbreath found two people who came to the Board meetings to teach Board etiquette and the importance of having good policies in place.
It was during this time that Iris Moore, then a Board member, volunteered to clean the store once a week. She also set up the Recycle Boxes. This helped to smooth out some of the physical chaos. She also began and with help from volunteers who had some of the information she needed, created the “volunteer training manual.” This is still available for training and reference by volunteers and staff.
Rebecca recruited some good candidates for Manager when we finally had the funds to hire one. In June 2010, Aaron Rodriguez was hired; at first part time, then eventually full time for this position. With Aaron on board, P.R., sales, and volunteers increased. A fantastic friendly frequency filled the whole store.
Florence had also returned as a volunteer because she did not want the store to fail. Finally for the first time she was able to let go of the responsibilities of the store, and spend her time just working with the vendors (about a hundred by this time). She was able to organize specials and find better bargains, even getting assistance from Aaron for some of this. The store has breathed a big sigh of relief, but now already it needs to “breathe” in a larger space.
Aaron proved his managerial ability. By August, 2010, he was advanced to 40 hours a week, and Florence to 30 hours. It is paying off, as the more time Florence has to order, the better the shelves are stocked, increasing sales. Florence also has an uncanny ability to find room on a shelf for another product.
In the beginning of 2011, Aaron took on a part time job outside the YFC, and Jutta Dewell was hired as an Assistant Manager. Kristi Eckroth was hired as a student in our newly created Management Internship Program, and in April 2011, Kate Morgan was hired as an Assistant Manager. So since June 2010, we have expanded our compensated hours from 50 per week to 101 as per June 2011.
A special thanks to Gary Di Donato, the nutritional buyer who worked at Smart Nutrition. Florence recruited him as a volunteer to get the nutritional supplement section filled and expanded with quality products at the lowest prices.
COMMUNITY OUTREACH AND MARKETING
Tom Dewell joined the Yelm Chamber of Commerce and would advertise for YFC there. Ads were placed in the Nisqually Valley News. We had booths at some wholistic and/or food fairs, as well as Florence and others attending the big ones in Seattle.
Beginning in 2008, Tom, Debbie and Florence worked hard for YFC to be able to have a float, decorated with balloons, bales of hay and children, in the Prairie Days Parade. It was also a barrel of fun, with children and adult volunteers handing out healthy goodies. We used the banners created for our Grand Opening, wore the YFC yellow T-shirts. The “Goodies” were in the green YFC cloth shopping bags created by Mark and Paulina Hopkins from “Decal Guy.” Parade participation has been each year to date.
In 2010, Electromagnetic Pollution Rectifiers were purchased and installed, with the help of Peggy Mauk. This creates a much calmer atmosphere, and healthier food and bodies. When the store opened in April, 2007, we had just a donated freezer and a couple of refrigerators, with a cooler up front. A produce cooler was added in summer of 2008.
As per June 2011, in the front of the store we also have 3 double sliding door chillers, one single door chiller, two double door freezers, two ice cream chest freezers, and two cash registers in use. In back storage area there are two refrigerators, one freezer and a double door chiller. Anything else will have to go on the ceiling, along with the “Partridge in the Pear Tree.”
NEW WEBSITE AND BLOG
In 2011, Laura and Santi Azpillicueta created a new website that includes a Blog, a Business Directory and Forum (under construction), and the possibility to make Buy Club Orders on-line. Our Newsletter also took a new form as “The Grapevine”, touching the minds of people in our community.
A final thank you from the one who started this sometimes rocky journey:
“I want to acknowledge our people; the ones in the community that became members with pride in their hearts, the lovely volunteers who have passion about organics and community. And THANKS to the members and other customers who choose to buy from us; those who recommend something new to be included in our store. We are growing beautifully, and we hope that soon we will be in a bigger place where we can continue to offer you the very best in organics and natural products. Also, to keep exploring the interaction and the sovereignty in our community.” – Laura Losada