If the Yelm Food Cooperative were a children’s story, it would probably be The Little Engine That Could. This, after all, is an organization that opened in 2007 – with just $26,000. “That’s a very small amount to start any retail, let alone a grocery store that has a lot of inventory and equipment,” say current General Manager Barnaby Urich Rintz. “Most will start with ten times that amount before they get a brick and mortar location.”
Manager Debbie Burgan puts it more bluntly: “We were insane,” she says. “I was sent to three different seminars to find out what you needed to start a co-op. Every single one said you needed a minimum of $1 million.”
It all started in 2005 with Laura Losada, a Yelm resident who had a vision of a local store with organic, natural and local ingredients. Others believed in her vision and soon, according to volunteer Robyn Hawk, “A very small handful of people somehow got another small handful of people to get a fair amount of money so that they could start this co-op.” Everyone involved volunteered hundreds of hours, raising money, learning about the ins and outs of running a co-op and applying for grants. In addition, several members of the leadership team at the Olympia Co-op contributed guidance and expertise for nearly a year.
The store opened its doors in April, 2007 in a small commercial building in Yelm’s Frontier Village, where anyone attempting to navigate an aisle would literally rub elbows with someone coming the opposite direction. “It was important to open a storefront in order to begin building a history and reputation within this community,” says Rintz.
But in 2012, the store moved to its current – and much larger – location at 308 Yelm Ave., which it shares with local landmark Gordon’s Garden Center. “Moving here was really important,” says Manager Jutta Dewell, who has been with the store since its inception. “This location is much better equipped to handle a higher volume of sales, in terms of space and atmosphere.”
Originally, the co-op was a member-owned corporation. In 2012, the board of directors asked the membership to vote on becoming a non-profit community service organization with a focus on education and food. The idea was a hit; 96% of the members who voted favored the new vision.
As they’ve grown, the co-op staff have surveyed its customers, analyzed buying patterns, and adjusted accordingly. “We offer products that are hard to find in the Yelm area,” says Rintz, “non-GMO, organic, and local items. Our success has proven that the demand from the consumer is large enough to support the store.”