City Market/Onion River Food Co-op
Year founded: 1973
Member investment: $200 equity
Number of members: 10,000
Retail square feet: 12,000
Number of employees: 215
The City Market Onion River Co-op in Burlington, Vt. is a thriving downtown food co-op celebrating its 40th anniversary. It’s poised for growth and with a membership of 10,000 people has made a real impact during its history. As board president Molly O’Brien said, “We’re in a good situation.” No one thing contributes to the success of a great co-op, but both O’Brien and the co-op’s general manager, Pat Burns, said that the co-op leadership’s dedication to fulfilling the co-op’s Ends have led to remarkable progress.
O’Brien said that as long as she’s been serving on the board (4 years) the work they do has been rooted in the Ends, but in the last two years, they’ve amped up their strategic work to include having safe strategic conversations with the general manager, and attending Cooperative Board Leadership Development (CBLD) program events for inspiration, tools and training. “We’ve been more intentional regarding our strategic leadership and rooting all of our conversations within the context of the Ends,” O’Brien said. “As a board we always ask: What story is being told here? What’s the take-away message?”
"[Our stronger relationship with the board] allows us to work together toward the future."
City Market/Onion River Food Co-op, Burlington, VT
General Manager Burns said that one of the outcomes of their process has also been a stronger relationship with the board. “It allows us to work together toward the future, to find better ways to serve the community,” he said. O’Brien concurred. She believes that a strong general manager-board relationship is the basis for strong strategic leadership.
One outcome of their strategic conversations about how to increase accessibility to local food was for the manager to create a zero-interest loan program for local farmers. It’s a win-win situation where the co-op can negotiate product deals on behalf of their co-op members while supporting local agriculture with co-op capital. “These are some of the things we’re doing to support the long-term viability of local agriculture,” he said.
One of the things City Market is considering is a second location, and as Burns worked on business planning with his management team, he used the Ends as the operation’s starting point. Regarding those, his team developed an approach based on living local, preparing for expansion, and expanding healthy food access. A big part of the plan is also to have a greater degree of engagement with members, staff, board and other groups. “We want to have plenty of time involve people,” Burns said about the potential for growth.
“It’s such a great document,” said O’Brien about the business plan. “It takes the Ends and makes specific goals for each department.” As the board has begun to talk about expansion, O’Brien said the board has been working on building alignment in a way that reflects the Ends. “What we do now can help put us in a real solid position for the future,” she said.
At the Onion River Co-op, we call our Mission Statement the Global Ends.
The Onion River Co-op will be central to a thriving and healthy community, where: