A History of Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op

Roanoke Natural Foods is far more than the store we see today: It embodies the principles of member-owned-and-operated consumer cooperatives, among them respect for the environment, service to community and the democratic process. These principles are essentially the same values that fostered an especially conscious and deliberate way of living during the late 1960s and early 1970s. And while folks in bell bottoms with headbands were in no short supply within the Co-op’s membership during its early years, the purpose and principles of the Co-op have resonated with those in the “mainstream” who have become members.

There are about two dozen natural-food cooperatives operating today that have survived to, or beyond, the grand old age of 30, so Roanoke Natural Foods finds itself in fairly rarified company and with real cause for celebration. The Co-op’s longevity is due to the stability it has achieved. It has weathered financial crises as well as conflicts regarding the kind of organization it should be. Today, it is “timed-tested and flourishing,” said General Manager Bruce Phlegar. He added that the Co-op of 2005 also is the expression of “the energy and idealism of the 1960s, grown up and blended with the sound business practices of today.”

Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op was born in Frank and Eva Jo Wu’s basement in 1971. Wu is a rolfer and, with her husband, has operated Rolfing Associates in Roanoke for a number of years. Wu said recently that in 1970 she and her husband moved to Roanoke from the D.C. area where they had shopped at a very good natural-foods store. They discovered there was nowhere in Roanoke to purchase good corn meal and other bulk goods and natural and organic foods. “We realized we would have to order it and we figured we might as well get a big bag of it. Word spread that we were doing this,” Wu explained. They started out buying “just a big bag of cornmeal and a big bag of whole-wheat flour.”

Other accounts have called the activity “a buying club” but that was not the case, Wu said. The concept of a cooperative venture with its values and principles was always the purpose. “It was always a conscious intention for it to be a co-op even though at some points it was a very tiny handful of people doing 95 percent of the work.” The Co-op began to grow gradually by word of mouth, Wu said. “At that time, the back-to-the-land movement was in its early stages and there were a number of people who were doing things in Floyd County. They heard what we were doing and would stop by the house” wanting to participate, she explained.

Noting that the Co-op began to outgrow their basement, Wu said, “At some point we had as many as 50 families coming in and out of Cave Spring Lane which was a conventional Southwest County neighborhood.” Then, when the Wus thought they would be moving to Craig County— and their basement, of course, would not be available—a meeting was called to discuss the Co-op’s future. “I remember distinctly that there was this guy named Fred Laplante,” Wu commented. He was a blessing, she went on to say. “Fred didn’t say much for a while but then—it was amazing—he volunteered to take responsibility for the Co-op. I would say strongly if it had not been for Fred Laplante, the Coop probably would have died at that point.” Wu qualified her statement, noting that details have been lost during intervening years: “That might not be totally fair—there were other people, but Fred definitely took it on his shoulders.”

The consensus was to get a storefront, and the Co-op opened its doors to the public in January 1973 at Riverjack Crafts, a complex of tiny businesses located in a former motel along Brandon Avenue. Wu said the store was “the size of a single-car garage.”

Somewhere around this time, Fred Laplante began “driving a truck and bringing goods in,” Wu said. “He would drive as far north as New York and then further south [than Virginia] to pick up goods for the Co-op. It was even more than a labor of love because Fred got subsistence pay, if that,” she noted.

Joseph Klockner was equally important in running the store, she said. “Fred was the backbone of the Co-op but there were a lot of people” to be credited for its survival and success.

The Co-op rapidly outgrew its fi rst store and moved next to South Jefferson Street for a brief time. Then, in 1975, it moved to 813 Fifth Street near the intersection of Elm and Fifth. Roanoke Times Staff Writer Trudy Willis described the store as having “an ethnic look on the outside and a country-store look on the inside.” [1] About this time, Laplante—who by then had been hired as the paid manager of the Co-op—told The Roanoke Times that an average of five families was joining the Co-op each week. [2]

In 1975 also, the group incorporated as the “Roanoke Cooperative Association Ltd.” It was authorized to do business by the State Corporation Commission on May 28, 1975. According to the articles of incorporation, the Co-op’s first board of directors consisted of Wu, Laplante, Carol L. Waring, Joseph Klockner and Steve Drotos. Phlegar explained recently that a cooperative is “a group of individuals, united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.” Roanoke Natural Foods has always operated as a not-for-profit business, he said.

The RCA’s first board meeting was held June 11, 1975, at the Fifth Street store. The board set fees for a lifetime membership at $20 for individuals, $30 for couples and families and $40 for communities comprised of three or more adults. At the same meeting, the Co-op’s price structure was established. Prices were marked up from the base, or wholesale, price—15 percent for working members, 25 percent for non-working members and 40 percent for the public.

Consistent with the cooperative principles established by the International Cooperative Alliance (an organization created in 1895 that currently serves more than 700 million people in 70 countries) and according to records from 1976, the fledgling Roanoke Cooperative Association defined its principles as: “one member-one vote, promoting education, selling as close to wholesale prices as possible, limited interest on capital investment, a limit on the number of shares any member can own (later established as one share per member), political and religious neutrality and support of active cooperation among cooperatives.”

Then … it happened again: The Co-op outgrew its third store and moved in early March 1977 to the 2000 block of Shenandoah Avenue in Northwest Roanoke. By this time, Co-op membership totaled close to 1,200 families. The new location doubled the space of the Fifth Street store to 4,000 square feet.

During 1977 and 1978, the Co-op experienced growing pains. The fact was the Co-op had reached critical mass and it had to change if it was to survive. But the real issue was how would it, how should it change? Resolving that issue went to the heart of what the Co-op was about.

There were very real differences among members and a lot of debate, said Bill Wolf recently. A former board member, Wolf works as a consultant with farmers, food companies, government agencies and stores all over the world to help them grow organic products. There were four key issues having to do with the Co-op’s purpose, he said: “Whether its primary purpose was cheap food, the lowest price possible, or whether it was to promote nutrition and health and carry only those products that were believed to be truly healthy or whether it should promote best agricultural practices, like organic farming and local farming.” The fourth issue was whether or not the Co-op should be only for working members, he said, and it was that debate that got “rather heated.”

Commenting in 1987, RCA Board President Paul Strong shed light on the debate of a decade earlier regarding the Co-op’s pricing structures and mark-ups. Some members had believed “profi t was a dirty word,” he said, and that any funds left over after expenses meant prices had been set too high. What the Co-op came to realize, he said, was that “making money is not evil.”[3]

All of those issues and more were debated at membership meetings during ‘78 and ‘79—there was conflict. Eva Jo Wu recently characterized the membership meetings as sometimes “fiery”. The entire membership was active and involved, she said. She described the membership as having a solid center of cooperative principles that held fast. “We were all learning and as we learned we made lots and lots of mistakes. But the ‘cooperative’ part that everyone held in their mind was what overcame that. Most other kinds of businesses would have failed and gone under many, many times,” she said.

In 1978, Roanoke Natural Foods moved once again, this time to a store it rented at the corner of Grandin Road and Westover Avenue. Over the next several years, the Co-op focused on expanding its customer base, diversifying products and making other changes to improve its services and stability.

At the time, there were five full-time employees and about one third of the Co-op’s 1,000 members worked at the Co-op “in some capacity,” General Manager Edie Bush told Roanoke Times Staff Writer Dwayne Yancey. [4]

Something obviously was working because sales were up dramatically. “During the past two years the co-op’s annual sales have increased 63 percent,” Yancey reported, adding that “the Roanoke store now rivals Eats Natural Foods Cooperative Inc. in Blacksburg as the largest co-op between Washington and Atlanta, according to the Appalantic Federation of Co-ops.” And, for the fiscal year that ended June 1982, $4,045 was left over after expenses. [5]

The Co-op was financially sound again by the summer of 1987 which was when it “bought its building, plus the quilt shop next door and a rental house behind, for $135,000,” reported Roanoke Times Staff Writer Joe Kennedy in October 1987. [6]

During this time, the RCA membership was increasing dramatically. In 1989, it grew to over 2,000, in part because the public was beginning to catch up with the Co-op in terms of holistic lifestyles and “alternative” practices that emphasized taking responsibility for one’s health and well-being.

Despite the Co-op’s success and for other reasons that are not entirely clear to this day, the Roanoke Cooperative Association found itself in debt late in 1989. “Tempers fl ared during the Oct. 21 annual meeting when members discovered the co-op is some $58,000 in debt,” Roanoke Times Business Writer Deborah Evans reported October 31, 1989. [7]

But, Roanoke Natural Foods bounced back by relying on its strengths, in particular the dedication of its members and dedication to its cooperative principles. “Nonprofit co-op turns it around” declared the headline of a Roanoke Times article in August 1993. The Co-op “tallied its fiscal year recently and showed a $9,000 profit,” Staff Writer Almena Hughes reported.

And it was in 1993 that Lisa Balkom was hired. Currently the Co-op’s Grocery Team Leader, she recalled recently the special closeness Co-op staff felt at the time. “It was a small, hometown feeling—it was family,” she said. Balkom remembered changes coming fast after the hiring of General Manager Bruce Phlegar in June 1997. “It was good. They were changes that needed to be made and we needed someone with the courage and perseverance to make it happen,” she said.

By 1998, the Co-op was able to lease and renovate the former Thriftway grocery store on Grandin Road. “We opened for business in our new, 11,000-square-foot store February 15, 1999,” Phlegar said, noting, “That year our sales increased 40 percent.” Three years later, the Co-op exercised its option and purchased the store from owner and friend Ray Garland.

The move to the current store and its subsequent success represent the most important milestone in the Co-op’s history, to date. Operations Manager Elizabeth Wilson said the move created a lot of stress on staff which they dealt with admirably. “The move to the new store brought out the very best and the very worst in everyone, but we didn’t lose anyone—we didn’t have anyone who quit because we moved or it was too hard or we had deadlines.”

The upside to the move, Balkom said, was that the Co-op has “much more stability in its management now.” What has carried over from the former store is the sense of camaraderie. Competition between departments is minimized, Balkom said of the current management style. “We’re all for the common good of the store.”

Something’s working! Phlegar said sales “have been on a steady, healthy increase, up more than 140 percent in the last six years.” Sales are divided 50-50 between members and non-members, he said. Membership in the cooperative stands at about 2,200 members, with some 6,000 people being directly effected, he added. Annual memberships fees today are $25 for a single member and $40 for households. Membership benefi ts include a five-percent discount for members under the age of 60. Those 60 and over receive a seven-percent discount, and working members receive 20 percent.

Undoubtedly, a combination of factors is contributing to the continued stability and growth of Roanoke Natural Foods. Phlegar attributed the sales increases and overall financial stability of the Co-op to numerous changes that have been made including “customer-focused changes, increased product selection, enhanced customer service, an award-winning deli and physical improvements.” He also cited “our commitment to community involvement including support of non-profit groups, incubating local organic-food production, community loyalty and our association with professional cooperative and organic products organizations.”

The Co-op currently has 42 employees according to Phlegar.

One of the most significant indicators of the Co-op’s fiscal health, he believes, is the total dollar benefit given back to members—“the return on their investment in the Co-op and their patronage.” Last year, Phlegar said, members received over $92,000 in discounts, taken at the register when members made purchases.

Eva Jo Wu, in whose basement it all began in 1971, summed it up recently. It’s all about intention, she said. “I still believe the most essential thing about the Co-op is that it’s a co-op. The point is that, underneath it all, we are a group of people who care very much about our community and about having access to the tools for healthy living.”

[1] Trudy Willis, “Gradual Growth Brings Bigger, Better Co-op,” The Roanoke Times, February 9, 1975.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Joe Kennedy, “It Grew Organically,” The Roanoke Times, October 17, 1987.
[4] Dwayne Yancey, “Cooperating With the Times,” The Roanoke Times, December 12, 1982
[5] Ibid.
[6] Joe Kennedy, “It Grew Organically.”
[7] Deborah Evans, “Co-op’s finances ailing,” The Roanoke Times, October 31, 1989.