Origins of the Co-op Model
Consumer co-ops have been around since 1844, when the first was started in Rochdale, England. A group of weavers pooled their resources to create a business that operated for the benefit of the people who used it rather than for the economic gain of an individual or small group of owners.
There are many kinds of co-ops: food, agricultural, fishery, utilities, housing, and credit unions. There are health and social-care co-ops, worker-owned, and consumer-owned co-ops.
Co-ops around the world, including ours, are founded on the six principles created by the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society. A seventh principle was adopted by the International Cooperative Alliance in 1995.
- Voluntary and open membership—Everyone is welcome to become a member.
- Democratic member control—One member, one vote.
- Member economic participation—Your shares are an investment in the Co-op.
- Autonomy and independence—We are owned by members and operate for member benefit.
- Education, training, and information—Education opportunities for staff and members.
- Cooperation among cooperatives—Open communication with other co-ops.
- Concern for the community—Donations, shared information, and sponsorship of community events.
Bellingham Co-op History
Our Co-op was one of the many food co-ops begun in the 1970s that gave birth to and nurtured the market for natural food. Like most other consumer food co-ops, the Community Food Co-op began literally with nothing but the energy of the people involved. For the first six months, the Co-op operated as a food buying club, with the support of Puget Consumers Co-op in Seattle—itself a small co-op in those days. The Co-op storefront opened its doors in 1970 in the Good Earth Building in the Fairhaven district with about 40 members. It operated with a volunteer staff and offered just eight items: cornmeal, bread, honey, flour, rolled wheat, rice, wheat germ, and granola.
By 1982 the Co-op had outgrown its 900 square-foot store in Fairhaven and moved to a 5,000 square-foot space 1059 N. State St closer to downtown. Shortly thereafter member-volunteer labor was dropped in favor of an all-paid staff. Interest in natural foods really took off in the mid-1980s spurring rapid growth for the Co-op. As more natural and organic products became available, the Co-op was also evolving from a natural and organic specialty store toward a full-service natural food grocery store. A small deli was added in the late 1980s as well as wine, beer, and seafood. During the 12 years on State St., membership rose from 200 to about 2,500.
In 1994, the Co-op moved again, this time to a 15,000 square-foot building at the corner of Forest and Holly streets in downtown Bellingham. The much larger space allowed the Co-op to expand its produce department, add hundreds more grocery items, install a meat department, and offer a full-service deli—truly becoming a full-service natural food grocery store for the first time.
A couple of years later the Co-op purchased the building across the parking lot from the store and began the Healthy Connections class series. Over the years the Connections building has been a widely used resource for members and community groups needing a free or low-cost meeting space.
Continued success attracting new members and shoppers over the next 10 years began to tax the limits of the Forest Street store. Membership grew to more than 12,000 and everyone agreed the parking lot was a nightmare. After several years of planning, in 2009 the Co-op opened a second location in a 17,000 square-foot LEED-certified building on the north edge of town in the Cordata neighborhood.
Unfortunately, the great recession the country was experiencing contributed to lower than expected sales in the Cordata location, which in turn led to tough times financially for the Co-op. Despite the initial problems, membership grew to more than 16,000 and the Cordata store began to pick up momentum in 2010. Membership remained stable at just under 17,000 and sales at the Cordata store grew by more than 17 percent, 9 percent for the two stores combined.
In 2010 the Co-op celebrated its 40th anniversary. Creativity, hard work, and generosity have made it what it is. The world has changed a lot during the forty years we’ve been around. One thing hasn’t changed, however. That is the beauty of the concept: cooperation, mutual respect, good food, and a work based on people, not profit. Our Co-op and the food co-op movement have been a powerful part of the positive change of the last 40 years. With a little luck and more hard work we’ll keep doing it for the next 40.