Rebranded Berkshire Food Co-op opens in new digs at Powerhouse Square
Great Barrington — It’s been a long time coming but the Berkshire Co-op Market on Wednesday took a giant leap for its members and customers. Now rebranded as the Berkshire Food Co-op, the store held the grand opening of its new digs — complete with the requisite ribbon-cutting — only a few feet away from its previous location on Bridge Street.
For longtime Co-op shoppers, the difference was startling. The new building, located on the lower level of the soon-to-be-finished Powerhouse Square condominium and retail project, almost doubles the retail space of the old store, from 4,400 to 7,600 square feet. In all, including back offices, and preparation and storage spaces, there are 14,000 square feet.
“It is incredibly rewarding and gratifying to see the fruits of our labor,” Daniel Esko said in an interview. Esko is the former co-op general manager who currently manages the co-op’s expansion project. “It’s beautiful.”
The new Co-op sparkles with newness and color. The produce section, in particular, leaps out at visitors, beckoning them to grab everything from Belgian endive to organic radishes. The vinegar and oil selection impresses and the coffee section, which includes mostly certified Fair Trade, has doubled in size.
There is also a florist, a toiletries and houseware section, a hot bar, a “Grab & Go” fridge and, of course, as there was at the previous location just east on Bridge Street, a porch with tables for those who want to drink coffee or dine al fresco. And on this particular day, drawings were held for a pair of $1,000 co-op gift cards.
“This is a momentous day in the life of our Co-op,” Co-op board president Erica Spizz said at the 7:30 a.m. ribbon cutting half an hour before the new store opened its doors and the throngs rushed in. “For the first time we are able to operate in a space that was designed from the ground up to be our grocery store.”
Spizz’s use of the first-person plural is no accident. While anyone can shop at the co-op, it functions as a cooperative and has shareholders, or what the co-op itself calls “owners” who buy shares in the co-op, have an equity stake, receive quarterly discounts and have voting privileges. They can even run for the co-op’s board of directors. Those features give the co-op its favored slogan: “Cooperatively owned; Community focused.”
“We’re people coming together to meet our shared needs,” Spizz said in an interview.
The project cost $4.5 million, almost half (about $2 million) of which came from interest-bearing loans from co-op owners, who currently number about 3,400. The remaining 55 percent came from nonprofit lending institutions such as the Cooperative Fund of New England. Esko said there is still $475,000 to raise, mostly to supply operating capital that was disrupted by the move.
“Because we’re community-owned, we have a huge vested interest in remaining viable, meeting the needs of our community and being here for many years to come,” said Esko, who cited the recent closings of the Big Y in Adams and the Price Chopper in Lee as examples of the kinds of corporate actions that are rare in the co-op world.
But beyond the co-op model of ownership, Esko cited the organization’s “cooperative principles and the inherent values that guide our principles and our business model.”
Those principles include, Esko said, products with sustainable production methods, the favoring of locally produced, “certified organic products, fair trade products or equitably or socially responsible sourcing.
“Quite simply, we want to provide the community with real food,” Esko declared.
“By shopping at the co-op, not only do we get to know that we are buying products that have been vetted for quality and purity, we are demonstrating our commitment to local ownership and local control and to the equitable and non-exploitative distribution of resources,” said Spizz.
“We think our new home will give everyone a fresh perspective on what Berkshire Food Co-op has to offer,” added store manager Ted Moy. “We look forward to celebrating with old friends and welcoming new friends to everyone’s neighborhood grocery store.”
The new co-op’s main competition will undoubtedly be Guido’s, the upscale grocery store just to the south of the Big Y plaza on Route 7. Both Esko and Spizz praised Guido’s involvement in the community, while Esko emphasized that the co-op is actually owned by more than 3,000 members of the community who elect a board of directors.
In addition, co-ops are by their very nature more transparent than privately held companies. Esko said the co-op produces an annual report that includes sales and profit numbers, as well as other reports on operations and special projects. Click here for an example.
The co-op’s new headquarters will bring the organization even further from its humble roots. The co-op started as a buying club and opened its first bricks-and-mortar store in 1981 in the granary building on Rosseter Street. The co-op moved into its previous Bridge Street location, which had housed a car dealership and the former Fitness Express gym, in 2003.
Esko has personally seen much of that transformation in his 15 years with the organization. He started working at the co-op in April 2004 and has held numerous positions, including buyer, grocery manager, operations manager and general manager. For several years, the co-op’s board had its eye on an expansion project for the 100 Bridge Street site, just over the Housatonic River and about a quarter of a mile to the east. But in the end, it was not meant to be.
“Ten years ago we had our sights set pretty clearly on 100 Bridge and we had plans and legal agreements drawn up, but it proved to not be viable anymore,” Esko explained. “So we pulled away from that and kind of hunkered down here for seven years and in 2015 when Powerhouse Square was proposed, we kind of came back to it and said, ‘We really need to do this.'”
“So I’ve been waiting a good portion of my professional career for this very moment,” Esko added.
Judging from the crowds lining the aisles a couple of hours after the doors opened, the co-op community surely thinks it was worth the wait.