INTRO: In tough times, a cooperative can keep a community alive. Credit unions, Ace Hardware and Best Western Hotels are co-ops. They bow to members…not always to low prices. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus looks at a thriving co-op in the Upper Peninsula.
She says every soul must find an anchor. Jen Copeman went to Texas last year. She’s back at the Marquette Food Co-Op. It’s her anchor. Lots of people want to work and hang out here.
“Even though I have friends here it still took me a year to get in. And I liked working here because they support all the local farmers. Everybody sells their stuff here. It’s a good meeting place. The customers all know the staff. It’s kind of a big family. It takes a lot to get in. But it’s a good job once you get it.”
You can be an employee, a customer and a friend all at the same time. Natasha Gill is leading new members around the store.
“Being an owner of the co-op affords you many different benefits. One of those is special ordering products that you don’t see on the shelf. We may carry 5 different kinds of salsa. But perhaps we don’t have the exact one you want. So what you can do is special order that and you will get a discount on that.”
Boris Martysz is a local bank vice-president. His parents were members of this same co-op that started in 1971.
“I’m originally from the UP. Born and raised in Marquette…give back I guess and support a lot of the local farmers and growers in this area. It really means a lot.”
A customer at the cash register asks about Kashi cereal. It’s owned by Kellogg. One of the employees, Dominick Davis, explains how the Co-op tries to be as local and organic as possible.
“They wouldn’t stop using genetically modified sugar beets for their sugar in their products. So then we stopped carrying their entire line of Kashi cereals.”
The Marquette Food Co-op general manager is Matt Gougeon. He jokes that he’s posing as a yooper since he’s only from Alpena. Many items are marked with the number of food miles. That’s how far away from the store things were made. There are plenty of 7’s, 10’s and 11’s.
“That’s produce; that’s soaps. That’s household goods. That’s beer. That’s dairy products. We’ve got producers right here in the UP in Marquette County which is incredible to me.”
Gougeon says even more fruits and vegetables are grown down south.
“If you go to the southern UP, Menominee County, Dickinson County… we call it the banana belt.”
Since the recession of 2008, the co-op has gained a member a day. Sales since then are up 17%. 10% of the town shops here.
“If you own a piece of your grocery store why would you shop anywhere else?”
Gougeon expects $4 million in sales this year even with a Walmart and 4 other big stores here. How does the co-op compare?
“There is no competition.”
When the century old building was rehabbed, builders took waste heat from the freezers and refrigerator compressors. In the summer it blows outside. In the winter it cuts heating bills to $30 a month. A typical big box store designed from some corporate headquarters in another state won’t be like this.
“When times are hard people tend to come together. This is a member-owned grocery store. People tend to come together in times of stress.”
But the co-op crowd can’t be called insular. Pop music from Kinshasa, Congo is played on CD.
Then, Earl Otchingwanigan and other local Ojibway friends are asked what brought them in today.
“Well, we were hungry.”
Musician Jen Copeman is going to be based in Marquette while she takes her music on the road. Her last place of steady employment could give her all she needs to sing about.