Great Basin Community Food Co-op brings a different business model to downtown Reno

The Great Basin Community Food Co-op in Reno - image - Brian Bahouth

Reno – Almost 15 years ago Amber Sallaberry and a few family and friends began operation of a local food buying club out of their kitchens, and today the Great Basin Community Food Co-op (GBCFC) is a downtown Reno grocery store and restaurant approaching $5 million in annual sales with 38 employees who earn on average, roughly two and a half times federal minimum wage. Brian Bahouth recently stopped by the co-op and spoke with Amber Sallaberry, GBCFC co-founder and general manager. Listen to that interview.

The co-op is a lively, muraled building on the corner of Court and Flint streets just blocks from the Truckee River and the Reno downtown core. People traffic is constant. Edible garden boxes skirt the front of the building, and inside, the store smells earthy and fresh.

The Produce section at the Great Basin Community Food Co-op in Reno – image – Brian Bahouth

What is a co-op?

Members typically own consumer cooperatives, and the business operates for the benefit of those members. The cooperative model is designed to take advantage of many individuals pooling resources to develop a service that an individual could not easily create alone. There are many types of co-op. Consumer-focused co-ops can provide healthcare, banking, energy, and in the case of the GBCFC, local, high quality food.

Most food co-ops are not nonprofit organizations but fall under subsection “T” of the IRS, which means that the equity that members pay into the business isn’t taxed by the federal government and can be used for general infrastructure and purchasing equipment and major capital purchases to keep growing the business, but otherwise the co-op is just like any other business with a merciless balance between expenses and revenue.

The GBCFC moved to its current location in 2012. Before that it was on the corner of Plumas and Sierra, and prior to that, it was inside the old Sound and Fury Records, a hard-core punk rock record store off Wonder Street next to the landmark Wonder Bar.

“Yes definitely,” Sallabery said when asked if she is surprised with the co-op’s growth. “We, I think this year hit four and a half million in annual sales and it goes so fast and there is so much to do all the time that you don’t really sit back and think about that, ‘wow this is a lot of money,’ but we have an amazing team, a bunch of really bright, strong-willed, passionate, intelligent humans that work here that carry their piece of the operation, what we’re trying to accomplish, so it makes it feel a lot lighter than that, but me and Nicole (Amber’s sister and co-founder) used to joke that the original buy-in club, we didn’t know that much about business. We’re just bleeding hearts about this and we grew up in agriculture our entire lives. Our dad raises sheep and cattle.”

First steps and cash in a box

“We did the buying club and charged ourselves a 15 percent markup,” Sallaberry said with a smile. “And in the grocery industry you don’t even use markups, you use margins, and so we got a 15 percent markup off of our piddly little orders each week. We charged ourselves this. We all voted. We were gonna set the money aside. We had a box that we hid under my bed, and at the end of that first year, it was like nine months later, we had $814, and that’s what all of it started on, and we just kept slowly adding to it, and yeah, it feels super bizarre.”

Various vinegars and local eggs are always available, to include quail eggs – image – Brian Bahouth

The co-op uses a holistic method of assessing performance.

“We use something called the triple bottom line sort of evaluation impact where we look at not just financial but social and environmental, which is why the report that you’re looking at, the 2018 annual report, doesn’t just assess what we brought in terms of net income, it looks at things like how well we dealt with petroleum-based plastics in our store and how much food waste we diverted from the landfill and how much money went to the local farmers and ranchers here in northern Nevada through our food-hub DROPP,” Sallaberry said.

Before the co-op began operation, there was very little if any coordination among Nevada agriculturalists, and more, there was no central market where Nevada agricultural products were available to individuals and restaurants.

“We weren’t planning on the co-op being what it was, mostly just a little buying club that we ran out of our kitchen once a week, and everyone ordered in bulk, and what we quickly saw was that people wanted really good food. They wanted to know their farmers. They wanted to know the impact to the watershed, which is how we define our foodshed that the goods that they were consuming were having. They also just wanted to eat really fresh and delicious food that they thought was higher quality.”

The bulk food section of the Great Basin Community Food Co-op – image – Brian Bahouth

In 2005 when the co-op launched, the local food movement was not what it is today.

“So at that time, people were less hip or aware of the local food movement. I remember in 2007 or ‘08 Time Magazine published something titled Forget Organic, Go Local, and that was the point I realized the local food movement had surpassed just kind of, pockets of subcultures and moved into the mainstream,” Sallaberry said. “It seemed to take a few more years before it really had that impact in Reno, Nevada until I’d say about the time we started DROPP ( Distributors of Regional and Organic Produce and Products) our food hub, which was kind of our baby brain-child starting in 2009.”

The program is effectively a website, a truck and a distribution point “where farmers, ranchers and producers post their products for sale and consumers can search for these products and place bi-weekly orders.”

“We didn’t actually get it off the ground until 2012 when we moved in here (the current location),” Sallaberry said about the DROPP program. “That was the point when people really started coming out of the woodwork and wanted to join in organizing an online ordering form where farmers could post and then restaurants could buy, and now it’s really cool to see because there’s all kinds of businesses, regardless of whether they’re using DROPP or they’re going directly to farmers and ranchers. They’re getting more local goods on the menu.”

Competing with the world’s largest retailers

As the co-op grew, it needed to reach a certain, “market saturation point” or threshold of business volume to join the National Cooperative Grocers (NCG). Data shows that co-ops strengthen local economies in the communities where they reside, more so than corporate stores, but co-ops lack the vast buying power of some chain food stores to include Wal-Mart and Target, so membership in NCG gives the GBCFC a leg up.

“You have every other big-box retailer carrying similar brands and getting in on the organic bandwagon and doing some great things but also doing a lot of greenwashing,” said Sallaberry. “How are co-ops going to survive when co-ops came about because at the end of the day, co-ops came about, the adage is, ‘co-ops exist to meet their members’ needs.”

Through membership in NCG, the co-op is able to offer the gamut of healthful, nationally distributed grocery items at competitive prices, along with local agricultural products.  

Proximity to northern California has its benefits, from almonds to a wide variety of citrus – image – Brian Bahouth

Raley’s and Save Mart and Whole Foods, for instance, use well-established and vast systems of distribution for produce, meat, fish and eggs to name a few staples, whereas the co-op relies on NCG and a local network of agricultural producers they created from scratch, and though Sallaberry is cognizant of the need to compete with big box stores, she and her team are intent to equitably share profits with food producers.

“From day-one, part of the reason that drove so many of us to join on in the early days was because everybody understood how completely inequitable farming was in America.

“I have farmer friends that would tell me after an analysis that they were making two dollars an hour after a hard season, and we looked at that and average USDA rates of what farmers are paid, which two years ago, the average price paid to the American farmer was 8.6 cents on the dollar, and so, we thought we can do better than that. Consumers want this. They want to pay for it, and if we are the only middle-men in-between, and we are a cooperative so we don’t have to rake it in, but we do have to cover our overhead and our labor expenses and transportation, everything.

“We were actually able to raise that up to 70 cents on the dollar for all of our northern Nevada producers that we pay.”

Nevada’s agricultural products come at a premium in a land of scarce precipitation, and the state’s natural environment can undermine agricultural pursuits and the regular delivery of products. As the GBCFC has grown, Sallaberry said the sporadic availability of products presents challenges when keeping the store stocked.

“Planning and having a guarantee on stock has been really difficult. Northern Nevada is … I know people who hit water at 300 feet where we have other people who hit it at eight feet, and sometimes you get one irrigation, and cows are not going to get fed after that, and they need to be sold off at auction, and crops are not going to get watered, and what we might have speculated would come in for the harvest season, you know, we have none of it instead of 10,000 pounds of it.

“I think this sort of not really knowing at this point and still laying the foundation of that structure of who’s gonna have what, what’s gonna workout. What’s a brand new experimental crop? What’ll get attacked by pests, what’ll get lost with a June frost in northern Nevada, that’s been the tricky part for sure.”

Watersheds = Foodshed

The Reno area foodshed is centered on the Truckee and Walker rivers. Making something where it did not exist before is difficult, and organizing Nevada’s disparate agriculturalists into a functional market has been a challenge. Reaction among farmers has been mixed.

“Over the years, selling to the co-op, farmers get a better price when they sell directly to the consumers,” Sallaberry said. “They get a better price when they go to farmers market, when they organize CSA baskets. That’ll always be the case. We don’t want to compete with that, nor do we want to divert any of those to the co-op or to DROPP that farmers could get a much better return on. We want our farmers to be stable. If I had it my way, they’d be paid as well as doctors because in my opinion, it’s the food that’s the medicine and it keeps you healthier longer.”

The GBCFC works to provide product outlets when they are needed.

“What has evolved out of the co-op, when farmers need another marketplace, or they have such an abundance, the co-op is a great diversion channel that they can bring crops to as well, and we found that it has been easier and a lot more successful for what we call our medium, small to medium sized farms, Lattin Farms, Dayton Valley Aquaponics, High Desert Farming Initiative, and then the specialty producers, Al’s Bees, Steve McDougal at McDougal Honey, anyone who is doing local Nevada grass fed, grass finished beef, Norris Albaugh, the Holley Family Farms. Those folks have done really well at the co-op, and it’s been a really valuable resource for them because it moves a lot of their product, and it’s the one place where consumers can come in Reno and get those kind of specialty products, and because our margins are probably, again, we are a business, but our margins are nowhere near what I’ve heard about and talked with peers and colleagues and people around Reno, the margins that need to be achieved in other grocery store settings.”

The price of local goods at the GBCFC reflects a different set of costs than federally subsidized commodities for products available in giant chain stores.  

“While some of those items may have a perception of being more expensive, it’s because we’re paying farmers 70 cents on the dollar and also because what it costs to raise that food, minus all the federal subsidies you usually see with commodity crops that you see in the larger market. Those aren’t at play here. People are just paying a farmer what it costs to do the work to raise their food. People would be shocked if they could see all the outputs that go into agricultural operations and really what farmers net at the end of the year. Most of them do it because they love it.”

A great place to work

The base wage at the GBCFC is $15 an hour with an average wage across 38 employees of $18.33 an hour. According to the 2018 Annual Report, the co-op invested $14,235 in staff education and training and $46,698 in staff appreciation and discounts.

Roundup for Food Justice

The co-op is now a noted landmark in downtown Reno, and Sallaberry is aware that many who live nearby are in weekly motel rentals or lack adequate housing and healthful food, and the lack of nutritious food is for Sallaberry part of what keeps the poverty cycle intact, so co-op customers who want to round up to the nearest dollar can do so, and in 2018 the program raised $12,425.59. Sallaberry said if she didn’t have to manage the co-op, she’d prefer to be the local food and sustainability coordinator and run the Roundup program.

“Oftentimes that means no refrigerator or no stoves or no kitchen facilities, so we figured out how to make nutrient dense meals for $5 or less in a rice cooker that you can plug in where you’re going to need a cutting board and a knife, and we started hosting classes. We teamed up with Access to Healthcare and Hopes Northern Nevada, and they sent us clients, and some folks found us through our website and coming into the store, and we taught classes once a week that were kind of basic nutrition classes, but each class, the whole first part of it was prepping and preparing a meal, and then we turned the rice cooker on, let it sit, and then we would all eat dinner together, and it was really fun and we liked it a lot.”

Using Roundup funds, the GBCFC Board recently voted to fund a nonprofit started by the president of the GBCFC Board Earstin Whitten and his wife Dee Schafer called Soulful Seeds. The new nonprofit is, “dedicated to providing fresh, sustainable healthy food to the homeless, working poor, disabled, veterans, seniors and families in need.”

The Foodshed Cafe 

The GBCFC has had a juice bar and a kitchen but the Foodshed Cafe didn’t open until 2018 in the upstairs area of the co-op building.

“It’s going,” Sallaberry said when asked about the new cafe. “We joke about it because it reminds me of the first year that we moved into this building where it really does, it takes time and it takes building your reputation and providing amazing customer service with really beautiful, top-notch products before you sort of have that flow at all times here. It’s got a really really good lunch crowd. Breakfast is on or off, and dinner isn’t really a spot they think of the co-op as. We just hired our first ever executive chef who is coming to us from Sonoma County, relocating here for his personal reasons, and we just got really lucky. We’re really excited to work with him because he’s a huge advocate of sourcing local, curating recipes that meet those ethos, and from what I’ve tried so far, I’m super excited.

“And I think now, after a year, we’re ready to take the next steps forward because everything here is piecemeal and DIY, and we do it all from scratch, and we don’t have an insane cash flow, and so we did as much as we could at the time that we opened it up, but we have quite a few other big ideas and fun things we want to work on up there, and I think that slowly over time, it’ll get the same foot traffic that the downstairs space has.”

Working against a vast and inequitable system of food distribution is not easy.

“Co-ops, in this day and age especially what everyone is up against economically and the way that food systems are set up, I think co-ops can be a beacon of light for helping to have a really great impact, economic impact on the rural agriculture community and urban producers as well, and I think it’s a beautiful business model that’s like a balanced thing, it’s not partisan. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, it’s something people can get behind and it can have some positive impact on the community.”

For much more from Amber Sallaberry, listen to the audio interview embedded above.