By Audrey Alfson
In 2000, after two years without a grocery store, Houston’s Root River Market Cooperative opened thanks to the dedicated effort of a small group of people with a vision of a locally-owned grocery. The co-op has survived and is now thriving, 13 years later, in large part to that same spirit of community where it began. But the road hasn’t been easy.
Originally conceived as a natural foods store, the realities of the cost of running a grocery store and catering to the needs of the population shifted the focus of the co-op to one with a broader market in general groceries. Still they struggled to keep afloat.
Three years ago, the market was facing the possibility of shutting its doors again, but the community rallied to support their store. Membership donations and local businesses stepped up to help out. After a change in management, organization structure and renewing their vision, the market is now poised for success well into the future.
“We ‘re-set’ the store,” says manager Rich Carr. “We changed the layout, expanded inventory and brought in new registers and new retail management systems.”
Most importantly, they looked at ways to maximize their square footage for the greatest profits while meeting the needs of their customers. Most recently, they decided to eliminate their deli and utilize the space for a bakery instead.
The Market took advantage of low interest financing through the Houston County Economic Development Authority to purchase a used oven and racks and prepare the space for use as a bakery. The response has been overwhelming.
Using pre-made, frozen dough, the new bakery produces an assortment of baked goods, including hamburger and hot dog buns, bread, dinner rolls, cookies, donuts and popular cinnamon rolls.
“We’re currently doing twice the volume we had anticipated,” Carr said. “We’re looking into next year for more efficiencies and possibly a bigger oven. The community has been very supportive.”
In addition to steady sales during the summer season, the bakery, which opened in May, has allowed them to “secure other business previously outside their scope.”
For example, JT’s Corner Bar, next door to the market, has started buying all its buns from the store’s bakery. “Every business in a small town is important,” asserts Carr.
And the bakery has been good for not only business but store’s bottom line. They now make the products they once had to order from another vendor, saving them money. Doing so allows them great flexibility in cross-marketing other departments in the store, such as the meat counter.
The bakery has also created new jobs. Carr says they’ve hired one full-time and one part-time employee since the bakery opened.
“We’re on track to pay off our note in 10 years and then look at returning investments to members,” Carr said.
As more and more small towns struggle to keep their grocery stores, Houston’s Root River Market Cooperative stands out, finally, as a success story amidst so many failures.
“Initially we tried to do too much,” Carr admitted. By creating niche markets and efficiently utilizing space, the cooperative is now “a step above a convenience store and a step below a large grocery store,” adding, “We can’t be everything to everybody.”
People seem to understand that, because without a doubt, the store’s success comes from the community. The cooperative boasts 540 members. In a town of 1,000 people, that’s pretty impressive. Carr stated simply, “The people needed this store.”