Why the Main Market Co-op Should Ask the Rocket Bakery to Run the Market

Last year the Main Market Food Co-op in Spokane opened with great fan fare as the flagship enterprise of Spokane's burgeoning local food movement. The old Goodyear building was converted into a state of the art retail food facility, a large staff was assembled, funds were donated, memberships were subscribed, and a top notch group of community leaders were recruited to serve on the board. Thursday, four months after cutting the ribbon, the Spokesman Review business section announced that the co-op is regrouping;

After its January launch, Spokane’s only full-service food co-op isrevisiting its business strategy and trying to win new customers. Main Market Cooperative in downtown has slashed prices, started searching for a new general manager and expanded its deli selections, and it hopes to mount a marketing campaign to get the attention of shoppers.

Its interim general manager, Jeanette Hamilton, said there’s no chance the co-op, at 44 West Main, will close. She’s convinced the store will succeed. “But the most successful co-ops take time. It doesn’t happen in the first two years,” Hamilton said.

I'm reading between the lines here, but it sounds like sales at the market have been poor and that the business model is not working. The article mentions that along with lowering prices, they plan to hire a marketing firm to raise the visibility of the co-op and do a national search for a new manager as ways to right the ship.

As a local food advocate and someone who would love to see the market succeed, I'd like to offer a humble proposal; Don't bother with a fancy marketing firm and executive search that are just going to dig a deeper hole in the short term, and are questionable solutions in the long term. Instead, set up a meeting with the folks at the Rocket Bakery/Rocket Market and beg them to come in and run the business side of the co-op.

Before I proceed, let me put my cards on the table. I am friends with the outgoing manager of the co-op and hold her in high regard and I know folks on the co-op board. I am also friends with Jeff and Julia who own and operate the Rocket Bakery and, in partnership with Alan & Shanda Shephard, own and run the Rocket Market. I don't have a membership at the co-op and my only business tie to the folks at the Rocket is that I spend a small fortune on their scones and coffee.

The only example of a successful retail food outlet in Spokane (that I'm aware of) that has figured out how to buy from local farmers and make money while doing it is the Rocket Market. Huckleberries has some offerings around the fringes but is mostly a send up of Whole Foods Market. Fresh Abundance makes a good effort but my sense is that they aspire to be a cultural movement and that the business model is secondary. (I'd be glad to be challenged on either assumption.)

Since 1999 the Rocket Market has been sorting out a unique business model in a converted gas station that, as they say, has "more food per square foot than any store this side of New York City." And it's true. I've only been there once, but the place is packed with interesting food and drink items, and much of it is sourced locally. They have four local egg vendors, heirloom tomatoes from Sand Point, ID, and a bunch of other quirky stuff that only they stock and sell. They've had over 10 years incubating this business model in Spokane and are better equipped than any expert from out of town to flesh out what could work at the Main Market location. It's worth mentioning that several of the expert staff brought on to run the co-op were from the Rocket Market.

If I were on the board of the co-op, I would contract with the folks at the Rocket to run the business side of things. Let them experiment and put their hard earned Spokane sensibilities to work. They've already turned one auto related location into a thriving business, how about giving them a shot at doing it again at the old site of Goodyear tire. That arrangement would free the board up to pursue the important education and community engagement initiatives that they are having to set aside in the midst of the business crisis.

I hope the folks advocating for the Spokane Public Market are taking note of what's going on with the co-op. Without a viable business model the Public Market concept is not going to work.