about the co-op -> Interview with Tim Bartlett
Nestled in the heart of Buffalo, a block away from Elmwood Avenue, thrives a bustling grocery store unparalleled in the area. The Lexington Real Foods Community Co-Op, a thriving, amicable, “food you feel good about” kind of store is situated on Lexington Avenue, at the corner of Ashland Avenue. The Co-Op’s storefront is garnished with pots of purple and yellow flowers and bright orange pumpkins as fall descends upon the City. Inside, the aisles are lined with healthy cereals, cookies, soups, teas, coffees, pastas, flour, honey, nuts, tofu, soy products, whole grain breads and baked goods, syrups, nuts, dried fruit and spices. Awaiting the customers, a yard from the entranceway, are large baskets, filled to the brim with fresh, crisp fruits and ripe, delectable vegetables -- all of which are organic, locally grown or both. Standing at the checkout counter are friendly, smiling employees who know most of their customers by name and give the store a warm, cozy, gregarious atmosphere. The Co-Op, a true jewel of the City, was established in 1972 and has been flourishing ever since. As a testament to the hard-work and dedication that has characterized the Co-Op for the past three decades, the Lexington Co-Op received the Lifetime Achievement Award in Sustainability at Buffalo’s first annual Sustainability Conference on October 11th and 12th. On October 8th, three days prior to the conference, I had the distinct honor of sitting down and discussing the Co-Op’s achievements, goals and many wonderful attributes with Tim Bartlett, the Co-Op’s general manager. It was an interview that introduced me to a cornerstone in our community that every Buffalonian should be a part of.
Sara Sargent: What was the purpose of the Lexington Co-Op when it was established? How and why was it established?
Tim Bartlett: Co-ops in general are member-owned institutions and the establishment of the Co-op was no different from any other entrepreneurial business in that it developed out of a need for the placement of new products on the market -- things like whole grains, tofu and fresh quality produce -- things which people could not find in supermarkets. However, the Co-op, which is more of a “grass roots” type of business, differs from entrepreneurial business because in the beginning, people came together and formed a “buying club” to start ordering these products on their own and eventually, after ordering so much, a surplus was established and they were able to sell the extra products during the week in the stores.
SS: Why are organic foods so healthful and why should we incorporate them into our diets?
TB: Organic foods are not only better for people, but better for the whole environment because if we take care of our environment, we will be healthier. Basically, the way organic foods work is that there are no chemical or synthetically produced pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides used on the soil. Thus, organic farmers must resort to more natural ways of killing pests and weeds -- pulling the weeds out by hand, by machine or by burning them. But all of these things have a much less destructive impact on the soil and on the environment. The chemicals that most conventional farmers spray on their fields stay in the soil for a long time and they don’t break because they aren’t naturally occurring substances. But, when an organic farmer uses a pesticide, it is derived from nature, a flower, an animal or a plant, and it will break down within three days. In this way, I think organic foods are healthier not only for us, but for our environment.
SS: I was told by one of your patrons that the coffee you sell is unique. Can you please explain why it is so unusual.
TB: All of the coffee we carry is Equal Exchange coffee. Equal Exchange is a coffee distributor that contracts with the growers in Central America to bring the coffee here and sell it. Generally, the majority of coffee farmers don’t get any money at all for their coffee. For example, the coffee farmers get a penny, or less, for the cup of coffee at Starbucks that costs us $3.00. So, what Equal Exchange does, which is different from most coffee distributors, is that they contract with farmers for what they call a “fair trade” price -- they guarantee the farmers a certain price no matter how low the market drops. Equal Exchange promises farmers a livable wage so that they can survive off of coffee farming.
SS: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your job since you started working here five years ago?
TB: The members. Because we are owned by the people who shop here, they are very supportive of us. You’ll find in a lot of retail environments, the customers are pretty hard on the people working there, they demand service and if they feel slighted they take out their aggressions on the people behind the counter and that’s really too bad -- but that doesn’t really happen here very much because the people who shop here own the store and they are concerned about the well-being of the people who work here -- it’s like having 800 supportive bosses who come in and worry about my health and worry about the store, and that’s really nice. Also, just feeling like I’m not contributing to anything that I feel is negative, like globalism, I’m not working really hard to make a profit for someone who lives far away, I’m working hard here to make this a better store for the people who own it and live in this neighborhood and that relationship is really what motivates me everyday and is what makes me like this job.
SS: How has the Co-Op changed since you began working here?
TB: Well, our sales have almost doubled in the time that I’ve been working here and that has changed just about everything else. It’s a really different store. Not only have a lot more people started shopping here, we’re adding more high quality produce everyday and making sure the customer service is great everyday -- we’ve re-focused on the basics and that has brought in a lot of new customers who seem to be really happy with the job that we do.
SS: Why do you believe people should shop here and why would you encourage them to do so?
TB: I think people should shop here because we’re the best natural foods store in Buffalo. We have a really good produce department which generally has lower prices and higher quality than anybody else in town. Our other characteristics which I think should motivate people to shop here are our commitment to stimulating the local economy, our local ownership and the fact that our members have a say in how this business is run. I think all of those are great philosophical reasons to shop here besides the fact that I think we do a great job -- we want to have the highest quality in town and we want to have terrific customer service and I really think that we have both of these things.
SS: Why so you think the Co-op is so integral to the Buffalo community?
TB: Mainly, we are important to the Buffalo community because we are a member owned organization. This community ownership means we’re more tied to the community -- our owners don’t live in Rochester or Belgium, they’re right here in our neighborhoods, so there are things that we have to do to take care of our community because our community is our customers and the customers are our owners.
The co-op, as far as what we do for the community, we circulate as much money into the local economy as possible. Last year, we re-circulated 47 cents of every dollar spent at the Co-op into the community by spending the money at a local distributor or producer and we bought merchandise from local farmers. And because we have that commitment, that money stays in Buffalo for a longer time, which is a great contribution.
In addition to the aforementioned, we provide really good, natural foods to the city of Buffalo -- something we’ve done for thirty years. Right now, you’ll see a lot of natural foods in the supermarket because it’s really popular and that’s great, but our commitment to natural foods goes deeper than it does in those places, because for them it’s just a marketing strategy. For us, it’s basically who we are.