Albany & the Co-op
Why am I so hard on the Honest Weight Food Co-op? It’s a good question, and one that I don’t think I’ve ever tackled directly. Plus it’s an easy one to answer. The truth is that I really love what they are and believe in what they do.
Is that surprising to hear?
Part of the human condition is that we can only be disappointed by people and things we care about. If Burger King goes and makes a bunch of people sick selling tainted beef, it would be appalling, but my opinion of the brand is already so low, its impact would be muted. However, should the same thing happen at Chipotle, I’d be crushed.
While I love what the Honest Weight Food Co-op is and believe in what it does, I find myself frustrated by its execution. Sure, I could get involved and try to change things from within, but right now I do not have the patience to attend meetings and deal with committees. But despite my persistent concerns regarding prices, cheese and meat, the Co-op fills a very valuable role in the community.
And this is why I’m worried.
The Capital Region is changing. It is. And there may be people who want to believe that it’s not, and that’s fine. But let’s look very narrowly at the changing dynamics of the area as they pertain to grocery shopping.
Our homegrown grocery chain is Price Chopper, and I would like to see this institution do better too. But for years if you wanted food it was a choice between Price Chopper, Hannaford or the Co-op. Then Walmart came to town selling groceries and opened up the largest super mega store in our backyard. Walmart may be reviled by some, but I shop there quite a bit for reasonably priced organic & local foods in addition to household staples.
When The Fresh Market opened up in Latham, you would have thought they were giving away gold ingots. Obviously there was a hunger in regional consumers for something more than they’ve been getting from their local market options. This was a first and early warning sign of what was to come.
Because about a year later came the ShopRite in Niskayuna. This is right in the backyard of Price Chopper corporate headquarters, and our hometown market made some major improvements to Capital Region stores in advance of the opening. Despite those efforts the newest addition to the local supermarket scene had “the highest-volume sales for a grand opening week for any ShopRite in the history of the chain,” according to Burt Flickinger III of Strategic Resource Group.
Naturally there are more ShopRite stores on their way.
You may have also heard we are getting our first Trader Joe’s ahead of schedule. I shudder to think of the mayhem the first day of the new store will bring. But if All Over Albany will pay me to go, I’ll be there. Otherwise I’ll do the much more sensible thing and stay the f*ck at home.
Now here’s the thing.
Without a doubt, there is totally room for the Honest Weight Food Co-op to peacefully co-exist with Trader Joe’s in Albany. However, it would be foolish to suggest that the presence of a TJ’s will not cut into the market share of the coop or affect their overall sales.
While TJ’s doesn’t stock local grass-fed beef or milk, and while it may not have a staffed cheese counter, it does sell humanely raised meat without antibiotics and hormones, organic milk, and decent cheese for a fraction of the HWFC’s prices. It also sells natural cereals, good olive oils, organic crackers, gluten-free cookies, organic yogurt, sprouted wheat bread, fair trade coffee, and host of other things people have been buying almost exclusively from the co-op for many years. Oh, and TJ’s prices are a fraction of what is charged at the Co-op for similar or even identical items.
But Trader Joe’s is not the co-op. It doesn’t participate in the same community events. Plus TJ’s does not have nearly the same fresh produce selection, nor does it have the impressive assortment of bulk goods. The Co-op also has a leg up because it is relatively small and does not have a lot of overhead expenses.
Except for the fact that our small co-op is about to embark on an $11 million dollar new store in an industrial area a bit off the beaten path in Albany’s west end. On top of that, only five months ago the HWFC had just $1.7 million of this in cash and planned to finance the rest with loans.
You know, maybe this will be a case of, “Build it and they will come.” But this decision was based on a set of sales projections that were made long before the recent changes to the competitive landscape. I know that I’m not the only one who has concerns about this project.
The Honest Weight Food Co-op is too small to fail.
It would be a shame if a board with its heart set on a building project pushed through with grandiose plans that were made years ago, in an entirely different marketplace. This venture is a risk. And it seems to be getting riskier all the time. All I hope for is that somebody slows the project down and takes a hard and honest look at the numbers to see if this still makes sense today (and down the road when we eventually get a Wegmans).