On any given day in Park Slope during the novel coronavirus pandemic, passersby on Seventh Avenue can see a line of people stretching down the street, creating a long U shape from Union Street down to President Street. Although there are shorter waits at virtually any other local neighborhood grocery store, the members of famed Park Slope Food Coop are still waiting anywhere from 40 minutes to three hours to shop for groceries there, according to daily crowdsourced updates in the comments of the shop’s Instagram posts.
It’s a new normal for the 47-year-old store, which is the biggest and oldest active food cooperative in the country. Now, only 35 people are allowed in the store at a time, and those waiting must stay six feet apart. Instead of members manning the store, more than 40 part-time employees earning minimum wage now work — a move that’s made the casual, community vibe of the store feel a little more somber, members say.
But despite the long lines and the loss of some familiarity, members who still shop there say they’re committed to patronizing the store. Some argue that in a time of health uncertainties, they trust the co-op to abide by strict safety rules, while others say that the poor state of economy means that they’re relying more than ever on the co-op’s affordable prices for quality goods.
And though the lines make the store look busy, fewer people are shopping overall, and the co-op has seen a massive drop in sales, according to general manager Ann Herpel. It’s lost more than $500,000 a week in sales, prompting management to apply for loans and ask members to donate.
“It’s an institution that’s trying to service the community in a really safe way, and it’s really cutting into their business to be able to operate that way,” says Annette Jaffe, a teacher and member of the co-op since 1985, who has twice waited in the line for over two hours. “You’re only going to get X amount of customers all day, so you know they’re losing money and you want to make sure you’re supporting the co-op.”
With all of its political drama, scandals, and parodies in pop culture, the Park Slope Food Coop is sometimes known more for its bougie reputation than its food offerings. For many members, though, it’s not only an alternative to chain grocery stores but a place where neighborhood people come together. Shoppers pay a one-time investment fee of $100 that gets returned when they end their membership, plus a nonrefundable $25 registration fee, and must work one two-and-a-half-hour shift every four weeks in order to go to the store. During work shifts, members stock, ring up, clean, and unload products and produce, among other jobs, earning the right to shop there. If members miss a shift, they have to make it up, and can’t enter the store until then. Most consider it a fair and efficient system that results in a valuable place to shop for groceries. For many members — including me; I’ve been a member for close to a year — the store engenders a sense of belonging and home, filled with neighbors and familial energy.
But when the virus hit New York, having the store’s 17,000 members cycling in and out of the co-op to work didn’t line up with measures to mitigate COVID-19’s spread. On March 16, the store’s management announced that it would replace member labor with paid staffers for the first time since it opened in 1973.
“For some of us it was more difficult than others,” says Herpel, conveying how tough it was for long-time members to agree it was the right move to forgo the revered community-run labor model at this time. “But the co-op had to decide to protect both the members and to protect the paid staff that were here. There were concerns from the paid staff that every two and a half hours, there was a whole new group of members coming into the co-op to work.”
Some members say that it’s exactly these measures that keep them coming back to the co-op in spite of the time commitment. Management takes health and security seriously, members who were waiting on line say. Aside from the shift in labor, there’s been a number of other new safety regulations, such as requirements that shoppers use hand sanitizer before they enter, a four-person limit to aisles, and carts placed in front of counters to add more space between people. The store also started special shopping hours for senior and at-risk members on Thursdays.
It’s particularly important as other, bigger grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods face criticisms for inadequate health measures, with reports of employee deaths from COVID-19. According to the institution’s publication, the Linewaiters’ Gazette, the co-op didn’t have a single staff member or hourly worker who tested positive for the virus as of April 9.
“You feel very secure from waiting in line until you go out the exit door,” Jaffe says.
The co-op is also known for low prices on staples and gluten-free, vegan, and other alternative options that are harder to find in commercial grocery stores, a factor that members say make it worth the wait — especially at a time when the economy is less stable. Shoppers often call the store’s stockroom asking for particular brands of pasta, snacks, or oat milk over the intercom.
And prices can remain low because the store usually relies on members to do about 75 percent of the store’s work, which eliminates labor costs. Organic chicken thighs at Whole Foods range from $3.99 per pound to $5.99, while non-GMO thighs cost $2.20 per pound at the co-op. At Gristedes, a 52-ounce container of Chobani oat milk costs $7.39, but the same product recently cost $3.42 at the co-op. The co-op’s FAQ page says that all goods receive a flat markup of 21 percent, and according to a price comparison survey, members save 20 to 40 percent off of their weekly grocery bill. In other stores, meats can receive a markup of up to 60 percent, and name-brand spices usually see a 97 percent markup, according to Business Insider.
As of Friday, management did not express plans to raise prices.
“Other grocery stores, certain things might have a reasonable [markup] margin. On other things, they’re completely ripping you off,” says Alex Petry, who has been a member of the co-op for three years and waited in line recently for about 75 minutes. “I like to cook, and I want to make sure the things that I’m eating are of good quality and responsibly sourced, and I like the products I get from the co-op.”
Herpel says that the members tend to trust the store’s line-up of goods, as they may want to ensure that the food they’re eating is still organic or gluten-free during a time of stress. “It’s important to people what they’re eating right now. Their whole family is with them, their kids and their spouses and everything,” Herpel says. “People know the food that we’re selling is the food they’ve wanted to buy, and it has become part of their family’s tradition and health.”
Plus, with reports that bigger grocery stores like Whole Foods are struggling to keep up with demand, members say that the co-op has been surprisingly well-stocked, including with high-demand items like toilet paper and paper towels. The store’s intimate relationship with its shoppers means that it can more accurately predict demand when ordering supplies, Herpel says.
“We kind of always have our finger on the pulse, and we can shift and we can change things, so suddenly if we see there’s a trend away from a set of products or toward a set of products, we can change our ordering rather quickly because we so closely watch that everyday,” she says.
Still, not everything is running as smoothly as it once was. The co-op has suffered some of the same obstacles as other stores; at the beginning of the pandemic in March, supply was an issue as members bought in bulk. Weeks later, certain suppliers are still out of items that people snatched up in large quantities at the beginning of their panic shopping, and the chain is stretched as many delivery and supply chain workers are sick, furloughed, or laid off. Items like frozen vegetables, yeast, and ginger have been harder to get shipped regularly, Herpel says.
And the loss in revenue due to fewer shoppers overall impacts how much the co-op can buy for its stock, she adds. “When you go from $1.1 million in sales to $600,000 or $700,000 in sales, you’ve lost half a million dollars in sales, and you’re going to be buying less of everything,” Herpel says.
The financial situation is becoming “unsustainable,” according to a recent post on the co-op’s website. The half-million loss in sales revenue is accompanied by a $20,000 increase in payroll costs, and the store’s bank balance is losing $110,000 every week, depleting reserves. As a result, the shop has applied for two loans from the Small Business Administration, and will be applying for a line of credit from Sterling Bank, the co-op’s primary commercial bank. The shop is also asking members to donate, or voluntarily increase their member equity, which members can get back if they choose to leave the co-op.
Many members also miss working at the store, a critical aspect of the co-op because of the camaraderie; the member labor is what makes the co-op feel like a co-op. The store’s atmosphere seems “much more serious” now, Petry says. “There seemed to be a gravity to the situation that the staff was conveying in their body language.”
Still, while not all members have multiple hours to wait for the store, those who do feel a sense of duty to do so. The mood in the line is one of devotion to the co-op, members say. “I saw people reading in line, I saw people typing away on their phones, I was bopping away to music,” says Petry. “It’s not like people are just standing there rolling their heads around in abject depression.”
And some members wouldn’t consider going to other nearby grocery stores anyway, no matter what the circumstance. “After 35 years of shopping at the co-op, I’ve never shopped anywhere else,” says Jaffe.
Terri Ciccone is the Audience Development Manager at Eater.