Seeing Opportunity for Local Food and Farmers, Entrepreneur Seeks to Launch Food Co-op in Riverside CA
September 25, 2013 | Trish Popovitch
A few years ago former Air Force veteran and commuter student, William Cobb, saw an opportunity to create a food cooperative in Riverside, CA. It was the combination of rich farmland and densely populated urban/suburban areas along with the absence of a sustainable and local food culture in Riverside that first caught Cobb’s attention. So, In 2010, he decided to move to Riverside permanently and began selling residents on the idea of a cooperative business model. They listened.
In 2011, the Riverside Food Co-op was formed. This grass roots effort to create a member owned local produce grocery store is quickly moving from a small endeavor into a community changing force for good.
“I feel like a food cooperative is the most basic kind of thing in the alternative economic and even food system paradigm that I was missing living here,” shares Cobb. Growing up in California, food cooperatives can become pretty ubiquitous. So when William Cobb moved to Riverside he found a beautiful space full of small local farms with no centralizing hub to help aggregate farmers’ products, take advantage of demand for local produce, and provide food security. A little farmers market research and a lot of passion made it possible for Cobb to connect with other thought leaders to formulate the unique business model and plan for Riverside Food Co-op.
Through his research Cobb discovered many of the issues that hindered the establishment of a sustainable agriculture economy in Riverside. “A lot of the farms around us cannot afford the label of organic. When you go to the farmers markets and you speak with them, they’re really passionate about sustainable agriculture. It’s just that they can’t afford the label, which to me that’s kinda of like an alarm bell showing us that something is really wrong with our socioeconomic system where people cannot afford to get a label that should be easily accessible, not cost that much or come on a sliding scale. That shows that there are barriers to entry created by larger farms,” explains Cobb.
“For our organization we don’t put a lot of weight on the organic label. We do put a lot of weight on the actual practices,” states Cobb.
For many, the cooperative business model is understood as a cornerstone of the slow food movement. Cobb also views the cooperative model as a viable alternative to the traditional approach to job building in small towns.
“It’s easier to start a business with several people than to start one on your own,” explains Cobb. “We all know that small businesses are really the engine of the economy. In the United States, the vast majority of jobs are from local businesses. We’re trying to get away from this whole ‘attract the one big transnational to your city in order to create 2,000 jobs’ thing. We’re trying to get away from that model and we should be because I don’t think it’s really working for us anymore. We need to be thinking about how to create and sustain small businesses. I think that having a cooperative in our city, a successful, vibrant and dynamic one, will really put a spotlight on a business model that really looks at community structure,” shares Cobb.
Traditional cooperatives focus on selling the idea of a member owned grocery store, but given the region and lack of a solidified local agriculture movement Cobb and his team decided a different approach was necessary.
“This isn’t Davis or the Bay Area or San Diego. We’re more of a bedroom community and people are not as conscious of that kind of thing [cooperatives] and typically kinda skeptical of stuff like that. We’re actually putting on a food box program. We’re buying produce from local farms every month instead of going into contract with them. We’re filling boxes and we’re selling them to our member owners. We’re trying to show people this is what we’re going to be offering. We’re trying to give people something they can literally sink their teeth into and see what we are about,” explains Cobb.
The sale of farm boxes has enabled Cobb and his team to raise awareness of local farms and produce in Riverside as well as much needed capital for the brick-and-mortar storefront that will eventually be built to house the Co-op. Once the storefront for the cooperative is in place, the ‘farm box’ concept will be phased out, says Cobb. By implementing the farm box program prior to the launch of the physical store, Cobb and his team have created a tangible marketing strategy to promote and sell the idea of the food co-op to prospective consumers in the local community.
“We’re gearing up for a large scale marketing campaign to advertise our box program. We have a lot of support in the community. Basically everywhere we go we have people in high places telling us that we should keep going and we’re doing something really good for the community. We’re confident it’s going to blow up pretty soon here. Over the next couple of weeks we are probably going to go up to a 1,000 members,” shares Cobb.
1,000 members is about as many as Cobb feels the Riverside Cooperative can handle and provide quality services to, because like most endeavors in the new food economy constant expansion is not a part of the sustainable business model.
As Cobb points out a high profit margin is not expected in the traditional grocery store business model so to expect it in the sustainable business model doesn’t make much sense.
“A cooperative is very much a business. It’s taken a lot of time to get people to come around to that idea that for the ideals that we do have, it’s still very much a business but a business without the profit motive being first and foremost,” explains Cobb. “It’s definitely there, we’re aware of that issue that we need to make a profit, to stay solvent and that we don’t have anyone who’s going to catch us if we fall.”
After the storefront is up and running, Cobb hopes to add community workshops and classes, a rooftop garden and perhaps even a fresh food, fast food window to appeal to this commuter community.
Paving the way for more sustainable and community oriented projects in the future, The Riverside Cooperative, led by Mr. Cobb, may be a first step to reinvigorating the agricultural economy of Riverside.