Olympia Food Co-op shows the world that members can manage just fine

Consensus decision-making more difficult with growth, but local collective pulls it off with loyal core, experienced staff

ahobbs@theolympian.comJanuary 14, 2014 

Bookkeepers and grocers Grace Cox and Harry Levine are marking 30 years at the Olympia Food Co-op in 2014. The co-op had fewer than 10 staff members and a budget well below $1 million in 1984; today there are 82 employees and a budget of $16 million.


For 30 years, Harry Levine and Grace Cox have succeeded in growing the Olympia Food Co-op while maintaining its unique method of governance.

The food cooperative, which is owned and controlled by its membership, started as a tiny storefront in downtown Olympia in 1977. It sprouted as part of a national co-op movement intended to provide an organic alternative to chain grocery stores.

Levine and Cox came on board in 1984, when the Olympia co-op’s staff hovered in single digits and the budget was well below $1 million.

Today, the nonprofit co-op has 82 employees, about 12,000 active members and an annual budget of $16 million. Through all the growth, the co-op has maintained a decision-making model that’s based on consensus of the members.

Naysayers in the co-op world who adopted a more traditional management structure said Olympia’s operation was too big to remain a collective, Cox said. A loyal core membership and a multi-generational staff continue to demonstrate otherwise.

“We were just driven to prove to the world that a collective can be managed,” said Levine, who, along with Cox, stressed that the co-op has never been in business for the sake of profit.

They acknowledge that consensus decision-making has become more complicated as the co-op has grown. However, equality is the rule, and the co-op’s de facto boss is the board of directors — which ultimately reflects the values of the membership.

“We are the management and the workers,” Cox said.

In addition to its mission to sell the best food at the lowest price, the co-op also focuses on economic and social justice. This mission often steers the co-op into political territory.

Cox recalled a boycott in the early 1990s. The co-op stopped stocking food items from Colorado in response to that state’s ban on anti-discrimination laws for homosexuals. Colorado’s Celestial Seasonings tea still has no spot on the co-op’s shelves.

Locally, the co-op was instrumental in launching the TULIP Cooperative Credit Union that specializes in helping low-income members. In 2001, the co-op allowed a paid employee to devote a handful of hours every week toward starting the credit union, which is housed at the co-op’s branch at 3111 Pacific Ave. SE.

On that note, low-income residents also quality for free membership and a discount at the co-op.

“Our co-op represents a really progressive place in our community,” Levine said. “We will not sacrifice values for growth.”

In April, the co-op plans to open an expanded garden center at its west-side location at 921 Rogers St. NW. A long-term goal has been to open a location in downtown Olympia with multiple uses including housing. So far, that dream has proved to be too expensive, Levine said.

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869 ahobbs@theolympian.com

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