Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Illusion of Great Expectation ??

I wrote recently of the truly enervating discussion Weaver Street Market Co-operative owners had with respect to Goal 2 ("Drive the growth of local and sustainable foods") of WSM's proposed 2020 Vision.

I meant what I said. The conversation was useful, inspiring and energizing. Until the backsliding began, engineered by the General Manager (Ruffin Slater) and his WSM corporate office management team, and those of the WSM Board whoe sole purpose seems to be to rubber stamp.

The first sign of this backtracking became apparent after most of we owners had left the discussion, and the Board continued the conversation in their regular Board Meeting.

I don't insist that my ideas are always the best. Far from it. But one of the suggestions which I had put forward seemed to resonate with most of the owners present. Placing the owners of WSM in the driving seat of the whole 2020 Vision process by establishing a Board Committe of owners, with special responsibility to oversee the design of, development of, implementation of and monitoring progress with the finally agreed 2020 Vision.

Even the Board Chair, worker-owner Curt Brinkmeyer, with whom I do not always agree, seemed excited by the idea. Those present saw this as a new opportunity meaningfully to re-engage with owners on a general level, and give them democratic control of our future on a specific level.

No sooner had we owners left than some on the Board began to minimize the suggestion, wondering aloud about scope, task and jurisdiction of any such Board Committee. Er. All of which seem to me to be very simply answered by the requirement that owners of a co-op are supposed democratically to decide what common needs the co-op serves, and how. A concept the simplicity of which and the necessity for which always seems to elude the WSM corporate office management team and the WSM Board, who regularly forget that they are servants, not masters.

Anyway, I was told of this backsliding by one owner who stuck around. I tried not to think about it. Hoped it would all pan out differently. Until I saw the write-up of the Goal 2 Discussion on the WSM web-site.

Look, the write-up appears to be very thorough and inclusive of owners, until you pay greater attention to the details. Let's follow the trail on just the idea about a Board Committee.

First, when we eventually find mention of this idea (after reams of write-up about Ruffin and his 45 minute presentation), we see that the Board Committee is now being reduced to no more than a clearing house for owners to volunteer their services. Much like volunteering to bag groceries at the moment in Carrboro. Completely gone is any suggestion that owners will be driving the 2020 Vision process from here on in. No. Now we are reduced merely to bagging the corporate office's plans.

Curt had mentioned to me that one of the prime areas in which he saw eminent need for such a Board Committee was to design and then implement ways of monitoring progress with 2020 Vision.

Well, right at the beginning of the write-up of the Goal 2 Discussion, where Ruffin is waxing lyrical about all of his ideas, we see that he/his corporate office management team/Chac (the Mayan God of Rain and Lightning, who seemed curiously absent on December 21 ... but I digress)/whoever have already decided for we owners what metrics will be used to determine progress with Goal 2, and they all relate primarily to sales.

So? Well, you don't need a Board Committee of owners to monitor sales. And Ruffin knows that. But. Reminding ourselves of another of my ideas (or just peruse some of the other suggestions that other owners made), you do need the more lateral, anecdotal monitoring of owners to determine, for example, if WSM is meeting expectations with the stated suggestion of using all of WSM's stores to be living educational laboratories for local product. And Ruffin knows that, too.

The 'so' element is that any Goal 2 suggestions that might lend themselves to anecdotal monitoring by owners are being sidetracked. And the means of that monitoring, a Board Committee, putting owners in charge of an important aspect of THEIR co-op, namely what WSM will look like in ten years' time, is being downgraded, and replaced by metrics that require only Ruffin and his financial team to undertake the monitoring.

Bloody sigh.

What can we do? Well. Turn up at the next owners discussion meeting (Goal 3 - Build three new stores), to be held before the WSM Board Meeting, at 6.15 pm, on February 13, 2013, and ask what is going to happen to the proposed 2020 Board Committee of owners.

In the meantime, a shining beacon of self-empowerment in our co-op is this week reported in the employee Market Messenger. Some workers in the WSM Food House have formed a Sustainability Committee. They are planting fruit bushes, and have implemented their own recycling program.

We haven't even got to the Goal 4 Discussion on zero waste/zero net energy use by WSM, and workers in our Food House are taking the initiative on their own. Demonstrating what we stakeholders in our co-op can achieve when we are given the opportunity to empower ourselves to achieve our own objectives in our own co-op. Without interference from nanny corporate office. Well done. And thank you.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Larry Page, Google And Me ...

Three days out from the end of the world, and I'm finally beginning to achieve my four and a half minutes of fame.

If you Google 'Weaver Street,' Google now lists me. Well, it lists my co-op blog, 'Weaver Str
eet Geoff.'

Granted, sometimes you have to nudge it with 'Weaver Street G ...' But, I'm still ahead of 'Weaver Street' in Glasgow, and most importantly, 'Weaver Street Grocery.'

I'm just so all chest puffed out, I can barely see my feet. No. Hang on. That would be the seven chocolate eclairs ...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

2020 Vision Goal 2 Owners' Discussion

Last evening, a group of Weaver Street Market Co-operative owners, together with WSM Board members, had a truly enlightening discussion about the proposed Goal 2 of the WSM 2020 Vision - "Drive the growth of local and sustainable foods."

I'm not going to write at length about what other folks suggested. That's their thunder. And it will be appearing on notes of the conversation in due course on WSM's web-site.

I addressed two matters.

After listening to a genuinely exciting presentation from Ruffin Slater, backed up by Dr. John O'Sullivan, from the North Carolina Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, and some wonderful contributions from fellow owners, I did what sometimes I do, usefully or irritatingly, depending on your point of view!

I cut to the chase.

What we had heard from Ruffin was that no other retailer really does local. Organic, yes. That argument has been won. It was the niche of co-operatives for about 20 years. But not so much now. But local? No-one else seems to care. Ok. So. Let's make it our niche, I said.

I suggested that, if we were truly serious about spending the time and the money making local our niche. If we really wanted, in ten years' time, for folks to say, 'When I want local, I go to WSM.' Then we should turn each of our outlets into full-service, living educational laboratories for local.

No namby-pamby flirting around the edges,. The odd promo. Pretty labels for something lost on Aisle 4. No. Make the primary purpose of each of our outlets, backed up by the rest of our operation, to highlight all produce, meat, deli, hot bar, you name it, which is local.

Speaking as a card-carrying, if it ain't in a bag I don't eat it, bachelor, I pointed out that we should stop assuming that our customers and our workers instantly know why they should be buying local, how to do so, and/or when to do so.

Our outlets use vast amounts of room putting up pictures and end-gaps (or whatever those aisle-end boards are called) and displays, which look really cute. Let's substitute all of those with material promoting local. Explaining why. Directing people to what is seasonal. Ensure our new labels highlight everything local. And that accompanying displays are fully informative.

The issue was raised that folks have no problem buying local beer. I pointed out that each beer has oodles of info about where it is made, how and why it is a good buy. Why? Because folks take getting drunk seriously.

The reason there aren't labels the size of my fist all over local pears is because a lot of folks do not know why it is healthy to eat a pear, and why it is important to buy local pears. So, they don't take it seriously. Ok then. It should be up to WSM's educational and marketing machine to tell them.

Special offers and promo's should be geared to local. On a seasonal basis. All of which is regularly explained on our web-site, in The Beet, and in the newsletter, which we have, quite wrongly, reduced to no more than a coupon book.

This is what we should do - if we are serious.

Next up. Board Members spoke once more about being able sensibly to monitor the achievement of the Four Goals, proposed under WSM's 2020 Vision.

I made the point that we had just spent one and a half hours having an in-depth discussion about ideas for just one of the Goals. Every minute of that time had been usefully spent.

Again, if the Board are serious about monitoring progress with the Goals of 2020 Vision, I said that they should set up a standing Board Committee (or Committees), with the specific task of overseeing compliance by WSM with the Four Goals, reporting to the Board, and encouraging participation from owners and the community in the implementation of the Goals.

You will be delighted to know that no-one threw anything at me!

I also suggested that, as part of the educational program with local, but also to make money, WSM might want to consider adding a catering service to its repertoire.

In fact, as I stated at the end of the evening, my suggestion about getting fully invested in local wasn't just about altruism; it was also about grabbing for WSM a commercial niche, that it could then make its own. I still want my dividend at the end of the year!

Oh. And the pic about Fort Bragg? Well, John O'Sullivan had mentioned that even Fort Bragg, NC was interested in local. They produce 100,000 meals a day, and need to be concerned about food safety and security. So, I wondered out loud if we ought not to be building a WSM slap bang in the middle of Seal Team Six, Fort Bragg ... ??

Next discussion. Goal 3. "Invigorate downtowns." February 13, 2013.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Affordability, Viability and Purpose of WSM's Local Food Operation

This coming Wednesday, December 12, 2012, in the Carrboro Century Center, beginning at 6.15pm, there will be an open WSM owners' discussion on Goal 2 of WSM's preferred 2020 Vision.

WSM have also set up a Facebook Page, where owners and workers can make comment on the four Goals. I have already made comment on Goal 3 (at about #15), and posted some general commentary about this whole process on my WSM co-op blog.

Today, I posted a comment on the 2020 Vision Facebook Page on Goal 2, the one to be discussed this Wednesday. Again (funny thing life, innit?), it can be found at about #15. It is along the theme of the Subject Head above:

"The ambition of Goal 2 of WSM’s 2020 Vision is, in essence, to increase the sales of local and sustainable food, primarily through our own WSM outlets, and generally local food which has been processed in our own Food House in Hillsborough.

My comments below are set in the context of two themes which the WSM Board have stressed in their presentation of these Goals and in their commentary at the Goal 1 open session of owners:

I) Clear goals must be established, with clear processes also set in place to monitor the achievement of those goals.

II) The 2020 Vision process should be owner-driven, with the talents of our some 18,000 owners being tapped through the concept of CoOp-Sourcing.

My comments (some of these may overlap with Goal 1; but I was unable to attend the owners’ meeting on Goal 1 at such short notice):


The product of our local food operation is not cheap. I would invite WSM constantly to keep in mind the need for our co-op to be aware that one of our missions should be to ensure that local and sustainable food is within the reach of all in our communities, including those who work at WSM.


WSM can only “produce more local food ourselves” if our Food House can handle it.

I know from my own personal experience that we have the hardest-working, most dedicated and most inspired workers in all of the departments of our Food House. But they are not the ones who set the policy that governs the structure and processes of our Food House.

Before we can set new goals for WSM’s local food operation, it is necessary first to determine if those goals set for, during and after the last expansion, in 2007/2008, which resulted in the creation of the Food House, have been met.

At that time, we, in the outlets, were told that the Food House would result in better conditions for our production work-mates; more local food; better quality food; a greater range of food; better and more consistent packaging and presentation; and less need for food preparation in our outlet kitchens.

I would suggest that any working group established to oversee Goal 2, which working groups have been suggested by both WSM management and our Board, should CoOp-Source our owners to find folks with the skills to undertake, with the co-operation of the operations staff and management, a full financial and narrative audit of the Food House, to ascertain if the goals of the last expansion, as they relate to WSM’s local food operation, have been met.

Are there lessons to be learned from the manner in which the Food House operation was put together? Is the Food House operation more efficient and cost-effective than the food production effort that existed before? Is the Food House operation fully commercial and competitive with other food production efforts? We are regularly told that WSM currently produces 25% of the food which it sells. But that means nothing unless we also know what % of food sold before the Food House was built was produced by WSM.

We, in the outlets, were promised that our relationship with the Food House would be commercial, with the outlets treating the Food House as they would any other vendor. Is that the case?

We were told that the food provided to us would be competitively priced. Is that the case?

Are there areas which could be improved? If so, how?

Once we have an historical context, and are fully satisfied that the Food House is operating now in the most effective, commercial and competitive manner possible, in terms of the needs of its end users, then we should address what specific goals we need to be setting our Food House folks, and whether they feel and we feel those goals can be met, and how. And, in the process, establish systems by which owners can monitor the achievement of those goals.


This may seem a rather curious item. And may seem even more so as I progress.

For some, there is something of a veil of secrecy surrounding some of the machinations of our co-op. If the Goals of WSM’s 2020 Vision are to be successful, it is necessary for all of us to be open and transparent with each other. It is for that reason I welcome the 2020 Vision Facebook Page, allowing all of us to communicate freely.

In considering Goal 2, I think it important for owners to be clear in their minds whether WSM and its local food operation primarily serves the convenience of its consumers and workers or the needs, not least the seasonal fluctuations, of its producers.

I’m going to stick my neck out (and what I say is almost in direct contravention of point (2) above) and say that it took me about six years to work out that WSM’s local food operation does not exist to meet the demands of WSM’s end-users: its outlets, its workers and its consumers.

We are an operation, funded by consumers and workers, that was established to ensure the long-term viability of local farmers and food producers, by offering sustainable, successful and professional outlets, with a supporting food commissary.

I may not appreciate the rather undemocratic manner in which this operation was created over some 20 years. But, I do avidly support the concept.

However, Goal 2 is not going to work if we are not all in the same boat, all of us pulling in the same direction.

If there are those in our outlets who demand that the product of the Food House should meet their requirements, not the harvesting schedule of our local farmers (for example), then they need to be heard.

If there are consumers who want to say, um, I want the food I want, not the food that farmers can provide, then they need to be listened to.

Only when we have clear and established purpose, can we then proceed with setting targets under Goal 2.


Frankly, I have no idea what is meant by the phrase ‘We will mobilize community resources to achieve ambitious goals for local and sustainable food sales.’

If this means investing more of the money that WSM generates, then I trust that owners will only proceed if and when they have the active backing of the workers of WSM, since it is the workers who generate that extra money with the sweat of their brow.

I remain ambivalent about setting new ‘ambitious’ goals until we have achieved all of the ambitious goals we set for our local food production effort when we established the Food House.

If ‘community resources’ means more loans, then I will adamantly protest, until we have paid off all of the loans which were entertained when building the Food House - still some $6 million outstanding.

Of course, a natural extension of reviewing the goals we set for the Food House, along with considering targets under Goal 2, may be the creation of a formal business plan for the Food House.

Such a process, leading, as it should, to the entrenchment of the Food House as a sustainable, commercial and competitive enterprise within WSM, would lend itself to a situation where the Food House, of itself, could become an attractive vehicle for investment from sources other than WSM and its banks, and for sales from outlets other than WSM, both of which would, in turn, support the efforts of the committed folks within the Food House to improve and expand their operations and achieve the ambitions of Goal 2, specifically as they relate to WSM.

In the meantime, in this post on my WSM co-op blog, I have a tiny snip at some of the ... er .. non-local food we supply in WSM and the consequences.

You can find other less snippy, generally more helpful suggestions about how we can be a better co-op and a stronger business in other posts on the remainder of this blog ... "

Saturday, December 1, 2012

2022 Vision - More Open Owners' Sessions

Well. It turns out that my information about an open session for owners to discuss WSM's 2022 Vision, and its four goals, was correct.

And, to their credit, the Board of WSM are now going to extend those sessions, over the next few Board Meetings, so as to have one session before each Board Meeting, to cover each of the four goals, which goals can
be found on Page 4 of WSM's last Annual Report.

I would still prefer that the business of setting strategy in a co-op, which, by definition, is supposed to be democratically controlled by its owners, was being driven by its owners, rather than its corporate office management team.

But, some democracy is better than none. And it's only 'some' democracy if we take part.

Board Meetings are held generally held on the third Wednesday of each month (except January) in the conference room above Panzanella restaurant in Carrboro. The open sessions will begin at 6.00pm.

I'm not entirely sure what the precise schedule is going to be for the remaining sessions. But, you can confirm by writing to:

I wasn't able to attend the first session. I learned of the session one day before it was being held. And had other plans. But I will be attending the remaining three.

It is no secret that I have a pretty dim view of the efforts of our Board to promote democracy in our co-op. Er ... one day's notice? I know I'm not the only owner who thinks this. The only way to change it is to turn up.

And don't feel restricted by what you want to discuss. The Board and the corporate office management team are the servants of the co-op, not its masters.

Nothing is set in stone, until we say it is. If you want different goals, say so. If you want different matters to be addressed by the suggested goals, say so. If you missed a session, and still want to talk about another goal, well, this is your co-op, say so.

At the next session, I, for one, will be wondering why we have to be holding these discussions in a manner that is guided by the Board and the corporate office management team, and why, for example, we can not have our own discussion groups, where we owners are the ones setting the agenda for the next ten years of our co-op.

I will be wondering why we need to be planning to make WSM ever larger and more complex, when, perhaps, we should be focusing our time, energy and money on getting the last expansion right.

I will be wondering if, perhaps, we might not become a more intimate co-op once again, if, over the next ten years, we thought about becoming a loose association of stand-alone co-op's, interacting democratically with other organizations of similar intent, rather than perpetuating an increasingly remote 'empire.'

But. Those are my thoughts. They aren't the only ones floating around the co-op. And they are by no means the best. This co-op belongs to all of us. Let's turn up to these open sessions, and remind ourselves of that fact.