Kalamazoo People's Food Co-op builds green into its future

The fire alarm blares as it's tested one more time.

Around the corner, the plumbing contractor checks the list of items in anticipation of an inspector's visit the next day.

Workers all over the building are looking over lists and making final adjustments to the building with the walls of eggplant purple and olive green that identify this as Kalamazoo People's Food Co-op. With the May 31 opening of the store's new location just days away there's a lot of activity at 507 Harrison.

They were working get the store up and running, so that about 20 people sent from co-ops from across the region sent to help stock the shelves could get to work. They also will stay on to help with the anticipated initial push as customers come to check out the new building and its offerings. The support means the co-op won't have to hire staff it won't need after business returns to normal.

People's Co-op broke ground in October 2010 and construction on the $1.7 million project has proceeded steadily since then. The 6,360-square-foot store is four times the size of the former location.

At the front entrance, General Manager Chris Dilley, who has coordinated the planning for the new building from site selection to meeting with architects and builders, points to the spot where an 8-foot panel carved and etched by Kalamazoo artist Lad Hanka will be displayed.

From there, the tour of the building combines descriptions of what's bigger, what's greener and what are entirely new features in the store that's to be the new home of the co-op that's been in the same downtown location for 33 years.

Three check-outs will be available for busy times, instead of two at the current location. Rather than one section of a small salad bar, the new store features a full hot and cold bar. Patrons can take their meal and sit at the bar and stools by the front window that overlook the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail or to tables outside during good weather.

With 784 square feet devoted to retail space, the store will be able to offer not only the natural and organic foods that members and other customers have come to expect, so people don't have to go to a second store to complete their shopping.

Some of the most unique aspects of the building won't be visible to shoppers. They have to do with green features built into the new store. For example, the store uses energy-efficient display coolers, walk-in coolers, and freezers that incorporate a rack system with four condensers in series.

That means, depending how long cooler doors are open, it's possible that only one compressor will run for all 14 units, creating a substantial energy savings. The co-op expects to use about 30 percent less energy compared to that needed by a conventional cooling system by employing the rack system.

Further savings are expected to be realized because the system installed also captures waste heat that in turn will be used to heat up to 1,200 gallons of water a day. "We'll spend zero dollars on natural gas for heating water for the building," Dilley says.

The retail area is lit in large part by solar lighting tubes. These cylindrical light harvesting devices collect daylight and then reflect it below to a diffuser. The light provided reduces the need for electric lighting.

Building a store that's four times bigger than the current location is quite a leap.

For an existing store to double its size would be a natural move for a store to make, Dilley says, but as they investigated the matter they found doubling its space would not create a store big enough, considering the interest in the type of specialty items stores like the co-op are seeing.

"There's a resurgence of food co-ops across the country," Dilley says. "As we considered this move, what we found was that stores being built today don't start this small. When you have a small store, you compel people to go to another place. We wanted to be more of a full service grocery."

The National Cooperative Grocers Association reports that sales in the natural, organic and green categories, which were growing in excess of 20 percent annually not that long ago came in at an average of 5 percent in 2010. The Association considers that still a respectable showing, given that overall food sales are expanding at just over 1 percent.

Locally, the co-op has well exceed that pace. Its growth was 20 percent in 2007 when compared to 2006. Growth was almost 10 percent in 2008 compared to the previous year, 5.6 percent in 2009 and 9.8 percent in 2010.

Clearly, a bigger location was in order.

"We found the sweet spot that was on the edge of where we were comfortable from a funding standpoint, still doable and that would allow us to expand in five to eight years instead of two to three," Dilley says. "It's exciting. It feels good."

Others are enthusiastic about the co-op's new location, too. "It's a wonderful fit," says Martha Aills, from the City of Kalamazoo's economic development department.

With its green ideals and commitment to drawing people to an area of the city that officials are working to turn around, the co-op complements efforts under way there. The co-op will be the fourth business in the area to have a food focus. And the Can-Do Kitchen, the incubator for food businesses that will be housed in the new building, could eventually provide employment opportunities, Aills says.

As it built its new store, the co-op has been building its member base as well. At last count, the co-op had 1,093 owners, up from 734 at the beginning of 2010. Co-ops are member-owned, member-governed businesses that operate for the members' benefit.

"Benefiting people, the land and the economy in a way that's healthy for the planet is built into our ethos," Dilley says. "When you build a building it sets the stage for so much more opportunity."

The desire to build as efficiently as possible drove Dilley to examine the requirements for LEED certification and see if there were ways to exceed them. LEED is recognized as having the highest standards for green building design and construction. He drafted a list of green features and presented it to the board. Some proved to be too aggressive, but Dilley says he's pleased with the green features that ultimately were built into the project.

"Now we'll see how it performs," Dilley says. General Contractors Miller-Davis and Eckert Wordell Architects helped identify which green aspects of the plans made the most sense. Miller-Davis also was conscious of the co-op's desire to keep the amount of construction waste diverted to the landfill low and worked to make that happen, Dilley says.

Attention also went into the building's exterior and landscaping. To reduce the heat sink affect, reflective material was used on the roof and cement outdoors was lightened. Building materials made of recycled materials were used whenever practical.

Landscaping planted by volunteers and members of the local Wild Ones, a group dedicated to promoting native plants and natural landscaping, includes more than 50 different wildflowers, grasses and sedge.  

"We've planned the landscaping to produce nectar and pollen for the entire growing season, with seeds and fruits for every season," says Tom Small, of Wild Ones.

A rain garden to help to retain and channel stormwater is found along the rear of the site.

And two bike racks made of old bike parts, built by Open Roads, a local program that uses bikes to teach youth social skills, will provide plenty of space for those who ride to the store.

The 100-mile Farmers Market, a tradition for the co-op in its previous location, will continue to be offered. It resumes June 15 under the trees between the new co-op and McKenzie's Bakery.

As the tour wraps up outside, a longtime friend, one who has been active in the co-op's work over the years approaches.

"What do you think?" Dilley asks. The positive response came in one word:

"Breathtaking."  

Kathy Jennings, editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave, is a freelance editor and writer in Kalamazoo.

Photos by Erik Holladay.


General Manager of the new People's Food Co-Op Chris Dilley.

Chris Dilley stands in front of the new People's Food Co-Op which plans on opening its doors May 31, 2011.

The interior of the store is lit by skylights that collect sunlight and magnify it to make a brighter light.

The new People's Food Co-Op will feature a new expanded deli.

The new People's Food Co-Op located at 507 Harrison Street near downtown Kalamazoo.
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