An anti-business business thrives in a tough economy

At first, it might seem a bit surprising that a booming mid-Michigan business that grew 20 percent in the first quarter of 2010 is run by self-described "non-business people."

GreenTree Cooperative Grocery, a small specialty grocery store tucked among brambles of black-eyed Susans on Franklin Street in downtown Mount Pleasant, has an innovative business philosophy that has helped the store hold its own against big grocers like Meijer, Kroger, and Walmart for 40 years.

Compared to those stores, GreenTree is sort of the anti-corporation, modeled after other cooperatives like credit unions and utility co-ops, which allow their customers to own a piece of the business and exercise voting privileges over their operations.

"This is going to sound like we're business people, but I think we've really learned how to position ourselves," says Liz Busch, GreenTree's outreach manager and produce buyer. "We're people with diverse experiences who bring new eyes and a voice to something we're passionate about. We've become a successful business without being successful business people."

After changing to a membership model that allows the co-op to better budget from year to year (member-owners now purchase a $210 "share" in the business and are eligible for rebates at the end of the year), GreenTree's sales grew 5 percent last year and are already exceeding expectations for this year. More than 700 households have become GreenTree "shareholders."

Busch says if the business continues to grow at the current rate, GreenTree will outgrow its current space within the next five years.

A greener future

Though the business is thriving, Busch says they continue to battle the outdated notion that GreenTree is a "hippie grocery store."

A college student who wanted to create a buying club for local produce started GreenTree in 1970. Members used to meet in an alleyway and distribute goods among themselves. Since that time, the co-op has matured into a full-fledged grocery store, often surprising people who haven't visited the Franklin Street location in a few years.

People who make their way through the co-op's door are often surprised to find a brightly arranged store filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, a selection of Michigan wines, and organic meats and cheeses -- all the requirements for a gourmet meal.

"It looks like a bustling New York City foodie grocery store," Busch says. And new converts are made each day, with people driving from as far away as Saginaw and Alma.

To keep spreading the word, GreenTree is doing more with social media like Facebook and participating in more community outreach events.

'Stronger together'

The real success of GreenTree, employees say, lies in the zeal of the store's customers combined with efforts to reach out to the community in new ways and form partnerships with other local organizations.

As people become more health-conscious and locally aware, they are seeking alternatives to processed foods. For example, many customers with special dietary needs like gluten-free products, find their way to GreenTree, Busch says.

Adding to this growing consciousness are the several "eat local" and "buy local" movements that have sprouted up in the past few years. GreenTree and other cooperative grocers across the nation are in an excellent position to offer customers locally grown and produced goods. A campaign launched by the National Cooperative Grocers Association, called "Stronger Together" will debut later this year to inspire more people buy locally.

Sixty to 75 percent of all the produce at GreenTree comes from within 100 miles of the store, Busch says. GreenTree partners with six to 15 farms every year to buy local products -- from eggs to cabbage to maple syrup.

"Farmers are a really great group of people," Busch says. "We have farmers ranging in experience level from Amish farmers growing heirloom seeds they've saved for 100 years to small urban backyard farmers."

Mount Pleasant businesses are also becoming key partners. The Brass Café & Saloon, a downtown restaurant that typically features locally grown ingredients on the menu, sells sandwiches and other "grab-and-go" items at GreenTree.

"That's kind of the idea," Busch says. "We speak louder together."

The lowdown on GreenTree membership

People have the option to own a share in GreenTree for $210, or $30 per year for seven years. But anyone can shop at the store -- it's not restricted to member-owners.

By buying a share, owners are eligible for a patronage rebate at the end of the year, which is voted on by GreenTree's board of directors. Last year the rebate was 1 percent of all sales.

Owners are also eligible for special discounts and events throughout the year. Shares are also refundable, in the event that owners move away or simply wish to discontinue their membership.

Photos:

GreenTree Cooperative Grocery manager Mari Potter stands among several of the organic choices in the Mount Pleasant store.

Sandy Bay, of Farwell, makes a selection from the locally grown produce offered at the store.

Many of the fresh items at the store -- like this spring mix -- carry "local" stickers to earmark foods that are grown or produced in the area.

Angie Felton, of Mount Pleasant, says she shops at the GreenTree Cooperative Grocery almost daily.

The store tries to support Michigan agriculture whenever possible. This Michigan honey will catch a shopper's eye as it sits atop a Michigan vendor label.

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