State College

Friends and Farmers Co-op eyes storefront location

Melanie Rosenberger hands Chip Mefford a bag of food to be delivered by bicycle during the Friends and Farmers Cooperative Online Market’s Bike Delivery Day in May. The co-op is looking to establish a brick-and-mortar store.
Melanie Rosenberger hands Chip Mefford a bag of food to be delivered by bicycle during the Friends and Farmers Cooperative Online Market’s Bike Delivery Day in May. The co-op is looking to establish a brick-and-mortar store. nmark@centredaily.com

The typical timeline for corn to go from seed to harvest is about 120 days, according to experts. It will take longer for a State College organization’s dream to take root.

The Friends and Farmers Cooperative, which helps make local food more accessible in Centre County, is eying a brick-and-mortar location in the vein of Trader Joe’s. Talks percolated during the summer, said Melanie Rosenberger, the co-op’s market manager, but progress still depends on growing membership and community involvement. The organization needs 800 members to start looking at leases and loans.

Currently, it has about 480.

“We still have a ways to go with our membership before we can start to look at the loans necessary for making that jump to a physical location,” Rosenberger said. “Because that’s a pretty large investment.”

According to a study by CDS Consulting Co-op, which supports other member-driven co-ops, State College is a comparable market to others that have successfully integrated local food cooperatives into their communities. Friends and Farmers acquired a $10,000 grant that helped to fund the study. CDS suggested a 10,000-square-foot store with 6,250-square-feet of retail space.

For Friends and Farmers, growth has come quickly. The co-op incorporated in early 2013, launched an online market in 2014 and secured a $92,000 Department of Agriculture grant in 2015. The online market sold more than $97,500 of food during its first year of operation in 2015. According to a financial report by the organization, it was set to gross monthly sales about 50 percent higher in 2016.

But membership has been slower to keep up. After adding more than 70 members in the eight months prior, growth slowed over the summer. The co-op will need to average nearly 27 members a month for a year to reach its 800-member goal — a pace about three times its current average.

That may change as the seasons turn. Rosenberger said fall and winter typically are the busiest times of the year. The Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, for instance, tend to be the co-op’s largest weeks for sales.

“A lot of the local (community-supported agriculture shares) and a lot of the farmers’ markets are winding down,” Rosenberger said. “So this becomes sort of the option for people who want to support local foods during the winter.”

To better reach members, the co-op has kept innovating. In May, it introduced a bike-delivery option for deliveries, and the board has discussed expanding the program to Penn State’s campus and the surrounding towns. But with baskets of corn, squash and pumpkin — plumper options from the lighter greens of summer — bike deliveries have trailed off.

“The orders are just too heavy,” Rosenberger said, laughing.

Yet with the change of seasons, service may rev up again. The same could be said for the co-op’s dream of a hub where locally grown produce can be found year-round.

Rosenberger, who is stepping down after a successful tenure, said the co-op plans to hire a general manager to oversee development besides everyday operations. A membership meeting is planned for Nov. 5 from 4 to 6:30 p.m. at the State College Friends School, where the group will hold elections for its board of directors, present updates on its initiatives and hold a barter fair. While only members can vote in the elections, the meeting is open to the community.

Rosenberger hopes meetings like these bring the dream closer to reality.

“I’m really excited for what is going to happen in the future with supporting local foods and our local economy,” she said.

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy

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