Monday, 14 January 2013
River Village Co-op Market
After our visit to Pine River Cheese, we had another destination in mind, this time in Teeswater. Teeswater is a small town of about 1200 people, set in a pretty, shallow valley, and with a nice old yellow brick main street. It's about 15 kilometres north of Wingham, and about 25 kilometres southwest of Walkerton. We were actually very tempted to move there when we were first looking for a house to buy, but we decided we needed to be closer to family.
One of the things that makes it rather unusual is that it is home to no fewer than 4 co-operative ventures (not including Pine River, which isn't in Teeswater.) There's the Huron Bay Co-operative, which is a farmers supply store chain, there's a Gaylea plant, which is a farmer's dairy co-operative, there's the Ontario Dairy Goat Co-operative, and finally, there's the River Village Co-op Market, which is where we visited.
River Village Co-op Market looks like a fairly typical small-town grocery store on the edge of the main downtown strip. That is in fact what it started out as, and what it basically is today. It's just that now it is owned by the co-op members in Teeswater and surrounding area.
We met with Doug Trenter, the manager, who gave us a tour and answered our questions. He's one of about 20 staff at the store, three-quarters of them part-time. Work shifts are not a requirement of membership in the Co-op, but some members do volunteer to come in to help stock shelves and clean.
Doug mentioned that their delivery truck had arrived very much behind schedule the day before, so they were a bit behind on getting the shelves stocked. I didn't really notice it walking around, but I do see it in the photos!
We were there at a very quiet time of day, but it wasn't quite as deserted as it looks in the photos. Teeswaterians seem a bit photo-shy! The products look like typical grocery store offerings, and mostly they are. The Co-op has access to the same supplier used by Sobey's and Foodlands markets, and they compare prices in the grocery stores in other local towns to make sure theirs are comparable.
At about 5,000 square feet, it's more modest grocery store than those in the larger nearby towns, but it's big enough to carry all the basics and more.
In early 2006 the grocery store in Teeswater closed, meaning that any grocery shopping then had to be done in either Wingham or Walkerton. The local residents got together and formed the co-op to buy the store, which they re-opened in April, 2007. Why are Teeswaterites so keen on co-ops? Nobody could answer this question for me, but perhaps it's just the power of example. When you see other groups doing it, the idea that you can do it too doesn't seem too far-fetched.
Since we were there before Christmas, there was a large selection of chocolates and cookies from a local chocolatier, Sweets 'N Treats.
Like most groceries, it has a bakery and deli area. Theirs also offers pizza and subs from Bell's, a local pizzeria.
By chance, one of the members of the Co-op's board was doing some shopping while we were having our tour. Gail Britton told us a bit more about the forming of the co-op. About 350 people each paid $1000 to become members and form the co-op. When you consider the size of the town, that's an amazing proportion of the local families who have bought into the co-op. Still, there are no real benefits to being a member, other than the benefit of still having a grocery store in town. In theory, members receive a share of profits, but there have not been any profits so far, although the store has done well enough to continue. In many ways, it's been a difficult struggle to keep the market going; it takes a lot of volunteer labour and there is a lot of complex paperwork involved in being a co-op.
You can read more about the River Village Co-op at the Newfoundland and Labrador Regional Economic Development Association site (no kiddin').
While in many ways the River Village Market is a typical small-town grocery, they do have one advantage over chain groceries: they are not committed to getting their products from one or two suppliers only. Consequently, they are able to sell locally produced items whenever it's feasible, and they do so as a way of distinguishing themselves from the larger groceries in the nearby towns, and as a way of connecting more strongly with the local community. (By the way, check out Teeswater's on-line newspaper.)
We were visiting late in the season so the local produce on hand was mostly root vegetables, but the co-op started getting produce from Bruce-Huron Produce Auctions this summer. Local tastes tend to be conservative, but apparently purple peppers were a surprise hit when they were in season. Local strawberries are a huge seller in season. Dairy products come from a local distributor, and it looked like about half their cheese came from Pine River Cheese. There's honey from Fear's, a local apiary, and jams and preserves from a local Mennonite company. (There are many Mennonites in the area - the parking lot includes an area for horses and buggies.) They get a lot of meat from Greens Meat Market in Wingham.
One very popular local item is Chapman's Ice Cream, made in Markdale. It's so popular that River Village Co-op doesn't even bother to carry any other brand of ice cream. (Gotta admit, I'm a Chapman's fan myself!)
It's not easy being a grocery store in a very small town - several previous owners decided it wasn't worth their while, after all; but River Village Co-op Market shows what can be done by a determined and organized community. I have to admit to being a little envious, and wish we had something like this nearby.