The Basics Cooperative Natural Foods grocery store looks like any other grocery store at first glance. There’s the produce section, the sushi bar and the impulse candy and snacks right there at the register.
But it takes only a few seconds at the Janesville, Wis.-based store to notice that Basics isn’t just like any other grocery store.
The produce is 99% organic, the sushi bar features only all-natural ingredients, and the impulse candy and snacks by the register? Well, there are organic Sjaak’s chocolates, Sunspire almond butter cups, and locally produced Birdman’s pheasant snack sticks.
As you wander around, you’ll also find local artist Allegrea Rosenberg painting a mural in the community room, a bulletin board full of local resources and a huge solar panel out front.
Basics officially started in 1977, with the goal to sell natural and organic products. However, it was only in 2005 that it officially became a cooperative, or co-op.
Since doing so, the store seems to have found its way. As a result, Basics moved to its current 15,000 sq.-ft. location in 2008.
In the last seven years, 3,000 member households have signed on, and, because of the co-operative designation, all of them are technically owners of the store.
How does a co-op work?
To join Basics, shoppers pay $150 for a lifetime membership, but the cost can be spread out into $30 yearly payments for five years.
While it’s not a requirement to be a member, it does come with quite a set of perks. They get an across-the-board discount of 5% off all marked prices as well as other special deals throughout the year, while all seniors who are also owners get a 10% discount.
But it’s not just about saving money. They also get to vote for the board members, who then chose the general manager. They also have a say in which non-profits the co-op supports and they even have in voice in which products the store stocks.
“We’re not a club store, it’s not just a savings card,” explains Amber Vaughn, a member of the store’s management team. “There’s a feeling of democratic control. There’s something about feeling like their voice is heard. [Even] most of the employees are owners, so they’re not just ‘working for the man.’”
Vaughn explains that all co-ops attempt to follow seven principles: Voluntary, open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education; training and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for the community.
And those principles are prominently displayed in black paint above the exit doors at Basics.
The store is not run for profit and when they do make extra money, they pay it back to owners as a dividend. Since turning into a co-op in 2005, they have paid back a dividend once, which Vaughn says is a good sign for a young co-op.
“It’s not that we’re trying to make a profit,” Vaughn says. “We’re all in this together.”
Vaughn started working on the store about six and a half years ago as a cashier while she was in college. Now a member of the management team, she says she loves her job — but not for the reasons you might guess for someone who works at a natural food store.
“I was drawn to the co-op by the Fair Trade, the democratic principles, paying a living wage to local farmers... the bigger picture,” Vaugh says.
She even confesses to craving Big Macs once in awhile, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t love the pheasant sticks and carob candies. During her time at Basic’s she’s come to appreciate how important it is to eat natural and organic foods.
“By no means am I perfect,” she says. “But the more you learn, the more you make it a priority.”
The sweet side:
And , just because Basics stocks natural and organic food, doesn’t mean it lacks a well-stocked candy aisle.
Of course, it’s stocked with RJ’s soft eating licorice instead of Twizzlers; certified organic Eli’s Earth Bars instead of Snicker’s and Strength Island Fruit Co. all-natural fruit strips instead of Starbursts.
While net candy sales at Basics for 2011 were almost $36,000, or about 1% of total net sales, the figure doesn’t include the wide variety of protein, fruit and nut bars.
Vaughn says they serve a lot of vegan customers, who love their selection of candies made with carob — a dairy-free alternative to milk chocolate — as well as their gelatin-free gummies.
They also carry a range of gluten-free candy and snacks, candied ginger, and a lot of dark chocolate — which customers seek out because of the antioxidants it contains.
The shelves in the candy aisle are lined with well-known natural, organic and specialty brands such as Green & Black, Newman’s Own, Cliff, Dream, Theo, Endangered Species Chocolate and Divine.
“It’s more fun than ever,” Vaughn says of the candy section.
The fact that there are so many options is a testament to the growing popularity of such products. And, there’s a domino effect that occurs when brands see other companies finding success in the niche and attempt their own specialty lines, Vaughn says.
“No doubt, it is growing or we wouldn’t have moved to this location in the middle of a recession,” she says. “It’s very inspiring.”
Meanwhile, they also carry a variety of bulk candies, such as chocolate raisins, raspberry pretzels and organic gummy bears. And, they stock a wide selection of bulk nuts, such as butter toffee almonds, dry roasted soybeans and toasted coconut almonds.
All the products in the candy aisle have one thing in common though — they carry at least one of the following distinctions: organic, natural, Fair Trade, vegan or gluten-free.
While terms such as “organic” and “Fair Trade” are monitored by outside agencies, the other big one, “natural,” is more of a gray area.
Vaughn admits they’d have a pretty limited selection if they took natural to the extreme when choosing what to sell.
“We wouldn’t even carry flour or refined oils,” she said, adding that they try to stock everything an average consumer would want to buy at a regular grocery store so customers don’t have to make multiple stops around town to do their weekly shopping. For example, they carry canned soups and frozen dinners.
“We’re meeting the co-op owners’ demands,” Vaughn says. “If we can have everything, they would prefer that.”
So, they have to make judgment calls on a regular basis and they rely on a list of additives that says whether or not each one meets natural foods standards.
For example, saccharin is listed as a sweetener that’s “unacceptable,” fructose is listed as a sweetener that’s “okay, but not preferred”, while barley malt is listed as a sweetener that’s “okay.”
“Most of the time, if we don’t know the word, it’s something artificial and we can’t carry it,” Vaughn says.
Keeping costs competitive
While the store tries to keep its prices competitive, Vaugh admits that sometimes organic and natural foods can cost more. But she says there are ways to make it more budget friendly, such as shopping in the bulk section and eating produce that’s in season.
“Americans have gotten so use to, ‘I want what I want, when I want it,’” Vaughn says. “But plan your own menu on what’s being harvested. Instead of apples from New Zealand, choose grapes from California or eat local watermelon.”
Basics doesn’t have much trouble convincing local residents of that. In Janesville, people have a special place in their heart for buying local. The town was devastated after GM closed its factory there in 2009, Vaughn says.
“It’s something that really hits home,” she adds. “People shop local to keep those businesses around.”
“Local” is admittedly a vague term, though. At Basics they define it as any product from Wisconsin or any state that touches Wisconsin. Despite the expanse such an area covers, most of the co-op’s 125 local products actually come from manufacturers or farmers within 100 miles of the store.
In addition, the company’s providing local shoppers with products that satisfy their sweet tooth, be it bulk, name brand or impulse items. That, of course, is a basic right.
Basics Cooperative Natural Foods
Store location: 1711 Lodge Dr., Janesville, Wis.
Staff: 10 full-time, and 30 part-time.
Annual sales: $3 million