Inside perspective on the Troy Food Co-op's struggle to survive

troy food coop now open sign

"Undoubtedly, board and owners patted themselves on the back for a job well done when we should have scrambled as if the fate of the co-op depended on it."

By Mike Avent

soapbox badgeThis past Sunday on the Soapbox, Leah offered suggestions to the struggling Troy Food Co-op -- and used the market's situation to look at the broader issue of gentrification in Troy. Her post prompted a lot of discussion, some of it pointed. Here's a response from one of the co-op's board members.

My name is Mike, and I have been a board member of the Troy Co-op for about 6 weeks. I write to explain our situation and ask for help. Frankly, we need all the help we can get.

There is a misconception that the co-op has narrowly averted a series of catastrophes since opening, and that the latest email represents another bullet to dodge. The reality is that the co-op has never been on firm footing. In some ways, every day we've been open has been a minor miracle. I believe we opened the co-op with the minimum amount of capital needed to get the doors open. We have been in a slow moving crisis ever since. Undoubtedly, board and owners patted themselves on the back for a job well done when we should have scrambled as if the fate of the co-op depended on it.

We're not out of time yet, but there is no margin for error.

We opened with higher debt levels, and lower equity investment than the typical co-op. The badgering of owners for money, which I equate to institutional panhandling, has been an unsuccessful attempt to remedy the equity shortfall.

I don't want to spend much time talking about everything that's lead us to this point. I think everyone involved recognizes there have been mistakes. I'm not here to throw anyone under the bus. There's plenty of blame to go around. It's important for anyone who wants to get involved to know where we are right now.

Of course we're not perfect, and we can always be better when it comes to outreach, but I live in downtown Troy, and the last time I checked my home is neither ivory nor tower. I know who my neighbors are and want to do everything I can to get their business.

You wouldn't know it from hearing people talk, but the co-op has accepted SNAP (Supplement Nutritional Assistance Program; AKA "food stamps") since shortly after we opened. The co-op is very pro-SNAP. Our SNAP sales are one of our most reliable revenue streams. Everyone involved would love to see those numbers increased. Another of our most reliably performing departments has been the prepared foods section, which includes the hot foods and our deli sandwiches. These sales are indicative of our efforts to appeal to the residents of downtown Troy.

Of course we're not perfect, and we can always be better when it comes to outreach, but I live in downtown Troy, and the last time I checked my home is neither ivory nor tower. I know who my neighbors are and want to do everything I can to get their business.

Accordingly, the co-op has reduced our prices where we could, has carried more generic brand items, and has expanded our prepared foods section. Unfortunately, we will never be able to match the prices or variety of Hannaford or Price Chopper, and for those on a tight budget that alone may be enough to preclude the co-op as a shopping destination.

The reality is we have attempted to appeal to our neighbors while maintaining enough specialty goods to draw those who want a "normal" co-op experience. Such a balance has proven to be extremely difficult in a 4,000 square foot space. This identity crisis pops up in every meeting we hold, and every blog post about the co-op. Some claim we haven't done enough to engage the community, others say we haven't done enough to be a true "co-op." It's something the board has never stopped wrestling with, and probably never will. I believe this will be one of the major discussion points at our August 2 owner's meeting.

As mentioned in the letter to the owners, we are applying for WIC. Applying for WIC is neither a simple nor quick process. We have been in discussions with various public minded entities regarding our eligibility and what we need to change to qualify for the program. I spent an afternoon walking the store with a checklist to determine the eligibility of the products the co-op currently stock. I and other board members have spent hours working on application papers. After the application, on-going training and compliance efforts are required. It's quite a bit of work, and our research shows that at best WIC is a break-even proposition. I believe we should have been offering WIC since day 1 to better serve our neighbors. We want people in the doors as frequently as possible. We are trying to make it right as quickly as we can. However, it is unlikely that we will receive a significant boost to the bottom line due to WIC participation.

The 10 percent discount program only served to increase the rate of our losses. Complaining that it is gone is complaining that the co-op will remain open. I am of the belief that it should have been ended months ago. I think it has convinced the board and the staff that a single 4,000 square foot store cannot compete on price against chains with dozens of 40,000-square-foot stores.

We have worked with Cornell Co-operative Extension, and regularly donate food to St. Joseph's House and other charities rather than throw it away. The simple fact is that while it might be good karma to do those things, our suppliers and lenders don't accept payments in karma. (If you know of any who do, please have them get in touch with me.)

Our staff has been cut to the bone. The man we hired to be our general manager is long gone. Many of the employees hired with particular roles have become generalists by necessity. When an employee leaves, the money saved has typically been rolled into our budget to fund the continued operating losses. We have cannibalized ourselves. Our current general manager, Bruce has done a heroic job juggling the half dozen hats he's been left with. For all the failings of the co-op, it's been an absolutely superhuman effort on the staff's part. It's also important to recognize that the staff depends on this business for their livelihood.

Not to sound ungrateful, but we need far fewer suggestions that start with "You should..." and far more suggestions that start with "I will..."

The board of directors has been gouged right along with the staff. We are volunteers, most of us working stiffs just like anybody else. Part of the board decided not to return when their term was up in June; they were replaced in the election in which I was elected. Since I became a board member in the middle of June, three additional board members have resigned and their seats are now vacant. I won't ascribe motives to any of them; their reasons are their own. Of course I wish we had more people, but I don't begrudge anyone for moving on. Running even a successful business is stressful.

We simply don't have the manpower to do the things we need to do. The board doesn't have the time or know-how to run a market on our own. Our staff is doing their best, but lucky to be keeping their head above water as more responsibility has been shuffled onto fewer and fewer people. We need talented and experienced grocers. It is to our collective discredit that it has come to this.

We also need new board members. Don't expect thanks, perks, or compensation; do expect high stress, long meetings, homework to take home, and the occasional demonization as a clueless elitist. If that sounds like your cup of tea, please drop me a line at mike.avent@gmail.com.

Not to sound ungrateful, but we need far fewer suggestions that start with "You should..." and far more suggestions that start with "I will..."

The only way we turn this thing around is with our owners and other interested members of the general public. They are our last ace in the hole. If we don't all pitch-in in a big way, there is no cavalry coming over the hill to save us. While last week's email was first and foremost a cry for help, it was also to make sure that everyone is aware of the kind of trouble we are in. If the worst occurs, we don't want anyone to say they didn't know the severity of the situation when the doors are closed for the last time.

Until that day comes the board and the staff will be doing our best to turn this thing around. You are most welcome to join us.

We will be holding a meeting on 7pm on August 2nd at Christ Church Methodist, 35 State Street in Troy.

In addition to serving on the board of the Troy Food Co-op, Mike Avent is a corporate attorney at Nixon Peabody LLP in Albany with a focus on venture capital.

Comments

Pointing back to Leah's post:

I would like to suggest this: creating a better, safer Troy doesn't mean ignoring the needs of a population that has lived there for generations, whether they share your social class, your values, or not. A better, safer Troy means a better life for its existing population.

Not to reignite that discussion, but she is absolutely 100% correct in this assertion. There is this strange, misguided idea that simply having businesses that are higher end in a neighborhood will or even should force out the poorer element. The idea isn't that they want to force them out, per se, but that they think somehow it will magically just make people richer? I don't know, and I don't get it, because it's an approach that, economically and culturally, is completely backwards. You have to develop a culture first that will support the business, not the other way around.

The bottom line is this: co-op board owners are wrestling with issues and trying to find a balance, and that in and of itself is the entire problem. You're either a high-end co-op with more expensive organic/natural items or you're serving the needs of the community by providing an alternative to PC and Hannaford that they can afford. You can't have it both ways. If you're looking to get out of towners you're SOL, because there's already competition in Honest Weight and other places that already do it and do it better. If you can't go in the other direction and run a store that provides competitive prices, then you can't stay in business, bottom line.

That's not meant to be dismissive or rude. That's just what business is and how it works.

The reason the discussion in that other thread got out of hand so quickly is that it begins on a ridiculous assertion: that the Pioneer Market somehow deserves to exist and that we should do what we can to keep it open no matter what the cost or how proposterous the suggestions may seem. Yes, it'd be nice to have a higher-end organic grocery store that was also affordable to the people that live in Troy, but that is literally impossible, like saying you want to lose weight on a diet of chocolate cake and ice cream.

Please don't take this the wrong way, but there's no gentle way to tell a failing business that it's failing.

It was said the suggestions should be "I will" rather than "I should." Well, how about I will shop at your store, but first you should give me a reason to rather than a guilt trip. How about I will take a vested interest in this place, but you should give me a valid reason. I will spend my money, but you should make it affordable. I will give you a chance, but the Board should not wave a balance sheet whilst crying "unfair!" and still expect the general public to hold them in some esteem.

I will wish you the best, but you should face the reality that despite the structure, business is business and fault always has to land with the people in charge of the business, not with the customers...or lack thereof.

Kevin,

I don't think we deserve to exist. I think we should have never opened. I think we have been extremely poorly run, and feel bad for losing peoples money. I'm a free-market kind of guy. I'm a a small "l" libertarian for christ's sake. All we're doing is giving our 1,000 Owners a last chance to save us. That's it. After that it's turn out the lights the party's over.

this is the madness of this discussion. Everyone who's not involved thinks (1) they can ascribe these white guilt paternalistic, elitist motives to the Co-op, and the board, and (2) they're telling us things we don't already know.

We know we're failing, we know we can't have it both ways..we know we can't compete with PC and Hannaford....in fact I pretty much say exactly all of those things in my post. I have lived this crap, you're telling me absolutely nothing i haven't done and thought 100 times before.

What does "Facing the fact" of our failure entail? Not send out an email, not do everything I can to rally my 1,000 OWNERS, the people who literally own the business? Instead just spring a surprise on them one day? Sorry, co-op's closed, your moneys gone, and you're screwed!

This email is "Facing the fact" that we're closing. Not facing the fact would be to stick our heads in teh sand until the day we run out of money.

I think Kevin Marshall is spot on up there. The doom and gloom scenario being painted by the co-op, while quite sad and no doubt disappointing for all those on the board/staff, would perhaps hit me harder if it were in reference to an emergency health clinic or counseling center. This is about a food store that does not seem that indispensable to anyone, though would be sorely missed by a small group.

I also don't appreciate the tone of "unless you want to help just keep quiet" in the original post. This is a general interest/regional blog and we're allowed to have related but at times broad-reaching discussions on a post. For better or for worse, the struggles of the Pioneer Market speaks not just to its immediate future but to other issues and responses worthy of reflection and voice.

Mike, are you the "mike" that used the word stupid several times in comments on the previous Soap Box post? In contrast, your writing here demonstrates thoughtfulness. I wish you'd led with this instead of venting your frustration.

I'd also like to know why the co-op website still advertises the Thursday 10% discount if it has been suspended. That kind of sloppiness is the bane of not for profits trying to stay afloat.

Good luck working out the identity crisis, that's a tough one.

--Bridget

Bridget, Go back and read my comments. I used the word "stupid" a single time over 3 or 4 comments, and I certainly never called anyone stupid, or an idiot, or a caveman. Quite the opposite, I was explaining why for all its failings the Board is none of those things; and that there are no easy solutions.

It sounds like you relied on the characterizations of my comments rather than reading them for yourself.

I WILL shop there more often if you have better coffee selections, better goat cheese selections and get rid of the rotting produce. How's that?

@ Colleen- I was there last night and there's no rotting produce as of yesterday. And it would probably be helpful to explain, specifically, what kinds of goat cheese and coffee you'd like so that they can see if that's available.

By the door there's a box where you can put requests for items in if you don't see something you want.

I'm not an owner, but spend about $30-40 a month there, and would be sad to see it go. Why drive to PC or Hannaford when I can walk to the co-op and the farmers' market? It costs me $2 in gas and an 20+ minutes each way to fight the idiots on Hoosick street to get to Chopper. Or I can walk 4 blocks. I gladly pay 20-30 cents more per item for that privilege.

@Casey last time i was in which was within the last 2 weeks there was the stench of rotting produce and fruit flies all over the place.

goat cheese: check out the booth for the goat dairy farmer (the one i have in mind i believe is from cambridge) at the farmer's market and surprise me each week with something new and cut to order so i dont' have to have it wrapped in plastic. anyone of her products on a rotating basis would make me happy and have me in at least once a week.

coffee: the majority of what Pioneer offers is from the same place/roaster. the inclusion of The Daily Grind does nothing for me.

30-40% of my grocery budget is reserved for farmers' markets or honest weight. i'd love to have a reason to spend all 30-40% in troy, but so far I don't.

Also Pioneer Co-op needs to find its identity.

@kevin: "I will spend my money, but you should make it affordable."
Why? If you think, deep down, that they are doing the right thing, maybe even something that benefits the social tissue, wouldn't you want to spend a little more to help? Same goes for a lot of local businesses you would want to see survive.

"this is the madness of this discussion. Everyone who's not involved thinks (1) they can ascribe these white guilt paternalistic, elitist motives to the Co-op, and the board, and (2) they're telling us things we don't already know. "

Then why are you here, why did you reply to Leah's post, and why did you submit this for posting to AoA? Why become defensive and insulting in Leah's thread only to say "no yeah, screw those guys, it's their problem and not mine?" What's the point? It reads like you want to have a discussion but don't want anyone to...well, discuss it. I mean, if you have a problem with people making observations about a store in their neighborhood, you're better served not engaging a community of thousands online. Like, don't get bent out of shape if someone disagrees with you on one point and then if they agree with you on another accuse them of "telling you things you already know."

What does "Facing the fact" of our failure entail? Not send out an email, not do everything I can to rally my 1,000 OWNERS, the people who literally own the business? Instead just spring a surprise on them one day? Sorry, co-op's closed, your moneys gone, and you're screwed!

Like I said in my comments - which weren't just directed at you but the Board and community at large - not to send out e-mails and post screeds online that alternate between a pathetic brow-beating of potential customer base and engaging in flame wars.

I'd just like a business to act like, you know, a business - and for the owners involved, yourself included, to act and conduct yourselves like professionals, whether you're an individual that owns a small business or part of a larger Co-Op. Not reacting with venom to a blog post critical of the store and its practices, not with sarcastic or cynicism, and certainly not with a 1500 word manifesto that amounts to "hey Leah, you don't know anything and neither do the owners and I'm the only one who does." There's a better way of saying it - a lot better - but you dropped the ball here AND in that thread.

Reading all of this and especially seeing your reaction, I think that you mean well enough. But despite what you may have convinced yourself of, Mike, none of this is helping. It's only hurting and accelerating the decline. Here you have an opportunity to say yes, there are very serious problems, but this and this and this aren't correct and encourage people to get involved knowing that there's someone who at least shares their view on things. But now you've portrayed yourself as combative and confrontational and the rest of the board as inept. Who the Hell wants to walk into THAT meeting?

If it seems like people are assuming there's a lack of admission of culpability on behalf of the board, it's because they encouraged that from the beginning with how they presented their failings (board members aren't spending enough, grants not coming through etc). And if it seems like people are all being unfair and combative with you, maybe it's because you're not presenting your viewpoint in a constructive and meaningful matter, but rather in an abrasive and combative one.

@-S:

Why? If you think, deep down, that they are doing the right thing, maybe even something that benefits the social tissue, wouldn't you want to spend a little more to help? Same goes for a lot of local businesses you would want to see survive.

Well because for one I'm not really convinced that this benefits the social tissue. It goes back to my view that this needs to be treated and viewed for what it is: a business, not a philanthropic enterprise. Also, and this is a legitimate question: what evidence do we have that it helps the people in the immediate area if it were successful? Not for nothing, but Honest Weight has thrived and the area around it still hasn't. The assumption of benefit may be a fallacy. A market existing is better than a market not existing, but it may not be a social necessity, know what I mean?

More important than all that, though, is the reality of the situation: I am poor and I legitimately can't afford to buy my food there. A situation that many reading this can appreciate, and many more that aren't ESPECIALLY can.

Would you believe me if I told you that I agree wholeheartedly?

As you said, the Pioneer Market Board's previous methods of communicating with the general public will not bring customers in the door. An article like this, an appeal like this, will.

But, Kevin said it well. To paraphrase, "You're either a high-end co-op with more expensive organic/natural items or you're serving the needs of the community by providing an alternative to PC and Hannaford that they can afford. You can't have it both ways." He was right to in saying that the disagreements arise from the "assertion that the Pioneer Market somehow deserves to exist and that we should do what we can to keep it open no matter what the cost or how preposterous the suggestions may seem."

Those of us who are not saying "I will" are not doing so because we don't care. We're doing it because we've already said "I will" to our own home groceries and co-ops, to our families, graduate schools and jobs, to our own organizations in our own part of the Capital District community that we feel as passionately about as you do about Pioneer.

But, you asked for our help, we, the greater Natural Foods Community of the Capital District. For many of us, the only help we have left to give you is our ability to stand up and share an outsiders perspective. Yet, we can respond only to what we have heard through Pioneer's communications with the outside community. For example, it was not widely publicized that a major change had happened within the Pioneer Board itself. And what wonderful publicity it would have been to broadly share all the good works your organization is doing.

Unfortunately, the greater community only sees harsh emails from the Board to its members and recently saw the attack by a Pioneer Board Member against a writer criticized the market's actions of the past several months, while explicitly wishing the Market well. It is a very daunting task to support a store when the only thing you hear is that you're not doing your part.

I repeat: we outside of the Inner Circle can only respond to what is shared outside the inner circle.

I was raised in Rensselaer County, I have roots in Troy. I worked a non-for-profit in its public hosing and worst neighborhoods with at risk families of all ethnic groups for years. I still commute to Troy for work, and I am well aware of the privilege I have consciously chosen in moving my family in order to raise my children in a better school district. But why do I need to prove to you my community is not "lily white," sharing my family's geographic location with someone who's publicly "calling me out," in order to prove to you that my opinion is worthy of consideration if not agreement? When Board of the Pioneer Food Market, asked for the community's support, did you mean unconditionally?

If you can't hear grounded criticism from an established local food blogger whose primary site traffic comes through the support of Rensselaer County farms and other local businesses, who has experience in the food industry, who worked for non-for-profits serving the at risk families in Troy, from where are you going to be able to hear it?

I truly do wish Pioneer Food Market the best. Troy needs a downtown market. But, you need be willing to listen to outsiders, and to disagree with respect. If the market is to survive, it cannot be a market that will serve and appeal to only a small percentage of Troy's population. I will say it again: serving Troy truly does mean building a better life for the population it has now, in order so that it can grow into the population that will be.

"Why? If you think, deep down, that they are doing the right thing, maybe even something that benefits the social tissue, wouldn't you want to spend a little more to help?"

Maybe he's broke, like the rest of us.

"If you can't hear grounded criticism from an established local food blogger whose primary site traffic comes through the support of Rensselaer County farms and other local businesses, who has experience in the food industry, who worked for non-for-profits serving the at risk families in Troy, from where are you going to be able to hear it?"

Someone who doesn't think the co-op is run by elitists and bigots?
That person probably has a pretty skewed view of who we are and what we are trying to do. It's like having a political conversation with someone who thinks Obama is a Muslim communist martian...not worthwhile.

Someone who writes critical articles after they have familiarized themselves with the basic facts? Sure we should be more communicative, but Board meetings are publicly announced, and we have had outside observers frequently as of late. It would have taken a trivial amount of effort, (an email, a phone call) to find out that the vast majority of your suggestions have been implemented months ago before writing an article that insinuates we're utterly clueless, sitting on our hands while the store burns down around our ears.

You didn't want to help; you wanted to preach.

Mike-

You don't remember all those times when you wanted to help the Legal Aid Society and did so by writing highly critical op-eds regarding their activities without speaking to anyone who was familiar with the situation first?

I know that's my prefferred method of assisting local non-profits...

I haven't read all the comments and am quite unfamiliar with the whole local-organic food thing, so maybe I have no business commenting, but Uncle Sam's Natural Foods right around the corner on 4th street has been operating for years in a small space - they must be doing something right. I know their selection of fresh foods is quite limited - it's mostly frozen "good for you" stuff, but perhaps mimicking their business model, which appears to be working, would make sense here, with a few points of differentiation to cater to either the high-end (local produce etc) or community (food stamps, WIC) crowd.

Sorry for the run-on sentences.

Mike,

I actually did read all of your comments. Did you read mine? I asked a question you didn't answer. Why is the Co-Op still advertising 10% off for members on Thursdays if that program is no longer happening?

Could that be a symptom of the kinds of problems the Co-Op is having (from my outsider's view, a lack of unified purpose and identity crisis)? It seems to me if communication is so poor that people who ARE interested in helping you can't get accurate information from your website or from one of your board members, that's not healthy for the organization.

I live in Troy, I represent a demographic that could help your project be successful. (By that I mean, I have spare time to volunteer, enough cash to shop where I please within reason, and I am dedicated to my community.) So far you haven't given me a reason to get involved. Would you like to try again?

--Bridget

Leah wrote **If you can't hear grounded criticism from an established local food blogger whose primary site traffic comes through the support of Rensselaer County farms and other local businesses, who has experience in the food industry, who worked for non-for-profits serving the at risk families in Troy, from where are you going to be able to hear it?**

@ Leah - I think the problem is that the constructive part of your criticism was overshadowed by the statement that the members don't want to shop next to poor people and your lack of knowledge as to the items that the co-op stocks. At least, that's how I read it as a member.

@ Kevin- It really all comes back to that first terribly written email from the original board months ago. I remember you talking about it on your blog... Whomever wrote it screwed up and basically ensured that any correspondence from the board that wasn't strictly positive sunshine up our dresses would be read with an accusatory tone.

@ T.E.N. If I wasn't a member of the co-op, I would feel similar to you as to the threats of doom and gloom however I spent my money (a couple of times), got my card and now I'm invested as to the outcome. If there was call to arms for an emergency clinic that was closing that I didn't use, I would be pretty "meh" about it.

@ Chris- whenever I think to myself that I have a pretty good grasp of the neighborhood I live in, someone mentions the name of a place I've yet to check out. Thanks!

@ everyone that posted comments under Mike and Leah's articles- I know it's a bit more like work but can we all agree to go to the Aug 2nd meeting with our collective ideas, questions, pitchforks and flaming torches (last two optional?) now that we have a little bit more information. It'll be like a mini-AoA meet up, but with less cupcakes.

For the record: I called and spoke with the general manager on Friday. I checked in with local folk who have worked with Pioneer board members in Troy community and development planners for the city of Troy. I read everything I could find online, along with all the Troy government and Rensselaer County census data I could get my hands on. I talked with friends from HWFC and from Nisky Co-op, and discussed the article at length with Food Industry folk."

Mike's First Comment (http://alloveralbany.com/archive/2011/07/24/pioneer-market-and-the-gentrification-of-the-colla#comment-147843), responding to my article alone, said, " I don't think you're suggestions are all that valuable, nor your "this is so easy a caveman could do it" tone all that helpful. If you want to help, roll up your sleeves and get to work. If you want to talk about how stupid the owners and board members have been, and try to find out who's at fault and who's the biggest idiot, then you've come to the right place. Again, I'm sure you mean well, but it seems to me that you really don't know the first thing about what you're talking about."

Good luck, Pioneer Food Market. May you truly grow to be Troy's Community Food Cooperative, emphasis on community and cooperative.

Bridget,

Sorry about missing that question. The email that prompted this whole mess stated that the 10% discount ends on August 22nd. I would assume the discounts remain on the website until closer to that time. Only certain people have access to edit the website. I am not one of those people.

The one employee who was sort of our point person on all things webbernets was one of the people we've lost, and whose salary was "cannibalized" as I mentioned. It's a prime slot for a volunteer.

The internet is a miraculous and terrible tool for communication.

We've talked so much about "tone" in these posts. We've quibbled over nasty wording and incorrect information and gotten lost in proving who was more unreasonable with whom. But tone is so subjective! I really think that so much of this online ugliness can be solved by trying to read each post while giving its author the benefit of the doubt. A lot of what all of you saw as cruel, I saw as neutral. I know you're at your wit's end, but I hope that where you can no longer listen to each other you can listen to someone else.

Here is what I heard:

Leah:
You expressed sadness at the failing of Pioneer, and a desire to try to make it better. You have expertise in the intersection of poverty and food, and you tried to use that expertise to demonstrate how the market might go about connecting with its community, as its name suggests that it wants to do.

You also generalized about coop members, painting them as classist. You portrayed 1000 people as a single wealthy entity, turning up their noses at the people with whom they share a community. When it became clear that your tone was hurtful, you got defensive and proud, abandoning the constructive part of your criticism in favor of the biting part. I shop at Pioneer, and I have as much of a problem shopping with people who can't afford dental care as I do with people who can afford specialty flour--none whatsoever.

Despite your best efforts, some of the facts in your post were incorrect. When this was brought to your attention, you all but ignored the corrections.


Mike:
You did your best to present an even-keeled perspective on the issue from someone who knows better than anyone the shortcomings of the business. You wrote that Pioneer's most recent cry for help was an effort to be as respectful as possible to those who own it, not a public statement, and you lamented the fact that that is what it has become. You made clear that you are part of a new board, one that knows there is an identity crisis.

You didn't tell us that the board has any ideas about what to do about the identity crisis, or any plan to figure it out. You implied that my idea is only welcome if I personally can implement it. I still don't understand what you want from me as someone who cares about Troy... Do you want to know which identity would best serve me? Do you know which identity the coop will eventually take on so that I know what exactly I'm helping to survive? Do you want to hear from me if even if I'm not an owner?

And despite your best efforts, you consistently reacted badly to critical comments.

As far as I can tell, you both condescended to one another instead of asking clarifying questions and continued a line of conversation far after it was productive. You were both pretty cruel to one another, and you owe each other an apology. This is not about who has the last word and it isn't about which of you has been more wronged.

Let's speak really plainly for a minute here.

Mike would be less riled up if he didn't feel like everyone was calling him racist when he's actually trying to do some good with his free time. Leah might be less riled up if she didn't feel like everyone was treating her like an idiot instead of skilled professional. And she might have some valuable ideas about how to fund an affordable community grocery, if that's what Pioneer wants to be.

I don't blame you for feeling compelled to be mean to one another. But you have to know that by doing so you just sacrificed any hope of real communication.

So please, go ahead and write your next post, and then don't post it. Wait an hour, talk to that friend who gives you perspective, and read it again. If you still want to bite my (or anyone's) head off, there's no stopping you.

Mike writes:

The one employee who was sort of our point person on all things webbernets was one of the people we've lost, and whose salary was "cannibalized" as I mentioned. It's a prime slot for a volunteer.

Potential volunteers are welcome to ask me what the web tasks entail and how the infrastructure works, cuz I'm probably the only one who knows that whole picture. I was recruited to the Pioneer Board at the same time as Mike -- though I'd been volunteering and attending operational meetings for some months before. I'm also a recently resigned director, as work is unexpectedly taking me out of the area.

Casey, I think, has the clearest and most on-topic take around here. I'd add to her remarks that Ms. Nosher writes as though her bona fides are so well known they can be taken for granted. They're not. Many web authors make this mistake; the smart ones make it once.

Casey also frames the staggeringly disastrous email correctly, IMO. Still don't know who wrote it or how it got out the door, but it's become a kind of poison.

It's important to avoid the wildly overloaded term "co-op" when thinking of Pioneer, because it has no universal meaning: ten people will form ten different mental pictures when you say it. Pioneer is simply a full-service grocery store in downtown Troy. Yes, it will present you with more healthy and bulk-purchase choices than the average chain grocery, but one should be able to ignore that and just shop -- because it's convenient, clean, friendly, a local employer, and maybe has ... personality.

Now, I'm not saying Pioneer has these attributes, but it could, if exceptionally bright people get on board now.

What's wrong with Pioneer? Where do I start?

Lacks a star manager. This is a must for any start-up, and the folks who developed Pioneer overlooked it. It's a problem that cascades through all the obvious meta-issues (business identity crisis, bumbling communications, staff discord, etc.).

Wasn't fiscally ready to open. Events overtook the plan (as I understand it), and Pioneer was compelled to start ringing the registers without the reserves it expected to have.

Delayed transition. The Pioneer BoD membership took a more business-oriented turn in the recent election, but should have done so a year earlier. The forces that developed Pioneer were not the ones needed to run it. As a result, decisions in the meantime that should have been made dispassionately were made emotionally. Understandable, but a big mistake nonetheless.

There's temptation to think that a store that's open must be basically functional, and that if it then fails there must have been operational mistakes. That's not what's happening with Pioneer: it's weaknesses were prenatal and now play out in predictable ways.

I think Pioneer has a snowball's chance, and I know it's a heck of a lot easier to save a failing downtown Troy grocery than to start one from scratch.

If this prospect interests you, please take my directorship -- and get your very smart and energetic friends to take the other vacancies. Do it now. This will be hard work. Though Pioneer is short on time, it's a lump of clay. Nothing about Pioneer is sacred. The right people can still form it into something that works, if they start today.

Click my name, ping me by email or some other way, and I'll get you in touch with the right folks pronto.

LQ

Even though this conversation has been heated, there have been a lot of good points made. Now that everyone's had a chance go a few rounds, we're going to close the thread off. Thank you to everyone who participated. This topic is sure to come up again.

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