honest weight watervliet ave rendering front Aug 2012

honest weight watervliet ave rendering back Aug 2012

Honest Weight is aiming to open its new location in May 2013

honest weight watervliet ave rendering front Aug 2012

A rendering of Honest Weight's new location. (Here's a better look.)

The Honest Weight Food Co-op recently announced that it will be officially breaking ground next week on its long-planned new location on Watervliet Ave in Albany. It's a big step for the co-op -- the project is expected to cost $5.4 million -- and will be a significant upgrade in size and amenities over its current Central Ave location.

Of course, the co-op's expansion also is part of a rapidly changing local supermarket scene. The traditional players now face competition from ShopRite, Fresh Market, Trader Joe's, and (eventually) Whole Foods. That's prompted some concerns about how Honest Weight will fare in the re-arranging scene, especially given the leap it's about to take with the new store.

Curious about how Honest Weight sees the situation -- and how it's planning to adapt -- we bounced some questions to Lily Bartels, the co-op's communications leader.

What's the status of the new location? When will it open?

We're excited that our groundbreaking will be happening next Tuesday, [August] 14th, at 10:30 am, with both Mayor Jennings and Assemblyman McEneny, among others, slated to speak. It's a day we've long been anticipating, so to realize this milestone is thrilling!

The removal of the old building at the 100 Watervliet Avenue site is nearly completed -- 85 percent of its components are being recycled, by the way -- and construction plans are on track to achieve a May 2013 opening. It's a pretty heady time for us.

Besides parking and size, what will the new location offer that the current one doesn't?

Much easier accessibility, for one thing. In considering where to relocate, the Co-op was committed to remaining in the city of Albany, but with our current location tucked away off-street and an ever-challenging parking situation, our location has been less than ideal, though our members and other loyal customers have been undeterred.

Choosing the Watervliet Avenue site means we'll stay part of the West End neighborhood, but be better situated to serve the public. As you mention, our new store will increase our retail space, dramatically so, which means Honest Weight will be able to offer customers an even broader, more abundant array of the products they're looking for. And the spacious layout will go a long way toward a more comfortable and easily navigable shopping experience. We'll have outdoor as well as indoor café seating, and our prepared foods/deli department will be greatly expanded, giving our talented chefs and bakers the ability to offer an even richer, more diverse menu of tempting foods. We'll be growing our meat section as well, and providing a larger community meeting room. And we'll finally have the educational and fun advantage of a real teaching kitchen!

That Trader Joe's and Whole Foods have identified the Capital Region as an area with a heightened awareness of healthy eating and an increasing demand for healthful foods and other products is no surprise to us.

To what extent does the co-op have to grow its membership and customer base to support the new location? What are you doing to accomplish that?

Well, of course, we are open to the public and are always welcoming new faces who seek us out for a variety of reasons: increased focus on preventative medicine, emerging health concerns, or returning to a practice of more cooking at home.

In anticipation of the move, we have been offering promotions to our members which have helped us add over 750 new members to date. As far as supporting the new location, we based our forecasting on conservative sales projections, and reap the benefits of having data from co-ops in other markets across the country with similar competition to compare ourselves to. Our lenders recognized how conservative our projections were and that was a big reason we were able to procure support from 4 different lenders.

How is Honest Weight preparing to deal with competition from Trader Joe's, and eventually, Whole Foods?

By building on what customers tell us we do really well and ramping them up to an even more unbeatable level: great customer service; more of the local, natural products shoppers want; and a continued dedication to environmental sustainability.

That Trader Joe's and Whole Foods have identified the Capital Region as an area with a heightened awareness of healthy eating and an increasing demand for healthful foods and other products is no surprise to us. We take pride and continued inspiration from knowing that Honest Weight has been spearheading the natural-foods movement locally for more than three decades and helping educate our community about healthy eating and regard for the environment.

Since Honest Weight opened in 1976 with just a handful of owners, we've operated according to a co-operative business model, which simply means our members own and operate the organization. We've watched our membership grow to a base of 8,000 shareholders, and we continue to add many more every month, although we're also supported by an equally large segment of customers who are not members.

[C]ertainly one aspect of our business that will continue to set us apart from our competitors is our intense focus on supporting our local farmers and producers. When people understand how the shopping dollars they spend at Honest Weight stay in our community to support a vibrant local economy, they feel good about that contribution rather than shopping at national chains that take profits out of state.

What is the co-op's place in the increasingly competitive local supermarket scene? How does it differentiate itself?

Well, certainly one aspect of our business that will continue to set us apart from our competitors is our intense focus on supporting our local farmers and producers. When people understand how the shopping dollars they spend at Honest Weight stay in our community to support a vibrant local economy, they feel good about that contribution rather than shopping at national chains that take profits out of state. And in big-picture sense, Honest Weight's commitment to education, community outreach, and social and environmental ethics has always been at the heart of what we do.

One of the concerns that often comes up about the co-op now is that, considering the more crowded supermarket scene, it might be overextending itself with the location. How much of a concern is that among the co-op's leadership?

We'd be much more concerned if we weren't expanding to meet the demands of our customers. We're almost literally bursting our seams at our current store, so much do our sales consistently outstrip our space.

Since we began planning for our new store, our sales have increased 65 percent. The Co-op has thrived since the arrival of Fresh Market and, more recently, ShopRite. Honest Weight has factored an increasingly competitive retail food landscape into our business plans from the beginning of our expansion project.

Interview conducted via email. It's been lightly copyedited.

Yep, Honest Weight advertises on AOA.

Earlier on AOA:
+ Checking out the Trader Joe's on Wolf Road
+ Supermarket Week
+ Whole Foods is coming to Albany
+ Healthy Living Market opening in Wilton
+ The local supermarket field is getting crowded (Jan 2012)

images courtesy of Honest Weight Food Co-op

Comments

I've read comments from folks who seem to think Trader Joe's and Whole Foods will be the death knell for Honest Weight, but I disagree. For one thing, Whole Foods will be in a mall! Trader Joe's is on busy Wolf Road, which is convenient for some but studiously avoided by others (especially during the holiday season). I also think that Honest Weight, as a co-op, has a completely different philosophy and business model.

I'm not a member of Honest Weight - nor do I live in Albany - but I would much rather shop at the co-op and support a locally-owned business, given the choices.

I have to say that while I am a fan of TJ's and Whole Foods I bet I'll find myself doing the majority of my shopping at HWFC when the new location opens due to their commitment to local foods. I'm a little ashamed to admit that poor parking and inconvenience have kept me from the coop in the past.

I love the co-op, and do almost all of my shopping there. I love the idea that the (considerable) money I spend there stays local. But I've recently heard that they are not using union labor for the construction of the new store. That can't be right. Does anyone know if this is true? (Shop Rite is unionized for crissakes...)

Regardless of the philosophies of the HWFC, it's just too dang expensive! HWCF has priced out anyone shopping on a strict food budget. I shop HWFC for a few specialty items, spedning maybe $15/month, but I cannot justify paying $5 for a box of veggie burgers when I can go to Hannaford and pay $3. It's crazy! I don't forsee the new store doing anything to lower prices, or make healthier options more accessible all of us, but maybe someone else has insight.

I agree with Maddy. The co-op is way overpriced when compared with other stores. If I want local fruits and veggies and other goods, I'd much rather go to one of the many area farmer's markets.

I was told that they will be able to increase their purchasing power and thereby reduce their prices. I believe they have mad great strides recently to improve their prices.

I've shopped at Honest Weight since moving to the area in 1988. I'm excited to see the store expand. While I am thrilled to have a Trader Joe's in the region, it won't take my money away from the co-op. Instead I'll spend less money at hannaford or price chopper. I think people automatically assume that tj's competes with the co-op but really it competes with our overpriced, dirty, understaffed grocery stores.

Honest Weight, please locate yourselves downtown! Of all the many new businessess and upgrades that are happening, none of them are happening downtown! Put your store where that stupid Convention Center is suppose to go! Pleeease! Us downtown residents need shopping choices and the Delaware Ave Price Chopper is NOT cutting it!!!

This is a terrible design. It looks like a McDonalds (and not even one of the nice ones). This building will last 20 years, if that. Then it'll sit vacant, crumbling. When are we going to stop building this junk? There are plenty of buildings that are empty downtown. Locate there instead, if you want to be good members of your community. Up to you, Honest Weight!

I wonder if the Coop will hire Albany's Finest for traffic control the way Trader Joe's is this week. Oh wait, that would mean people would actually be able to find this store. Where is it again?

@ Save Downtown and Kate H

I couldn't agree more. Although you're sure as hell not likely to convince HWFC to reconsider they really do need to take stock of what they are doing. This move in my view is an unequivocal disinvestment in the city of Albany and the communities that surround the current store. I don't care what the press releases say this new location ain't part of any damn neighborhood. It's at the cross section of Commerce Ave and Industrial Blvd for *@$% sake!

You really can't walk or bike there but you sure as hell can get there easily by car. So hey, all you folks out in Niskauyuana, Clifton Park, Malta, Coeymens, drive on down the Thruway and spend some cash at the coop...you can zoom right in and out w/out ever having to be inconvenienced by actually spending time in the city of Albany! That's what our highway system is for!!!

And don't worry, all those nasty planet-harming emissions from your car won't even add up to the hubris that's oozing out of this entire endeavor.

"Welcome to Co-Op Mart, would you like fries with that?"

-sorry, I meant to say I agree w/ Alison, not Kate (although you make some goods points too)

I shop at HWFC and will not be changing that anytime soon. TJ's (and the pending Whole Foods) is a great alternative to our less-than-fabulous Hannaford & Price Chopper options, but not a replacement for HWFC at all.

I've been to TJ's once and I won't be back. It doesn't have the organic produce and food selection that HWFC has. Fresh Market is a bit better but they are more limited than HWFC also. Love the Honest weight design. Will be there a lot but Whole Foods might trump them in the end

I don't think Trader Joe's and Whole Foods are the death knell for the co-op. The thing that concerns me is the significant amount of debt incurred to fund this expansion.

I'm glad their estimates were conservative. Because I don't want to see this decision putting a vibrant part of our local food community out of business.

However, I'm also wondering what the impact of this debt will have on keeping profits in the community. There are four lenders involved. The majority of the debt is held by a bank based in Buffalo. One of the three minor lenders is from Amherst, MA.

Maybe I'm thinking about this wrong, but before profits can be invested in the community, doesn't the interest and principal have to be paid off first? I'm just wondering how long that will take on loans that add up to more than $3.4 million.

Anyone?

I don't get the haters here. This location is what, a block off of Central Ave and still only a short distance from their current location? It seems like it should satisfy residents and commuters alike. It's not HWFC's (or TJ's or WF's) issue that there aren't grocery stores in downtown Albany. Streets are narrow, parking is an issue (imagine 5 o'clock traffic on Delaware or New Scotland near the hospital if there was a Trader Joe's nearby!). If we want these kinds of stores downtown, as residents, we need to push our elected officials to make these areas attractive for businesses.

Valerae,

The only way that the new coop location is a block from Central is if you're walking down Everett Rd, and that's not possible. Otherwise, unless you're driving, you have to walk through a fairly rough neighborhood several blocks or take a bus with an erratic schedule. Despite the co-op's assurances that they're working with CDTA to ensure service, I have my concerns, especially since CDTA has been consolidating routes and cutting stops for the past few years.

This location is only ideal for people who drive regularly, particularly those who heavily utilize the highway. Those of us trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle (by walking or biking whenever we can) are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to shopping at the new co-op location.

Honestly, for me, it's not about hating. I do like the co-op and shop there fairly regularly. However, I don't find the new location accessible to me really at all, and I feel like the investment in the community that HWFC has cultivated by being located on Central Ave and, previously, on Quail St. is going to be lost. Sure, they might get the business of the people who live nearby, but as Terrence points out, they're at Industrial and Commerce - not much of a residential area.

Personally, my greatest disappointment with the entire situation is that the co-op seems to have bought into American car culture, despite it going against so many of the principles of the co-op. If I have to drive there to shop, frankly, I'll take my business somewhere else. That said, if you have to have a car to gain access to local and organic foods, there is a serious problem, and moving away from a more residential area is only going to make that problem worse.

@Daniel B -- I can't give a complete answer to your question of paying off the loans before investing in the community, but can say that I believe $1 million in loans were from co-op members and shareholders who are local people. When I get paid back with interest for my modest loan, that money is going to stay in the community.

The Co-Op could have moved to the vacant Planned Parenthood building on Lark Street, razed the two facilities and subsequently built a great structure that makes sense. Instead we have a Whole Foods Lite. Vibe won't be the same. I can't see their lackadaisical (charmingly so, but still) workforce being thrilled about longer hours, wearing food prep gloves and inloading more stock.

Also: If I'm driving in that direction anyway, I'd just as soon go to Shop-Rite. There is NO reason to drive to that neighborhood, short of getting a room at the Motel 6 (nope) or applying to be a bus driver at CDTA (unlikely). Instead you have the odd phenomena of a White Elephant structure existing before it's even built. HWFC fumbled on the ball on the 1yd line here, folks. Instead of investing in and acknowledging its status as a uniquely "Albany" idea and business, they instead chose to panic and look to statistics and numbers. Does it make business sense to move closer to the highway? Sure, but it doesn't actually make sense. It's like moving Nipper to the roof of the Greyhound Station. Doesn't make sense. (*drives to TJs...sigh)

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