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A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications

People's Grocery of Manhattan

By Abbey Heikes

While many small and independently run grocery stores have had trouble staying profitable because of the rise of chain grocery stores and the recession, People's Grocery in Manhattan, Kan., is an exception.

A key reason to its success may be that the store supplies to the niche market of organic and local food. Another is that it is a cooperative.

"The cooperative was created originally to provide foods that did not exist in the local supermarkets," Ben Champion, president of the board of directors and a Manhattan resident, said. "Natural food and cooperative groceries are in a position to be a lot more flexible than other grocers in town."

Although many of the chain grocery stores in Manhattan have created small sections of organic products, People's Grocery has catered to the niche organic and local market by providing expanded options within this product area. Most of the store's meats are sourced locally. It also sells locally canned foods and seasonal produce. The product range includes gluten-free and specialty products, organic produce, locally produced goods, bulk foods and herbs, health and beauty products, household goods and nutritional and herbal supplements.

"A lot of our local vendors are not big enough but they can provide to us but not to the big box stores," Scott Brelsford, general manager of People's Grocery, said.

When walking into the store, which covers 3,500 square feet, the customer comes first to the deli where food such as sandwiches, soups and salads can be purchased. Refrigerated products are located in the back of the store. Fresh produce is located on the back right wall and across the aisle from pasta and assorted candies that can be purchased in any amount. The rest of the aisles are full of dry products, which include pet products and a large selection of vitamins, supplements and homeopathic remedies.

The store receives three main grocery trucks a week. These trucks mostly bring dry goods and dairy. Two smaller trucks come every week and carry produce. People's Grocery also sells products from about 50 small vendors who either hand deliver their products or send them via UPS.

People's Grocery customers help support area people, which gives many Manhattanites a good reason to shop here.

"Your money goes straight out of town when you spend it somewhere else," Brelsford said. "It's a way to not only promote organic, but the local food movement."

Dave Krishock, a Manhattan resident, shops at People's Grocery because it is convenient and he wants to help support local businesses.

"I think it's important to show support to local businesses because you never know how they can help you out in the future," he said.

Champion said the organic movement originally began in the 1970s as a lifestyle where better quality food was completely prepared in the kitchen. As the movement became more mainstream and the government became more involved, the original idea of organic changed. Instead of it being a lifestyle like it began, people now wanted to have their same fast-paced lifestyle, but just with better quality food that is readily available.

Since being incorporated by about a dozen charter members on June 15, 1975, People's Grocery has outgrown three locations and is now in its fourth. It began because members of the community saw a need for organic products. Now the main objective is to provide foods not available in the local market.

People's Grocery adheres to the seven cooperative principles, which are: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member's economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community. These were adopted in 1995 by the International Cooperative Alliance, which is an independent, non-governmental association that represents, unites and serves cooperatives worldwide. These guidelines are used by cooperatives to put their values into their practices.

The cooperative has roughly 1,200 members who pay a one-time $55 fee to become a lifetime member. Benefits of membership include receiving yearly dividends, discounts and educational opportunities.

The cooperative's board of directors is comprised of members. The board's main duty is to create parameters for the general manager.

Champion said the cooperative has advantages over regular businesses. Because its members run the store, it has democratic governance instead of one person making all business decisions. The store also has dedicated customers as members because they have invested in the business. Because the store was not created solely to make a profit and support owners, it has more flexibility in the way it does business.