At Oneota Community Food Co-op (OCC), you won’t find robots mopping floors, huge shopping carts blocking aisles or interminably long checkout lines. What you will find is lots of young kids doing their homework in the deli.
“What I enjoy most about my work at the co-op is walking through our deli seating area at around 3:15 p.m. on a weekday and watching all of the kids after school having a snack, doing their homework and talking with each other,” says David Lester, general manager of OCC, in Decorah, Iowa, about 15 miles south of the Minnesota state line. “We are much more than just a place where people shop for groceries; it’s kind of like we’re an extension of their living room at home. We’re a place where people in our community gather, discuss ideas and spend quality time with each other.”
2020 Outstanding Independents
OCC started out in 1974 as a food-buying club of 12 members. Today, it has more than 5,600 members, $5.2 million in annual sales and a place in the heart of many of the 8,000 residents of this historic town. OCC recently completed a major remodel of its store to offer more prepared food options and what it calls a more convenient shopping experience for customers. New refrigerated cases, produce display bins, LED lighting, a 17-foot long hot bar and salad bar, and other customer-friendly and energy-saving finishes were just a few of the major enhancements.
OCC says that it has a strong commitment to sourcing its products locally, with an emphasis on organic. More than 45% of its products are Certified Organic and 25% of its sales come from producers within a 100-mile radius of the store. Currently, OCC has more than 75 local vendors and suppliers. But most important, OCC values its position as a “third place” for many of Decorah’s residents.
“The store tends to be the place that is not home or work, where residents can relax, have something to eat or drink, exchange ideas, and interact with others,” Lester says. “The word ‘community’ is integral to the mission of OCC and its daily work, and it has strengthened its role as an anchor business in downtown Decorah.”
Judging by shopper surveys indicating that consumers increasingly want more personalized service and higher-quality foods, independents such OCC are well positioned to compete with big chains and online grocery alternatives in today’s competitive retail environment.