One of Lexington Co-op's two locations in Buffalo, N.Y., is on Hertel Avenue.
Established in Buffalo, N.Y., 50 years ago, Lexington Co-op opened its first store on the city’s avenue of the same name, with the motto “Food for People, Not for Profit.” In the beginning, all of the work was done by member-owners of the cooperative grocer, who had to work shifts at the store stocking, cashing and even cutting cheese. Some things may have changed since then, but not the co-op’s commitment to its principles: In 1987, it restructured to become a representative democracy, with owners investing $80 for a share, and in 2015, the board of directors unveiled Lexington’s BIG Direction initiative to bring its values to life by fostering a thriving co-op in every community that wants one. This passion for aiding the local community has endured into the present, as Progressive Grocer discovered when it connected with Tim Bartlett, general manager for the Lexington Co-op, which currently consists of two Buffalo locations — ironically, neither of them located at its eponymous first address — on Elmwood and Hertel Avenues.
Progressive Grocer: What are the origins of the co-op, and why did it get started?
Tim Bartlett: The co-op was founded by 31 community members in 1971. They were looking for access to fresh, organic and locally sourced foods. By combining their buying power, prices were lower, and producers could drop off in once central location.
PG:What sorts of benefits do members receive?
TB: The co-op is owned by 20,000 owners. Most owners join the co-op to be a part of the co-op community and support local business. Outside of the pride of ownership, co-op owners receive owner discounts on products and classes, the right to run for and vote for the board of directors, access to the curbside pickup program, and patronage dividends (distributed in years when the co-op is profitable).
PG:How has the co-op weathered the pandemic? Please provide specific examples of how you had to pivot operations to keep serving your customers and community, and what the results were, financially and otherwise.
TB: In March, demand for groceries doubled overnight and crippled our national supply chain. In western New York and beyond, grocery shelves were bare. But amid the empty shelves at the co-op were full complements of items from local producers and suppliers: BreadHive bread, Upstate Farms milk, Freebird chicken and produce from Desiderios. Most grocery chains create efficiency by having everything shipped through a single warehouse, but in a time of crisis, it was the co-op’s diverse and local network that helped to keep our community fed. Our customers responded, driving $3.9 million in purchases from local producers in 2020, a 10% increase over 2019 in spite of reduced sales.
A customer favorite and co-op mainstay was our hot bar and salad bar. Here, customers could self-serve a range of items, build their own meals and salads, and purchase hot soups. When the pandemic hit, we were forced to pivot our selection to pre-wrapped and portioned items. In June , we launched our hot sandwich program out of those same hot bar areas. To date, we have sold 35,896 hot sandwiches and wraps for over $320,000. Similarly, we began to offer fish frys every Friday. These pre-made dinners could be ordered ahead and picked up in our stores. To date, we have sold 3,294.
As customers opted to stock up and stay home, the co-op launched a curbside pickup program. It was a “down the road” project until the pandemic and the needs of our customers pushed it to the forefront.
PG: How do you interact with your local community?
TB: Whether it’s sharing our favorite crafts, skills and recipes, or partnering with the many booming businesses in our neighborhoods, we’re invested in bringing the best of western New York to our owners and shoppers.
In January 2020, the co-op launched a Double Up Food Bucks program. With the help of a regional grant, the co-op offers fresh fruits and vegetables at 50% off to customers who use EBT/SNAP benefits. To date, 1,031 people have enrolled and saved nearly $70,000 on their fresh produce purchases.
Growing out of customers’ requests to give back to our community, the co-op launched a Change for Change donation program. After each register transaction, customers are asked whether they would like to round up their purchase for the selected organization of the month. Through this program, co-op customers have raised more than $68,000 for local Buffalo organizations. Monthly Change for Change recipients are nominated by and voted on by staff. Since its inception, the Change for Change program has benefited every corner of our community, including food access, social justice, health and wellness, and many other causes.
The co-op proudly carries products from more than 124 local vendors, including 40 farms. Local is defined as being less than 250 miles from our stores. Last year, for every dollar a customer spent at the co-op, 58 cents went right back to our local economy. Our customers purchased $3.9 million in local products in fiscal year 2020 (July 2019-July 2020). The pandemic helped to boost local purchases by more than $300,000. As national distributors were out of stock or struggled to make delivery times, our local producers were still showing up to keep our shelves stocked.
In previous years, we have held in-person classes to teach canning and pie making. The pandemic forced us to host these classes virtually, and they became more popular than ever. We have added a number of classes, virtual farm tours and short how-to videos to our social platforms. This allowed us to share our passion for food with the community from a safe distance.
PG:What is your strategy for growing, and what is your timeline?
TB: We believe growth comes with a commitment to our means, including deepening our relationships with the community, improving the customer experience, and building high- performing, diverse teams. We’d like to continue to expand our footprint in the western New York community both by focusing on our younger Hertel store and by continuing to increase our local purchases.
We have also set the goal of increasing our local purchases to $4.4 million over the next year; they are currently $3.9 million. We are leveraging our national network of co-op grocery stores, National Co-op Grocers, to help select which national brands are best-sellers. By using this network to craft a portion of our product line, it will allow our internal staff to focus on bringing in more local products and networking with more local farms and producers.
PG:What is the outlook for your local co-op, as well as for co-ops across the country, and why?
TB: Our outlook is positive. The past three financial quarters, we have seen a profit -- the first time since opening our Hertel store in 2017.
The pandemic was such a learning moment for us. We realized the true importance of having a strong local food system. As the flood of pandemic shoppers came in, they found bread, milk, eggs and fresh produce because of our connections to local producers. When national brands couldn’t deliver, it was our local vendors who kept food on our community’s table. Sales are starting to stabilize, and customers are coming back out for in-store shopping, which is exciting to see, not only from a business perspective, but as a sign that life is returning — even if just a bit — to normal.
Across the country, the pandemic has shown consumers in just about every industry the importance of shopping and supporting local. Investing in your community, spending your dollars locally and raising up small businesses was a recurring theme of 2020, and we expect that homegrown support to continue. Lexington Co-op, and the other 140-plus co-op grocers across the country have been growing due to local support since their founding. Without the community’s investment in co-ops, we wouldn’t be around. We are built by the community to serve the community.