The Buffeting of the Industry

  | Food For Thought, GM Report

In June of last year, the news broke that Amazon was purchasing Whole Foods. This was the biggest news in the natural foods sector in some time, and the effects of this acquisition continue to merit our attention. This summer, the news broke that United Natural Foods, Inc., had reached an agreement to purchase the conventional distributor SuperValu, based in Minnesota, for $2.9 billion. Many of you know UNFI as the warehouse in Chesterfield, NH, the former site of Stow Mills way back in the day.

UNFI is the largest distributor of natural products in the country. From its beginnings as Cornucopia Natural Foods in Rhode Island, it acquired Stow Mills, then Mountain People’s in California, Northeast Cooperatives along the way, and several other concerns including a specialty products distributor, several produce distributors including Albert’s Organics, a gourmet products distributor, and so on. This latest chapter is not particularly surprising, as its largest customer, Amazon/Whole Foods, is surely interested in distributing whatever it can, online.

So there you have it. The huge get huger, and the industry options get fewer and farther between. We at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, as well as our fellow co-ops and our co-op organization, NCG, all have long-term relationships with UNFI. There are few options. Like other co-ops, we also purchase from smaller distributors—the few that are left—which offer some of the products and product categories that until now, anyway, are not available through UNFI. We purchase our conventional products from a co-op distributor in New Hampshire, owned by co-ops and retail independents throughout New England. And we purchase from Food Connects, who is now trucking a number of local producers’ products, Black River Produce (which is now owned by Reinhart based in Chicago), and many other specialty distributors for meat, cheese, food service, etc. And some farmers/producers still deliver their products themselves.

A business such as ours navigates the ever-more-choppy waters of the industry to provide the products that customers want to buy. We have to price carefully, watch invoices carefully, and holler when we feel that we are not getting the service that we need. We have had more than the usual out-of-stocks on our UNFI orders in the last couple of months, and we are left wondering if all of this industry machination is affecting some pretty basic service expectations. Sometimes, these are products that we have promoted on our monthly in-house flyers, or that have been negotiated as part of the national Co-op Deals. Some of you have experienced some of this frustration recently.

Well, if ever there was a time to keep your shopping dollars in your community-owned co-op and farmers markets, this is it. Even though we have to play ball in this industry that is becoming more and more hostile to small concerns, with suppliers who are in business specifically to make money for their shareholders on the stock exchange, we intercede where we can. We band together through National Co-op Grocers and demand better. We give those producers and farmers an outlet besides farmers markets, and we work hard to support and feature them, as a sort of local antidote to the ever-larger, ever-fewer grocery players. We shave our margins wherever we can to offer those products—that often cost more due to artisan methods and small batches—so that everyone can experience at least some non-industrially produced food. We treat our vendors respectfully, and we enjoy many of them as customers, since they understand, better than most, the role that the Brattleboro Food Co-op plays and represents. We strive to create a respectful workplace that pays our staff a decent wage. We create an environment where the community comes together to socialize around and over food. So, the next time you order that grocery item on Amazon, just because you can, think it through thoroughly. Your choices matter.

By Sabine Rhyne, General Manager