From humble soil, Great Basin Community Food Co-op has grown, flowered, and is now ready to harvest
“ All other food co-ops call us the miracle co-op,” says Amber Sallaberry, cofounder and general manager of Great Basin Community Food Co-op.
GBCFC’s large new, three-story location at 240 Court St. is scheduled to open Feb. 10. The seed was first planted back in 2005—and, as it has grown, there has been a cornucopia of drama and bushels of DIY perseverance.
“That’s what I like about our story—everyone I’ve told says, ‘I had no idea the co-op started on $814 it took you guys nine months to save up, hidden under your bed in a cashbox,’” says Sallaberry. When she talks about food or the co-op, her eyes light up with a wild excitement that seems nearly ecstatic. “It just shows a lot for Nevadans—especially because this was right when the recession was hitting us really hard—so when we were booming in that time and really moving forward, I think it gave people a ton of hope, especially in terms of agriculture. So many people think that things don’t grow here, and that we’re not going to have that kind of environment, but it’s totally not true.”
In her home on Sept. 14, 2005, Melissa Nixon hosted a potluck meeting to explore the possibility of starting a natural foods cooperative in Northern Nevada. To generate interest, she posted flyers around town, and the event attracted a diverse group of local foodies, including Pauline Hamilton— who went on to start Reno’s first Great Basin Basket Community Supported Agriculture—and Amber Sallaberry.
“Food cooperatives are shopper-owned stores that go out and source locally and regionally for good quality natural and organic,” says Rick Lattin, the owner of Lattin Farms and a part-time employee of the Nevada Small Business Development Center, a University of Nevada, Reno program that has awarded grants to the GBCFC.
“My research had shown me at that point that we needed to start with a buying club, which is basically when people get together, and they buy in bulk,” says Sallaberry.
The small group of potential co-opers soon discovered that United Natural Foods, Inc., the biggest national organic foods distributor, wouldn’t sell to a buying club within 50 miles of a Whole Foods or a Wild Oats.
“We talked to Pneumatic Diner, and those guys were awesome, and they allowed us to piggyback on them,” says Sallaberry. “They just ordered more for us. Load it all up, and then Angie [Watson] at Black Hole Body Piercing had a garage next to her spot. We cleaned that all up, and we would load it all in there.”
Six years ago, in January 2006, what is now a sprawling three-story food mecca began as a buying club in the garage of a body-piercing shop.
“We pretty much ran like a black-market buying club just to get a co-op in Nevada,” says Sallaberry.
The participants would place their orders and agreed to pay 15 percent above the wholesale price.
“We were getting organic avocados for like 37 cents apiece, whereas at Whole Foods or something at the same time it was $1.99,” says Sallaberry. “So we were saving ourselves and anyone who wanted to participate a lot of money by buying in bulk. … So we’d split it all up. They’d all pay their 15 percent above. We had a little tiny cash box that we hid under my bunk bed. In August—it took us about eight months—we opened up the cashbox, and we saved $814.”[Image-2]
That $814 was the initial startup money for the food co-op, but the GBCFC benefited from some generosity from like-minded folks. Quincy Natural Foods, a co-op in Quincy, Calif., donated a cash register. And a co-owner of a local record store offered the group something they needed even more: a retail space.
“I saw Joe Ferguson at some punk show at the old Spacement,” says Sallaberry. “I didn’t know him very well, and I was telling him, ‘We can’t be in Angie’s garage anymore. It’s getting too big. … We need a spot to set up, and he’s like … ‘I’ve got the little back room of Sound & Fury Records, why don’t you guys move in there? I won’t charge you rent or anything until you get going and on your feet.’”
The Great Basin Community Food Co-op opened in the miniscule back room of the punk and hardcore record store near the corner of Wells Avenue and Wonder Street on Oct. 6, 2006.
“We opened as a private buying club/co-op because we were so far from being health department certified,” says Sallaberry. “We asked the small farmers, ‘Why aren’t you selling your stuff to Whole Foods or Raley’s?’ ‘Well, you have to have these huge premium insurance plans that no small farmers can afford. You have to jump through all theses hoops and red tape, and we just can’t do it.’ So we’re like, ‘So the only outlet you have is like once a week at a farmers’ market?’ And they’re like, ‘Pretty much, or direct to consumer.’ So we’re like OK, cool, this will be good then.”
Originally, there was just a handful of local farms selling their goods at GBCFC—Churchill Butte Organics, Oasis Farmstead Dairy and Lattin Farms among them. Now, they work with over 60 producers.
When it moved into the record store, GBCFC was essentially an underground operation.
“When we opened our doors, we said, ‘You can join—it’s private—you’ve got to sign your little indemnification clause, like you’re part of a little poker club or something,” says Sallaberry. “It was $15. It was all volunteer-run. We all work in our day jobs and try to keep this co-op going. It was awesome because all the record store young punk kids—it was great because they all had shifts there, so they would split shifts with us. They’d cover the register, which I think was a really good cultural infusion of a lot of older crazy health foodies and young crazy punk kids.”
By June 2007, partly because it hadn’t been paying any rent, the co-op had saved close to $13,000.
“We didn’t have a website,” says Sallaberry. “We didn’t do any marketing. It was all word of mouth. Obviously, there was a huge need because people came out of the woodwork.”
At this point, the food co-op was attracting more business than the record store, so the two organizations switched, with GBCFC taking over the main floor, and Sound & Fury moving into the small back room.
“That was phase two,” says Sallaberry. “And that $13,000 got us through that big expansion. That was the summer of 2007. That was the year that we incorporated officially as a cooperative in the state of Nevada. I think we were the first incorporated food co-op in our state. There was the Washoe Zephyr Food Co-op, but I believe, in trying to chase that ghost trail, that they were a 501c3.”
That December, the co-op hired its first two paid employees, Toni Ortega and Nicole Sallaberry, Amber’s sister.
“In the beginning of 2008, Amber went up to Olympia to study cooperative business which I think was a huge help,” says Nicole.
“Amber decided to go back and finish her degree,” says Laura Fillmore, who was on GBCFC’s board of directors at the time and is again now. “She needed to do that. I don’t think everyone could see clearly why she was doing that at that point in time. She was burnt out in some ways, but she knew she needed to know more to make this project real in the world. So she left and went back to Evergreen [State College in Olympia, Wash.] to finish her school. And there she apprenticed with some of the best co-op people in the country.”
Through Evergreen, Sallaberry interned with Grace Cox, a board member of the National Co-operative Grocers Association, and the finance manager of the Olympia Food Co-op. While completing a course of study in cooperative business development, she commuted back and forth from Reno to Olympia.
Melissa Nixon also left the state for a period to work for the Alberta Cooperative Grocery in Portland, Ore.
“It’s really important that [Nixon] left and got experience at an established co-op and brought it back to what we’re doing now, because we had no idea what we were doing,” says Nicole Sallaberry. “We knew nothing about retail until we learned from other co-ops.”
“Then, that next spring was when the health department came for the first time,” says Sallaberry.
There was a new law, SB 22, which prevented the sale of raw milk. When a health department representative showed up to enforce the law, he said, “You know, you should really work on getting up to code.”
“We’re private,” responded Sallaberry.
“Yeah, that’s not going to last,” responded the rep.
They started researching getting the Wonder Street space up to code. It became apparent that this would be difficult. Plumbing and electrical contractors were skeptical about the building.
“There was a bunch of issues at the store,” says Sallaberry. “Sound & Fury went totally out of business. We had to pay the difference in rent. We had no parking. … And we couldn’t take food stamps because we weren’t health department certified and open to the public.”
In April 2009, the co-op moved to 542 1/2 Plumas St., near the corner of Plumas Street and California Avenue.
“It was the best thing we ever did,” says Sallaberry. “We blew up over night. We were open to the public and could finally start announcing it. We got an awesome website. We were at this main epicenter where everyone driving in the downtown business community can see us, and I think partially we had the national local food movement. It was the right thing at the right time, and we just got it, right when it was happening and expanding to Reno.”
As business boomed, what was originally a casual enterprise started to demand a more formal structure.
“We really wanted to be a non-hierarchical, workers collective at the beginning,” says Sallaberry. “We tried really, really hard for like five years.”
In 2009, GBCFC dissolved its board of directors.
“We had decided we didn’t want a board,” says Sallaberry. “We were a non-hierarchical, workers collective, and we wanted to look at the options of being workers only. … So we just said to our board, and they were amazing to do this for us, we said, ‘Look, we’re a little workers collective. We want to figure out how we want our structure to be. These board meetings are really long and arduous, and we seem to argue a lot. We just want an ability to start from scratch again.’ We had set up the board in the way a lot of nonprofits are set up, because we didn’t know any better. Nobody knew models for co-ops in Nevada. … They said, ‘Fine, OK, we’ll step down.’ So at that point our workers collective became the board.”
“It’s very much the own-your-own-labor idea,” says Fillmore, who was on the dissolved board. “It’s great conceptually, and it’s great in situations when you have a really tight collective of people who have that vision over that long term, but not so great in the real world when you’re hiring people who are probably less committed.”
“Nobody wanted to have titles, everybody wanted to be equals, but we all partook in different work,” says Sallaberry. “It was a really good learning experience, but it was by far one of the hardest things any of us have ever done. When you’ve got a central hub, and you’ve got hierarchy, and you’ve got managers, they’re like ‘This is what we’re doing’ … and they make sure everyone’s on the same page. It’s a lot different than sitting through six hours—a meeting that would take you an hour—sitting through six hours to get everyone to agree. It’s full consensus. … We had the most challenging, hard year ever. We had really long intense meetings where ultimately half the staff would be on the verge of tears. It was what helped us learn how to communicate with each other. It helped us learn what direction we wanted to take the co-op. It was the year that we came up with our ultimate vision.”
“It became patently obvious that people just wanted [Sallaberry] to make decisions, and they wanted to have influence over those decisions, and they wanted to have a collective process, but they didn’t want to have it at the level that they’d had it in the past,” says Fillmore.
In 2010, a board of directors was reinstated, and Sallaberry officially became the general manager of GBCFC.
Memberships to the co-op had more than doubled since moving into the Plumas Street location, and that space was now, simply put, too small. The co-op enlisted an advisory board comprised of local business leaders to help develop a new location. One of the members of that board was David Woods, commercial real estate associate with CB Richard Ellis, who helped them secure their new building at 240 Court St. in the former location of Fitness Evolution.[Image-4]
In order to execute the move and expansion, the co-op needed to raise some serious money. An early estimate for additional funds needed was $400,000. The group began a massive fundraising campaign, including biweekly presentations at the VSA Lake Mansion near their new location.
“We would invite the community at large,” says Sallaberry. “We would just go through the whole big plans, the history, the huge plans, where we were going, what it’s going to look like.”
The first fund-raising presentation was somewhat disappointing. After the second presentation, the Sallaberry sisters went to a nearby bar to read their pledge sheets.
“We start opening them up, thinking we’ll get like $500,” says Sallaberry. “And we had a $20,000 one! And we had a $15,000 one! …We were like, ‘Oh my god! Oh, my god!’ And everyone in the bar is looking at us like we’re crazy, and I’m like texting my mom, ‘You’re not going to believe this! It’s working! It’s working!’ That was the first big night. And as soon as people started donating … they told their friends, and sent them to our presentations.”
As of Jan. 1, GBCFC has raised $565,500 in member loans, member donations and membership equity investments, 10-year up-front memberships. Sallaberry says this breaks down to around $60,000 in donations, $86,000 in member-equity investments and $419,000 in member loans.
“Most of our member loaners offered us great terms—seven years at 0 percent—though some did ask for the max investment option of 3 percent and only four years,” she wrote in an email. “For the most part, I’d say that we have a great member-owner base who really believed in this project and proved that by pledging a lot of cash capital up front.”
The Court Street location has a newly constructed third floor, complete with balcony seating and what will eventually be a café, juice bar and deli area. The main floor will have all kinds of produce, a walk-in cooler, 10 coolers of chilled foods, eight coolers of frozen meat, a 20-foot run of bulk foods, beer and wine, snacks, and more. There’s also artwork by local artists, including Erik Burke and Kelly Peyton, and, out front, an edible landscape demonstration garden designed by Jana Vanderhaar.
Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of the new location is that it will be the central hub of a co-op program called Distributors of Regional & Organic Produce and Products [DROPP], which will serve as an intermediary between local farmers and local restaurants.
“It’s very difficult for a farmer to run around and talk to all the restaurants and make deliveries to restaurants on an individual basis,” says Lattin. “It’s just not a very good model, but if we have the DROPP center, where farmers can conglomerate, and the co-op can do that. I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”
DROPP uses a website, www.dropp.coop, that’s sort of like a matchmaker dating site that connects local restaurants to farmers and other producers. Many producers who sell their goods at the co-op are already signed up for the program, as are some of the area’s most respected restaurants—Pneumatic Diner, Granite Street Eatery, 4th St. Bistro, Campo and Beaujolis Bistro, among others.
“It’s to allow our local producers—producers in Nevada—to publish their availability, and then make that list available to area restaurants and consumers to place orders, so that way producers know exactly how much of something to bring to town,” says Manny Becerra of PACE Creative Media, who helped design the website. “And restaurants and consumers can access those goods.”
Restaurants pay a fee to join. It’s free for the producers, though they must complete an extensive survey about their growing, production and labor practices, and submit to a site inspection.
“The restaurant gets the information, and they get to choose what they want to do with it,” says Elias Dechent, the DROPP program administrator. “Basically, it’s what they want to sell, and is it organic or not. And if they’re not certified organic, we want to know why. Because we want to direct people to be certified organic, but we don’t require it.”
The new location has other advantages.
“It’s also right at the nexus of people in downtown Reno,” says Fillmore. “What that does for me personally is create a situation where we can actually work on food justice. In Albuquerque, their cooperative is so large that they provide meals to the homeless. I really think that there’s just such an overwhelming need in Nevada, as the hardest hit state economically in jobs and foreclosures. We really fully intend to reach, teach, feed and sustain the community.”
“It’s one of those businesses that grew from the ground up, from a need,” says Lattin. “It started more or less as a buying club. Then it’s grown as the people have gotten a little more business savvy and seen how great the demand is. I think they’ve just grown to meet the demand.”