The Grocery Shopping Project

Carrboro's downtown is interesting in that it manages to support a community-owned, cooperative grocery store right next to a large, North Carolina-based, regional grocery store. If you're an owner of the cooperative, do you shop at the large grocery store for convenience and familiarity and frequent the co-op for socializing and small cafe purchases? What would it be like if you tried to make your major grocery shopping purchases at the co-op instead? I thought I would try to find out.

I became an owner of Weaver Street Market back when I was applying for in-state status for tuition purposes. Nowadays I find myself frequently surfing the web at the cafe and listening to music on the lawn, and occasionally I'll buy fish and vegetables for a single meal. But I've never gone there to buy 2-3 weeks worth of groceries, mostly because I'm familiar with the brands I grew up with--that I know I can get at Harris Teeter.

It occured to me a while ago that the next time I go grocery shopping, which happened to be today, I should bring my standard list and see how substantially Weaver Street differs. Is it more expensive? Are there too many must-have items at Harris Teeter (like Oscar Meyer Bacon) that I can't get there? I figured I'd give it a shot.

Continue reading grocery shopping project (from



The original question was, "How much shopping do you do at WSM, and do you give it preference over H-T?" It has evolved into, "Is WSM a real coop?" As for the first, we buy a lot at WSM and buy other stuff at H-T. We also buy a lot at the Carrboro Farmer's market (counting down the weeks until it reopens...), Cliff's meat market around the corner, and Tom Robinson's fish market on Roberson Street; are all other local businesses. Over the years the amount and proportion we have bought at WSM has gone up significantly.
As for the second, I think Dan got it right: it isn't a true coop, but it is cooperative. WSM is a hybrid, and has been so from the beginning. It opened with a tiny fraction of today's membership. This meant that capital raised from members was absolutely and proportionately very small. It now has thousands of members, and the funds provided by memberships are significant. As for the governing board, in addition to the two consumer elected board members, there are two worker-owner elected members on the board. The board appoints two others, and the general manager also sits on the seven-member board. Elected members thus form a bare majority.
Susan and I were enthusiastic enough about the prospects for the store to join before it opened (our member number is 10). WSM got one of the first big loans from Carrboro's business revolving loan fund and leveraged other financing based on its cooperative structure. Even so, I was concerned enough about its direction in the early years, that I sought (and won) election to the board in part to steer it more toward the coop side. I needn't have worried: that was the direction it was going.
Unique among food stores in the area, WSM understood why consumer boycotts to achieve worker justice and/or environmental goals were important and worth honoring. Over the years as it became profitable it has become more community involved, more community minded, and, for example, supportive of town efforts to involve citizens in public planning processes. More recently it has been directly supporting other cooperative ventures including housing and a low-power radio station. It has acted quickly to buy property to protected it from undesirable development and to initiate a public process for how it should be used.
WSM has now begun to expand. When developers in Southern Village failed to attract any chain grocery to their space, WSM said it could run a small store if there was community support. Their goal for members was exceeded rather quickly and the store is an important part of building another sub-community. How much it expands should be a matter for significant member debate, if members are interested enough to be engaged.
One small point, or not so small depending on your point of view. The lawn at WSM belongs to the shopping center. WSM did not "plow up half its parking lot" to put it in. Rather, the building was built on what was once a much larger lawn of the mill. The building stood (as one local merchant said at the time) "like a dead elephant" housing a succession of marginal and failing businesses until WSM started. WSM was willing to bet on less parking than any other grocery would tolerate. The town of Carrboro through its permit process has protected the lawn, and WSM has used it as fully and creatively as possible. Though it functions as an important common space, it is privately owned and requires vigilance to keep it vital as it is.

A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.
(Source: International Co-operative Alliance: A Statement on the Cooperative Identity)
A cooperative is a business voluntarily owned and controlled by its member patrons and operated for them and by them on a nonprofit or cost basis. It is owned by the people who use it.
(Source: University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives)

WSM can hardly be said to be “controlled by its member patrons” when they elect only 2 of 7 board members. It is not a democratically-controlled enterprise in any meaningful sense.

Still it is pretty impressive that a hundred some odd members came out for the annual meeting. But their participation was more along the lines of focus groups that any business might have with its customers. See my report on the annual meeting elsewhere on this site. It was not exactly a member-driven agenda as far as I could tell.

There is an irony that should moderate any concern about WSM's structure. While WSM is structurally pretty securely under management control, the trend among even those food coops that meet the above definitions is to cede increasing authority to management.

Folks (members/owners) clearly want a community-oriented enterprise and they want healthful products that they can have confidence in. Most do not seem to want to spend much time participating in the democratic management of a grocery store. WSM delivers on both points. On the other hand, the people who get involved expecting cooperative, democratic governance wind up pretty frustrated.

[I will again refer those wanting a more in depth discussion to my article from the Journal of Cooperative Studies at]

Thanks for the explanation and links. I suppose I'm interested in the topic because I worked full-time at WSM from 1996 until 2001, and for the last few years in a very part-time fashion (managing the website, primarily). However, I have little experience with the inner workings of other co-ops, and I've always been interested in the consumer-owner take on WSM.

Although I think Weaver Street is definitely a co-op on paper, I also recognize that it often fails to be cooperative in practice. This is a common complaint I've heard from both sides of the ownership.

Unfortunately, I think Dan's point about most folks not wanting to "spend much time participating in the democratic management of a grocery store" is a big part of it. I think the board/management recognized this tendency early on, and made a choice to create a more stable model that relied less on regular participation from owners. This created a strong foundation for a new business, but at the expense of some of the enthusiasm and energy that comes with cooperative effort.

I do see problems with the way the co-op is being run, and I have questioned whether policy-governance has been effective at limiting management power. However, I also appreciate how the organization has helped develop our community and served as a stable base for downtown Carrboro. I for one wouldn't be nearly as interested in community-building initiatives (both on and off line) if not for my involvement with the store.

For what it's worth (and to get back to Justin's original question), I do about 90% of my shopping at WSM, and I have since I started working there. Back then I couldn't really afford it, even with the discount, because I was making just above minimum wage (this coming before the organization's more recent "living wage" efforts). It just felt right to shop there, I guess because I felt invested in the cooperative experiment.

We should applaud WSM for maintaining its front lawn as a community gathering place. Do you
think any of our local Harris-Teeters
or Food Lions would tear up half of
their parking places and replace them
with a lawn and picnic tables?

Joe, it's funny how novel that concept seems. It would be nice to see strip malls be required to create a "buffer" between the road/sidewalk and their parking lots with trees. Of course it's one thing to legislate an another to follow through. Somewhere in WSM's budget there must an item that says "new sod," the appearance of which helps me mark the seasons.

Grassed-over parking would be nice, but buildings fronting the street with parking in the rear would be even better.

Check out this great illustration.

Weaver Street Market once again recognized the MLK holiday by donating 5% of sales yesterday to the university/community scholarship fund. What did HT do? Nothing that I am aware of.

That alone speaks volumes in favor of supporting WSM. has a long if partial list of their community activities. Although WSM is not really a cooperative, it does a good job of living up to its slogan of "community-owned."

Shouldn't Harris Teeter get credit for their "Together In Education" program? I believe that they say that they have given over $5.5 million to public and private schools since it started.

My understanding is that St Peter gives each of us credit for all the good we do but 'ol Pete does not buy groceries.

Hopefully, many of us here on earth who read this blog make shopping decisions balancing cost with a range of social considerations. No other grocery comes close to WSM in terms of the following:

1) level of confidence you can have in the quality of the products;
2) engagement with and support of the community;
3) keeping profits recirculating locally;
4) supporting similar socially conscious enterprises;
5) cost (higher prices on some items are more than offset by member specials, goods available for bulk purchase, case purchase discounts, and significant member volunteer discounts).

Weaver Street Market was one of the generous organizations and individuals recognized Sunday, January 16th at the MLK University/Community Planning Corporation's "Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Banquet." (For the sake of full disclosure, I did the acknowledgments.)

Their Angel Scholarship Gift ($1500 to $2,499) makes it possible to award scholarships to deserving community students who want to help themselves by getting a college education.

My original question to Dan Coleman was simple to ask if others who contribute to our community in some manner should not also get credit for their actions. In spite of how some may feel about various corporate entities, I don't consider acknowledging community giving as a zero sum game.

Fred, if you look above, you will note that this thread is about parsing a decision about shopping at HT vs WSM. That is the context for my comments.

Dan, I'm curious about your "not really a cooperative" statement- what's your measure of a co-op?

Well to start with, Steve, I think a cooperative should be governed democratically by it's collective owners. You can see our previous discussion about whether this is the case here: and here:


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