Damon Lawrence remembers the day the Albertsons near Long Beach’s Rose Park neighborhood closed. It was 2012, and the grocery industry was going through an upheaval that included acquisitions by investment firms and consolidations.

The closure left a void in the community. It didn’t create a food desert like the ones that exist in some parts of the Long Beach, but its shuttering, and the unsuccessful attempt by the community to draw in another grocer, may have opened the window to what could become the city’s first grocery cooperative.

When the store closed, Lawrence helped lead a resident initiative to draw in another grocer near the corner of Seventh Street and Redondo Avenue. They wrote letters and emails to retailers like Mothers Market, Trader Joe’s and Sprouts, but one by one the responses came back the same.

“They all came back saying, ‘This area doesn’t meet our demographic; we’re not even going to consider putting a store there,’” Lawrence said.

Eventually a Smart & Final replaced the Albertsons, but Lawrence said the community’s desire for a sense of control, and assurance that a shaky bottom line wouldn’t lead to another store closure, was not filled.

He remembered a trip he took with his family to Portland, Oregon, where they stopped to shop at a local grocer and upon checkout was asked if he was a member-owner. 
The question caught Lawrence off guard. Was he not allowed to shop there? Was this some sort of club store that he didn’t have a membership to?

The cashier explained to Lawrence that it was a co-op, where the employees and community members held shares in the business, with each membership ensuring one vote on matters pertaining to the day-to-day operations of the store and what excess revenue could be spent on.

He wanted one for Long Beach.

‘It just makes sense’

Co-ops are not uncommon, but often people are unaware they’re shopping at or buying from a co-op. Long Beachers buy tools (Ace Hardware), butter (Land O’ Lakes) and even consume news (The Associated Press) from co-ops.

And if Lawrence has his way, residents may soon be able to buy groceries from one.

A few years ago he started a Facebook page for the Long Beach Grocery Co-op. When he woke up the next day there were a few dozen likes. After he came home from work that night there were over 200 and he saw the potential for a movement here in the city.

“Why aren’t we taking our hard-earned food dollars and recycling it into our own community?” Lawrence said. “Why are we allowing Jeff Bezos to have another mansion when we can take that money and reinvest it into our own communities?  To me it just makes sense.”

But what was confusing, at least to most of the people he met, was the concept of a co-op. They didn’t know what it was or how it worked. Before raising capital, Lawrence had to embark on an education campaign with the community.

His growing group of member-owners, who bought into the co-op for $250, set up tables at community events and started making inroads with local producers as they educated themselves on the business side of running a co-op. Lawrence took a trip to Co-opportunity in Santa Monica, a community-owner market, and picked its members’ brains over how they’d become a success.

The group also reached out to national groups for help.

Food Co-op Initiative is a national nonprofit that helps groups organize and take the incremental steps from idea to operational co-op. Stuart Reid, who serves as the executive director of the organization, said it provides information, guidance, and in some cases, grant money to groups looking to form new retail food co-ops.

Reid said that nationally there are a little under 400 retail grocery co-ops that are open, but over the years Food Co-op Initiative has had a hand in helping hundreds of groups form co-ops, 140 of which are still operating.

He said that previously, co-ops existed in all the typical places one might think they would exist: big progressive cities. But that is changing.

“If you looked at a map of the United States, you could overlay it where people vote Democratic, where the highest population is and there would be a lot of similarities,” Reid said. “Now we’re seeing an awful lot of interest from what we call non-traditional communities. Small rural communities where independent operators are selling, retiring or tired of competing with Wal-Mart.”

He added that in many cases there is a direct correlation between communities that have had a grocery store closure and groups forming to create a co-op. He’s hopeful that the newest trend in co-op interest will continue; he said it’s a bright spot in the economy that is currently being dominated by a consolidation of resources.

“It’s a truly democratically managed and owned business,” Reid said of the co-op model. “Instead of lining the pockets of somebody because they’ve invested money and haven’t had anything else to do with the business, it’s people who need and want the services working together to get what they need and benefiting to the extent that there is a benefit.”

Searching for a building

The Long Beach Grocery Co-op has seen its count of member-owners swell to over 300, and now they’ve begun the process of finding a physical home for its future store. Lawrence says that the group’s ranks will likely have to quadruple before the store opens, but having a physical building to point to could help with recruitment.

Miles McNeeley, one of those member-owners, said that the location will have to balance the ethics of the co-op—which includes providing access to fresh, healthy, local and ethically produced food to all communities in Long Beach—and remaining economically viable.

“There are limited buildings in Long Beach that meet all the criteria that we need,” McNeeley said. “If we find something that is open we’ll explore it and see, but that’s a huge discussion that we’re having. Is this something that will make sense for us?”

If the store is profitable, McNeeley said the members would vote on how to use excess revenue. The choices could include investing in the store to make improvements or investing in the community through hosting educational events, community healthy clinics or creating community gardens.

Members could also be in line for annual dividends on top of their built-in discounts and voting rights.

The group has had a market analysis completed, which returned strong indicators that Long Beach would be a good fit for a co-op. But the search for a store that meets the footprint and location goals the group has set out has been a challenge.

North Long Beach could be an eventual landing spot for the future co-op. Although the area has seen a number of other grocers spring up in the last decade, 9th District Councilman Rex Richardson has been an advocate for fresh foods and farmers markets; he has even hosts the city’s first crop swap program at his own field office. “The conversation has really changed from being about access to food, now it’s a conversation about quality,” Richardson said.

He noted that he’s helped introduce the co-op group to a number of property owners in North Long Beach and added that he’s happy to do what he can to move the process along.

Wherever the Long Beach Grocery Co-op ends up, it will cap the end of a long journey, from idea to organizing to stocking actual shelves in a community owned and operated store.

Lawrence said he hopes the model can be replicated, but acknowledged that it will be hard to emulate something that doesn’t quite exist just yet. The day the store opens, he said, could serve as the day that control over its food is returned to the community.

“It’s going to be a truly amazing moment for me,” Lawrence said. “Knowing that the community was able to come together. It’s such a community builder and we as the community can be proud because ‘Wow, this is our store. This is what we did.’”

[Editors note: The original version of this story stated that Councilman Rex Richardson started the city’s first crop swap. He hosts it at his field office but did not found it. The story has been updated.]

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.