Our Co-opCentral Co-op opened at 12th Avenue and East Denny Way, October 16, 1978, to provide Central Seattle with wholesome food produced in a way that didn’t exploit the Earth or its inhabitants. In 1999, Central Co-op opened shop at 16th Avenue and East Madison, assuming the trade name Madison Market. Despite increased competition within the natural foods marketplace, the co-op continues to operate a successful community-owned grocery.
A Co-op Starts in SeattleLike many co-ops, Central Co-op grew out of the social and cultural forces of post-World War II America. Jubilation over the end of WWII was brief as the realities of a new post-war world began to emerge. Once busy shipyards, docks, and airplane factories ratcheted down defense-related production, laying off thousands of workers as the whole nation sank into recession.
The local and national economies eventually recovered and birthed a demand for new goods and services, including frozen and fast foods produced by companies like: Burger King, Kellogg, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, Post Cereals, and Swanson.
By the late 1940s, a new Cold War dominated headlines. Greater Seattle’s economy benefited from Boeing’s production of jet bombers and nuclear missiles that provided deterrence through mutual assured destruction, but residents also suffered the anxieties and paranoia that came to characterize the 1950s.
More subtle forces worked below the surface to transform the metropolitan community: Seattle took the first tentative steps toward acknowledging its thousands of new Black citizens and other minorities; schools struggled to cope with surging baby boom enrollments; and burgeoning suburbs pushed the epicenter of population growth away from the central city, eroding the area’s former political monopoly.
Sometime in this decade, John Affolter, Floyd Schmoe, Irl La Grange, and around eight other Seattleites formed a buying club on Beacon Hill. They met in Affolter’s basement near Issaquah to divvy up bulk foods such as cheese and whole wheat flour.
In the late 60s, the Vietnam War was met with strong domestic opposition. The related counter-culture started on the fringe of the University of Washington. Before there were hippies, there were long-haired, guitar-strumming, and pot-smoking youth “fringies.” They listened to alternative radio and clustered in coffee houses, psychedelic boutiques, and radical bookstores.
Mounting casualties in Vietnam, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, and the U.S. invasion of Cambodia fueled protests against US policies and mainstream American culture. And while the war in Vietnam still dominated headlines in 1970, local activists, including Quakers, found new and ultimately more enduring causes (e.g. neighborhood empowerment, environmental protection, and equal rights for women and sexual minorities) that would set the agenda for the coming decade. The community also experienced a more immediate and personal worry, as tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs amid a deepening national aerospace recession known locally as the Boeing Bust. Boeing jettisoned more than 60,000 jobs between 1961 and 1971, and the Puget Sound economy plummeted.
Interest in the local buying club grew rapidly. Eventually, buying club members established a store on Capitol Hill. In February 1971, the group incorporated as Capitol Hill Co-op (CHC) and rented half of a building on the corner of Twelfth Avenue and East Denny Way. Early inventory was limited to bulk items, including beans, cheese, flours, and grains.
CHC appealed to Seattle’s self-proclaimed alternative community. Members shunned any long-range planning. If a member wanted to work, all he or she needed to do was come in to the store and help. Shoppers stocked shelves as necessary, weighed their own food, and tallied their own purchases before paying the cashier. The store had a lending library, a community bulletin board, and a woodstove for warmth and cooking. The co-op community bonded through regular potlucks, quilting parties, square dances, picnics, and volleyball.
Everyone was welcome to shop at CHC, but the product mix and methods of shopping were foreign to many nonmembers. As volume and customer expectations increased, volunteer labor and informal business practices proved ineffective. When the work didn’t get done and the bills didn’t get paid, suppliers lost faith and refused to extend additional credit to the co-op. Members and nonmembers, alike, became alienated. In physical, financial, and spiritual shambles, CHC officially dissolved, February 4, 1978.
Starting OverDuring the dissolution of CHC, the Capitol Hill community was also campaigning to prevent the passing of Initiative 13, intended to repeal city ordinances protecting employment and lesbian and gay housing rights, and dissolve the City of Seattle's Office of Women's Rights. The energy of this organizing effort also empowered Capitol Hill community members to form a reorganizing committee for the creation of a new co-op – Central Co-op.
During the planning, some committee members wanted the new co-op to hire paid workers, while others insisted the co-op be organized as a worker collective. Some members wanted conventional financial assistance, while others wanted the store to be economically self-sufficient.
At the time, Puget Consumers Co-op (PCC) was interested in expanding to Capitol Hill. In light of CHC’s recent demise, PCC was concerned about Central’s ability to effectively serve the neighborhood. PCC was willing to respect Central’s trade area, but only if Central developed an effective business plan. The pragmatists won out: Central developed a business plan, and PCC offered crucial financial and technical support.
The new Central Co-op, a not-for-profit corporation, opened for business at 1835 12th Avenue on October 16, 1978. The 100-member co-op operated as a 3-person collective, each worker earning $3 per hour. Members paid shelf prices and nonmembers paid a 10% surcharge. Working members received a 10% discount on $30 worth of groceries in exchange for 2 hours work per week. Sales for the last 3 months of 1978 were $49,928, and Central Co-op published its first newsletter.
The next 5 years saw steady growth. The collective increased to 8 members, and the number of working members grew to 70. The co-op created job descriptions and began to offer employee benefits. In 1982, Central purchased the land and store on Twelfth Avenue – along with a house behind the store – for $155,000. The following year, sales hit $750,000.
In 1984, as membership neared 5,000 and sales hit $1 million, the board of trustees and the collective had to address the staffing and space stresses created by growth. Over time, working members became unreliable and paid substitutes had to be hired to ensure effective staffing. In order to incorporate and provide benefits to the substitutes, the collective restructured itself as a management team. Initially, each management team member coordinated one of three smaller teams: operations, finance, and human resources. Over the next 3 years, merchandising, produce, member-owner services, and other teams were added. However, another stress was lack of space. To expand the warehouse, the co-op moved its administrative office to 12th and Pine.
Growth Brings Challenges and ChangeIn 1988, the National Cooperative Bank Development Corporation financed an expansion that included additions to the store and the conversion of the warehouse to retail. When completed in 1989, the new facility won an award from the Seattle Design Commission. That year, with 20 workers, the co-op achieved $1,786,758 in sales.
The co-op continued to change. In 1990, it restructured the management team, creating department coordinators supervised by a general manager. In 1991, it revised its mission statement 2 times.
By 1995, the staff formed a collective bargaining unit and joined the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union (UFCW), Local 1105. By then, sales approached $3 million. Around the same time, Whole Foods announced plans to build a major store in Seattle.
As growth continued, the board began searching for a location to house a second store. After an extensive search, it chose a new, mixed-use development at Sixteenth Avenue and East Madison Street. At 15,000 square feet, the building was more than three times the square footage of the original store. It included a 40-car parking garage and office space.
Converting the new, undeveloped rental space into a grocery store would be a $3 million project that needed $2.5 million in commercial financing. Of the other $500,000, $200,000 would come from loans and $300,000 would come from member-owner equity. But the project exceeded its budget. To continue with the new store, Central had to sell its 12th Avenue property.
On to Challenges AheadBy the summer of 1999, Central Co-op’s Madison Market was ready to open. On July 13, Board and staff members led a procession to “transfer the culture” to the new market. They carried a tub of yogurt culture seven blocks to the new store.
Central Co-op’s Madison Market, Seattle’s only 24-hour, full-service natural food store, opened its doors Thursday, July 15. The new store had a full-service deli, a demo kitchen, a customer service desk, and a natural meat counter staffed by members of UFCW Local 81. Shoppers loved the co-op and sales for 1999 topped $5 million. Also that year, the Northwest Cooperative Grocers’ Association (NWCGA), of which Central was a member, banded together with the other regional CGAs to become the National Cooperative Grocers’ Association (NCGA), with 80 stores operating in 23 states.
The 24/7 store hours proved unsustainable and were, therefore, changed to 8 a.m. through midnight, daily. To attract new member-owners and improve existing membership benefits, the membership services department offered three new benefits: a member appreciation discount day, a participating businesses program, and a senior discount day. Sales increased $2 million, jumping to $7 million in 2000.
In 2001, Central Co-op’s Madison Market reached three exciting milestones. First, the Washington State Department of Agriculture certified Central as Seattle’s first organic retailer. Second, the co-op’s millionth customer, Wanda Davis, came through the store January 15, at 1:59 p.m. Third, Madison Market offered Co-op Advantage Pricing (CAP), lower prices resulting from negotiations with natural product manufacturers by regional and, later, national co-op groups. That year, sales grew 28% to $9,655,952, ranking Central among the leaders of co-ops in the West.
In 2002, non-managerial administrative workers won a contract with the Industrial Workers of the World (IU 660).
Central Co-op’s Madison Market, now Central Co-op, turned 30 in 2008.