Durham's Co-op Corner Shop

Durham’s Co-op Corner Shop

By Claire Nielsen

On West Main Street in downtown Durham, residents can do their food shopping at a Food Lion. Or they might choose the nearby Whole Foods on Broad Street. And since March, shoppers have also had the option of going to the Durham Co-op Market.

The market — located on West Chapel Hill Street — is about a five-minute drive from its competitors, Whole Foods and Food Lion.

Some customers sit at outside tables on a spacious patio. Others sit inside, where they can later peruse packaged groceries, a hot bar (with pancakes, seasoned potatoes and eggs for brunch) and made-to-order sandwich bar, a cafe and pastry case, and household and pet items.

The co-op specializes in local and organic groceries and is the only co-op market in Durham. Laura Pyatt, the co-op’s marketing manager, said when the market first opened, managers made an effort to recruit employees from surrounding underserved neighborhoods.

“We didn’t want to bring business to the neighborhood without bringing jobs to the neighborhood,” she said.

The managers held a job fair at the Emily K Center down the road from the co-op before it opened, and they still look for employees from the surrounding community when they have a job opening. Households in the co-op’s zip code have a median yearly income of $28,200, and about 46 percent of households in the area make less than $25,000 per year.

Durham resident Melissa Bump and her son went to the Durham Co-op Market almost every day this past summer.

“This is kind of like our corner store,” Bump said. “It’s kind of like a coffee shop — it’s a cafe and a grocery store in one.”

Bump didn’t have access to a car, and the co-op is within walking distance of her home.

“There’s nothing else like it around here,” she said.

Those who work at the co-op want this to be how people think of the business, Pyatt said. They want customers to feel like they have a hangout area in their neighborhood.

“Our tag line is ‘everyone welcome,” Pyatt said.

The Durham Co-op Market opened after about six years of planning and financial hurdles, as founders and volunteers raised the funds required to launch. Business is booming so far.

“Most grocery stores do see a slump in sales in summer,” Pyatt said. “We’ve survived the summer slump very well.”

Beth Fowler, a founding member of the co-op’s board of directors, said it’s normal for co-ops to take a long time to be put together because they are owned by everyone who buys a member share. The Durham Co-op Market consulted with Weaver Street Market in the beginning stages of its planning.

“That’s one of the principles of co-ops,” Fowler said. “Co-ops help each other.”

Durham Co-op market. Photos of some customers, owners, and employees. As well as the appearance of the market.

Durham Co-op market.

Before the market opened, there was another co-op on West Chapel Hill Street — the Durham Food Co-op — that has since closed. Pyatt said this co-op was much smaller and more specialized than the Durham Co-op Market.

“They were just a totally different beast,” she said. “We’re definitely a bigger, more full grocery store. You can come here and get all of your shopping done.”

For Bump, the co-op’s array of organic and local food products is a helpful resource for the recipes she develops for a healthy food website.

The co-op works with over 100 local vendors, including Chapel Hill Creamery, Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery, Loaf and Mediterranean Deli to try to stock as many local products as possible — its specialty cheese case, for example, is made up of about 30 percent local cheeses.

“This is kind of like our corner store. It’s kind of like a coffee shop — it’s a cafe and a grocery store in one.” – Melissa Bump, Co-Op shopper

The average co-op in the U.S. sources about 20 percent of its products locally, as opposed to 6 percent at a conventional grocery store, according to data compiled by the National Cooperative Grocers Association. The average co-op also has 157 local vendors, while a conventional grocery store has 65 on average.

When it comes to organic foods, 48 percent of groceries at the average co-op are organic, compared to 2 percent at a conventional store.  

Injie Ahmad and Sara Salama, who visited the co-op for the first time in late August, liked having the opportunity to support local agriculture and buy organic produce.

Salama said the co-op has a more honest quality than some conventional grocery stores.

“It’s just a really good experience going inside,” she said. “It feels more trustworthy than a chain store.”

And in Carrboro, residents also turn to co-op markets to “buy local.”

Andrew Kennedy, a UNC senior who resides in Carrboro, is one such example. He frequents Weaver Street Market Co-op in Carrboro as well as the Carrboro Farmers’ Market.

“The fresher the produce is, the better it tastes to me,” he said.

Members have access to a monthly deal, which includes a discount on a particular product each month. These members are rather akin to shareholders of a business. They get to vote in elections for the store’s board of directors and have a say in its operation.

“We want people to feel like they’re a part of the store governance,” Pyatt said.

Some people think of co-ops as too expensive and overwhelmingly geared toward those in higher income brackets. But this is something the market wants to change.

“Stereotypically, co-ops are kind of exclusive or bougie,” Pyatt said. “We definitely want to break that mold.”

The market offers a special “Food for All” deal for customers who receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Shoppers in SNAP pay $15 for a one-time owner fee instead of the usual $100. They also get 10 percent off everything in the store, except alcohol, every time they shop.

Pyatt said she’s not particularly worried about competing grocery stores like Food Lion and Whole Foods hurting business. Neither representatives from Food Lion nor Whole Foods responded to requests for comment.

“Most people do shop at more than one grocery store, and that is A-OK with us,” she said. “As long as people are doing some of their shopping here, we’re happy.”

So far that seems to be happening. On a day in late August, there are enough customers at the co-op to fill a classroom. The atmosphere outside is notably relaxed. Customers read and talk to friends while kids run around on the mulch. It’s like a playground, but the store has a profound business impact on the surrounding neighborhoods and brings more foot traffic to the area.

Above all, the co-op is a place that welcomes everyone.

“We really want to encourage people that this is not only a place to shop but a place to hang out,” Pyatt said. “Come have a beer with us.”