Background & History
Overview of River Valley Co-op’s Business
River Valley Co-op is a consumer-owned cooperative grocery business. We have two locations in Western Massachusetts, one in Northampton and one in Easthampton. We are owned by over 14,000 of our customers and open to the public daily.
River Valley Co-op was founded with a mission to support local food producers through its retail store operations. About 34% of our annual wholesale purchases are from local farms and food producers.
Our community grocery stores serve a broad range of food needs and preferences. We specialize in fresh, natural, and organically grown foods and include a variety of conventional grocery products. We highlight fresh produce, bread, fresh meats and seafood. Each store has a full selection of natural groceries and frozen foods, cheese, dairy, bulk foods, beer and wine, vitamins, supplements, and body care products. Both stores have deli seating areas available as part of our in-house prepared food departments.
Both stores are similarly sized. Our Northampton store has 19,000 sq feet in total, while Easthampton has 23,000 sq. feet in total. Our stores were built using green building standards as a guide with attention to energy efficiency and healthy indoor air quality. Local sustainably harvested timbers were gifted by the Hilltown Land Trust and locally milled by Lashway Lumber for the construction of the front entrances of both stores. Recycled barn wood from Hatfield was used for interior millwork features in both stores as well. We used low or no VOC paints, sealants, and adhesives. Both our Northampton and Easthampton stores include on site solar power generation, (over 900kW in Easthampton and 36kW in Northampton). The landscaping includes a variety of native plants.
We first opened for business on April 30th, 2008, in Northampton, Massachusetts, after nearly a decade of community organizing. Although there is an urban myth that we became so desperate for a location for our store that we blasted out an entire hillside to create one, that isn’t true. It is true that our Northampton store was built on the long abandoned site of a former City of Northampton stone quarry. It is also true that we did feel like we were between a rock and hard place with our real estate search….which made the rock look like a good choice. (See History & Timeline for the saga of our extended and rocky uphill site search to learn more).
This city quarry was in operation between 1870-1921. The quarry left a flat 3-acre site surrounded by a bowl-shaped stone cliff rising on three sides with the opening of the “bowl” facing North King Street (a road originally built with gravel from this very quarry). The cliff and woodlands beyond provide a beautiful natural setting for our community food store.
A photo of the Northampton quarry from the early 1900s.... little did they know then that 100 years later this site would be repurposed for River Valley Co-op
Our co-op grew quickly in sales and cooperative ownership upon opening, exceeding our ten-year projections in our third year. We soon began to see we were outgrowing the capacity of our facility. To serve our community better and offer more employment opportunities, we envisioned and began working on the project of planning for the opening of another store in 2014. We planned for a multi-year process of organizational development to prepare for this major expansion.
We opened our Easthampton store location on July 1st, 2021, where a former vacant auto dealership provided an ideal location. We transformed this site into our next River Valley Co-op community grocery store.
An increasing climate change concern for us is that grocery stores are especially large power users due to our heavy refrigeration needs. Our building goals included energy efficiency and on-site green energy generation. We partnered with Co-op Power, Solar Design Associates, EOS Energy Systems, and PV-Squared to develop a solar installation strategy to achieve net zero for our Easthampton store. This resulted in a ground-breaking solar installation covering our parking lot and rooftop with a solar canopy. Together these solar arrays will generate enough power to offset 100% of our Easthampton store’s annual electrical use with renewable on-site solar power! This is the first grocery store in the US to achieve net zero with on-site generated solar power.
Our Easthampton store includes EV chargers, and we provide one hour of free charging time.
For heating and cooling the store, we installed air-based heat pumps for non-fossil fuel heating and cooling. Our ventilation system includes technology that supports healthy air quality with fresh air and filtration.
Our Easthampton property provides a beautiful natural setting for our community food store. It is very different from the Northampton property. Instead of stone cliffs surrounded by woodlands, this site includes six acres of beautiful wetland meadows preserved as open green space adjacent to the store.
There is a large patio area for deli seating and special events. We also rent a small facility to Captain Jack’s Seafood Shack, an independent local take-out food business specializing in seafood.
Detailed History & Timeline
Our co-op story begins with community organizing.
The idea of a food co-op in Northampton started with discussions among friends and neighbors in living rooms and on front porches. In 1998 these conversations were elevated to a well-attended community meeting at Forbes Library to discuss community organizing for developing a consumer-owned food co-op in Northampton. The concept was presented as a way to support local farmers and food producers with a retail grocery store that features local products and is owned by the community.
The community meeting at the library inspired a series of meetings at the Northampton Fresh Pasta Company by several enthusiastic community members. This led to the formation of a Steering Committee, a Site Search Committee, and an Outreach Committee.
The mission of supporting local farmers and food producers had full support, but the format of the store was hotly debated. The key options that emerged were:
- A conventional grocery store.
- A specialty market where only local foods are offered.
- A specialty market with primarily local foods that includes a selection of organically grown foods that meet the strictest of organic, labor, and environmental sustainability standards.
- An option of skipping the brick and mortar altogether and picking up fresh local foods directly from the farm and delivering them to customers’ doors by bicycle.
There were many opinions about which format would best support the growth and vitality of our local farmers and food producers. However, the preference for a retail store that would generate enough demand for its local wholesale purchases to support local food producers emerged as a goal there was consensus on.
The co-op incorporated as Northampton Community Cooperative Market, Inc. in 1999. A Board of Directors was established, and one of their first projects was to seek outside expertise to help determine the best strategy for a grocery business to support our local farms and food producers. The Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture and Community Involved in Sustainable Agriculture [CISA] awarded the co-op planning grants. This funded a 1999 feasibility study. The study showed that there was strong community support for a retail store that offered a wide range of grocery products with an emphasis on natural and organic as well as local foods. The Board decided to pursue the development of a store format that was in alignment with the results of this feasibility study.
Co-op ownership had grown to 200 people in this start-up co-op’s first year. In a historic first Annual Meeting and first vote in 2000, the co-op owners voted on the name “River Valley Market” for the store they envisioned developing in Northampton. It would be a community market to support the local foods movement with a full range of grocery products with an emphasis on fresh, local, natural, and organic foods and selected conventional products to meet a diversity of customers’ full shopping needs.
The Board’s next step was to develop a business plan. They engaged support from Apple Ahearn of the Cooperative Development Institute and Bill Gessner of CDS Consulting Co-op for this project. They also hired Russell Powell as a project manager to help move the project forward.
Making the vision a reality
The Board of Directors engaged CDS Consulting Co-op in 2001 to do a market study. This resulted in the selection of the long-vacant supermarket facility at the Hill and Dale Mall on King Street as a strong candidate for a potential store site. The Board contacted the site developer about the terms and consulted with Plan B Design and a builder for advice. A co-op owner loan of $50,000 and a MassDevelopment Grant of $25,000 funded the co-op's next steps.
The Board established policies for the governance of the co-op and hired Rochelle Prunty as the General Manager. Plan B Design was hired for the initial feasibility stage of store design and construction planning. A check in with the developer revealed that negotiations between the Hill and Dale property owner and the developer had fallen through. The co-op contacted the property owner directly and continued to pursue the acquisition of this site directly. They also expanded the site search to other locations as a backup plan. By the end of 2001, total co-op membership reached a milestone of 1,000 owners.
The Hill and Dall site negotiations fell through for the co-op in 2002, and a new preferred site was selected at the Pot Pourri Mall, also on King Street, where the current Walgreens Drug store is located. Plan B Design did a preliminary store design feasibility study, and an updated market study was completed. A green building team of co-op owners with special interests and skills related to green design was formed. Chuck Bomely of Plan B Design led a green design charrette to establish a vision and prioritized goals for green features for the new store design. Lynn DiTullio and Lynn Benander developed and submitted a green building grant proposal to The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, resulting in a $400,000+ Green Building Grant for the project based on our green design plans in 2003.
The co-op surveyed its owners about product and grocery shopping preferences to support its store planning. A package store license was purchased at auction. Lease negotiations, bank financing, store design, and co-op owner loan plans were all underway concurrently.
The investment required for this stage of the store development plans was funded primarily by the co-op owner's equity investments and individual co-op owner loans. The next step was to secure bank financing and additional member loans for the funding to continue to the next stage of building the store. A mailing to the co-op owners was prepared for the announcement of these next steps. Volunteers were in the process of adhering the mailing labels to the announcement when this project came to an abrupt halt.
A Stop & Shop deed restriction had been discovered. This deed restriction prohibited any business there that sold products that may be sold in a grocery or department store. It was 2003. The deed restriction began in 1960 and did not expire until 2010.
In an emergency meeting of the Board of Directors, the General Manager recommended an immediate layoff for her position to preserve the remaining co-op funds. The Board planned a membership meeting to present the new information and seek their input on whether to continue with a new site search or to dissolve the co-op.
The co-op's membership, now 1,500 strong, overwhelmingly voted to continue working toward the vision for their food co-op. They said they had the people and the plan ready to go. All they needed was a location. With this commitment from the co-op owners, the Board of Directors decided to continue the co-op startup project.
The General Manager joined them as an unpaid volunteer to continue the work over the next year. The co-op returned to its site search process. At the same time, we also engaged in six monthly meetings with Stop & Shop's regional management to discuss a release from the deed restriction, which was unsuccessful.
In 2004, a new preferred site emerged, and the market study was updated for this location. The Cooperative Grocers' Association of the Northeast [CGANE] provided $100,000 in funding for our co-op, leveraging a $50,000 business planning advance from the National Cooperative Bank Development Corporation [NCBDC]. The National Cooperative Bank [NCB] also extended a $100,000 line of credit. Rochelle's salaried General Manager position was reinstated by the Board of Directors, first on a part-time basis and then back to full-time upon securing the North King Street old quarry site with long-term land lease agreement.
Community forums were organized to discuss a plan for the rezoning of the old quarry site for the co-op's store. Berkshire Design Group was hired for the site planning. Plan B adapted the store plans for the new location, and the Western Massachusetts Enterprise Fund and Coastal Enterprises began working on economic development financing. At the same time, the Board launched a co-op owner loan campaign. Co-op Power provided the support to successfully transfer our $400,000+ Green Building Grant to be available for use on the new site.
In 2005 the City of Northampton approved the rezoning, as well as a site development plan and special permit to build our store. The co-op also received a City of Northampton Community Development Block Grant loan of $150,000 to support their special permit requirement to pay $100,000 in traffic mitigation fees to the city to be used as determined by the city. The business plan was finalized, preliminary construction budgets were developed, and the member loan campaign successfully raised over $1 million. Florence Savings Bank also provided a $50,000 subordinated loan.
In 2006, our financing plan was developed with CEI Capital and the Western Massachusetts Enterprise Fund, National Cooperative Bank Capital Impact, the Cooperative Fund of New England, and the Local Enterprise Assistance Fund. It was anticipated that a large banking partner of CEI Capital would provide the senior debt and the economic development funding for our project. After all this planning and preparation, securing the $7.4 million senior debt and economic development financing from CEI's large bank partners remained challenging. It was deemed to be "too small" of a loan to be of value, and as a startup, it was also considered "too risky."
Even the National Co-op Bank Capital Impact required a final high hurdle: $400,000 in restricted cash deposits to secure the $800,000 loan we needed from them. We successfully addressed this hurdle, putting out a call out for $400,000 from other food co-ops across the country to guarantee this loan and, within a day, secured commitments from 50 food co-ops that pitched in to reach the required total of $400,000 to secure this $800,000 loan for our co-op.
The $7.4 million in senior debt and economic development funding was a more challenging project. We enlisted the direct support of an economic development specialist, Austin Miller, who was also a founding co-op owner. We secured the senior debt by taking this project to a local bank, The Bank of Western Massachusetts. TransCapital came in with all but $300,000 of our expected economic development funding. We decided to do another co-op owner loan campaign once the store opened to fill that gap, and we closed on financing in March of 2007.
Interestingly, the day of the membership meeting we had planned to announce that we had finalized the financing, our local newspaper ran a full page feature article with photos of our vacant site about how our co-op was scandalously "no closer to opening today than we were five years ago."
That evening, we had a very well-attended membership meeting which quickly became a big celebration. There was a very small update note to that full-page feature article in the newspaper that said that River Valley Market announced that they had secured financing for the new store and construction would be starting soon.
We began construction the next week and held an enthusiastic and joyful community groundbreaking ceremony. Another celebration was held in December of 2007 for a community project led by post and beam timber frame builder Alicia Hammerland to construct and raise the timber-framed front entrance of the co-op.
In the Spring of 2008, construction was substantially completed with finishing touches supported by co-op owner volunteers planting native perennials, trees, and shrubs on the store site with the oversight and support of Owen Wormser of Tree Frog Landscaping. Local artist Emmett Leader created an entryway mural made of ceramic tile and repurposed shipping crate wood. PV-squared installed solar panels generating 36kW of solar power on the rooftop of the store.
Job fairs were held at the Franklin-Hampshire Career Center, and 70 staff members were hired. They were soon working to stock the shelves for the first time and preparing for opening.
Our Northampton store opened on April 30th, 2008!
After so many years of people working together to open the co-op's store, it was a very exciting ribbon cutting and opening. Katryna and Nerissa Nields, of the much loved locally based folk-rock group The Nields, wrote a special song they performed for us before we ceremoniously cut a grapevine "ribbon" with pruning shears. Then our doors at long last opened for business. The General Manager advised the membership that the opening of the startup would be a work in progress and asked for their support while we worked out all details over the coming months.
The co-op owners' appreciation, gratitude, and excitement on opening day and those that followed carried our startup through all the hard work to smooth out the many rough edges of our new store operations. Unlike corporate grocery chains that send in experienced store employees to open new stores, our startup co-op had all new staff, in an all-new building, with an all-new business. Our staff worked very hard to get our systems ironed out and operating more smoothly over the first several months.
The co-op held its first of many parking lot parties to come in September. This was a test of our capacity for operating the store while holding a community event. We threw a successful party grilling sweet corn and burgers (vegetarian and local beef) in the parking lot and hosted a band touring by and powering their sound equipment by bicycle. Our guests participated by peddling the bike to generate power for the band.
In October, we launched a big grand opening celebration. We made it a full month long with a variety of events to celebrate the occasion.
The co-op reached $8.4 million in annual sales in its first year, exceeding the sales projections by $1 million. We made $1 million in local wholesale purchases, meeting our first-year goal of 20% local purchases for our mission to support local farmers and food producers.
The "Great Recession" began shortly after we opened. In response, our General Manager reduced her compensation by 20% to limit potential financial hardships at the store. Co-op membership reached 4,000 as the co-op concluded its first year of business, double the number we started with at opening. Staff layoffs were avoided despite the challenging economic times as sales took off strongly beginning in October and exceeded our expectations. In fact, despite the recession, we ended the year with 80 employees, ten more than we started with.
The First 10 Years!
The first couple of years were financially challenging. We had closed on financing short of our funding goal by $300,000. The co-op had decided to wait until the store opened before launching an owner loan campaign to fill the financing gap. The first-year losses were higher than anticipated due to the pressure from inflation at that time. This combination seriously strained our cash flow.
During a steep economic downturn, the $300,000 member-loan campaign was challenging, but the community always came through for us. We reached our 'break-even' cash flow target in 2009 at the 1.5-year mark, moving past the worst of our startup cash flow strain.
The co-op continued to grow in sales, and its local wholesale purchases increased from 20% to 30% of our total purchases in our second year. This showed our sales growth was also meeting our mission of supporting local farmers and food producers.
We joined the Northampton Living Wage Coalition and made plans for meeting our livable wage goal. In 2010 we increased the wage scale, furthering our progress on our livable wage goal. By this time, we had grown in sales so much that we needed to increase the size of our walk-in coolers and freezers for prepared foods and the meat department. We invested $300,000 in co-op owner funding to address that capacity limitation and improve the working conditions for the prepared foods and the meat department staff. We also added an additional meat department display cooler and improved the dishwashing room and deli dry storage area.
Our store's third year of business in 2011 ended on a high note with $13 million in annual sales—a volume initially projected not to happen until our 10th year! We also increased our workforce to 94 employees and increased our ratio of full time employees from the 50% we had started with to 90%.
We developed new programs in response to customer needs, including:
- A Co-op Basics program to highlight low prices on key staple products throughout the store.
- A pre-order system offering savings on case purchases for co-op owners.
We also developed our workplace programs, including:
- Launching an Open Book Management Program.
- Starting an interdepartmental team to work with HR on staff recognition and events.
- We voluntarily recognized the UFCW Local 1459 as the exclusive bargaining agent for our staff. (In 2012, we finalized our first collective bargaining agreement.)
By our 5th year of business in 2013, we achieved our first profitable year. This milestone arrived three years earlier than we had anticipated due to the sales growth we sustained since opening, a result of the hard work of our employees and the growing community support. A profitable year-end result made patronage rebates to our co-op owners for the first time possible. The members donated 40% of their patronage dividend rebates to our low-income membership program, providing funds for up to 105 low-income families to become co-op owners at a reduced rate.
In 2013 we invested in an outdoor deck for customers to enjoy during the summer, extending our seating capacity for the Deli Department and providing space for special events without closing half our parking lot.
Anticipating the end of our economic development funding term in 2014 which included forgiveness of nearly $2 million in debt and refinancing of the remaining loan balances, we began work on planning a much needed full-scale remodeling of the store to allow for improved use of space. To accomplish this, the co-op launched a $2 million member loan campaign to refinance more of our debt in a way that directly benefited our co-op owners. . Co-op owners supported our refinancing with over $2.4 million in member loans.
In 2014 we reached the end of the economic development funding term which resulted as planned in nearly $2 million in debt forgiveness. We held a stakeholders retreat with a group of 50 employees, vendors, co-op owners, and Board Members to plan a vision for the future. We came out of this session with a vision for strengthening our positive local impact by growing our cooperative business to multiple stores.
Management developed a multi-year plan for organization growth to prepare for an expansion to a second location. We began by addressing facility needs in our current location to strengthen our current operations, capacity, and presentation.
Also, in 2014 River Valley Co-op was awarded the Howard K. Bowers Cooperative Excellence Award at the National Consumer Co-op Management Association Conference for:
- Commitment to excellence
- Commitment to our members and community
- Supporting local farmers and producers
- Strengthening the regional economy
- Supporting local, regional, and national cooperative development efforts
Phase 1 of our store remodeling began in 2014. Both the Deli and Front End received updated fixtures and fresh paint. A new register was also added.
In 2015 we implemented phase 2 of our remodel project, which addressed improvements throughout the store, including:
- Higher capacity shelving and new bulk bins
- Remodel our wine and cheese sections
- Update the layout of our Wellness Department
- Upgrade the HVAC system for improved temperature control
- Install new energy-efficient coolers and lighting fixtures
- Replace the energy-efficient translucent windows on the west and north side of the building with clear energy-efficient glass windows.
- Update paint and decor with new branding and logo on signage on the interior and exterior.
- Improved break room and staff locker space.
Our new branding included changing our name from River Valley Market to River Valley Co-op. We also introduced our black bear mascot in our new logo, shown holding a crate of asparagus. We added the new tagline: wild about local! A contest to name our black bear mascot resulted in naming her Ursula Marjoram, giving the nod to the constellation Ursa Major which includes the Big Dipper, and points to the North Star. The superpowers of Ursula Marjoram include guiding us on our journey, using her Big Dipper ladle to nourish our community, and she is an excellent gardener, natural healer, and chef. She embodies great strength, yet her quest is to live more gently on the earth and work for peace. Ursula Marjoram holds a crate of asparagus to honor our region's fame for growing the best asparagus in the world and as a reminder that growing asparagus, like growing a food co-op, starts with planting roots deeply and nurturing them over several years before you can harvest it, but that patient care and effort results in something very special, which comes back stronger every year. Asparagus is also one of the first local crops in the Spring, a symbol of renewal and hope for the future.
In 2015 we also completed our 2nd collective bargaining agreement with the UFCW Local 1459.
Once our physical plant needs had been addressed, we turned our full attention to staff development in 2016. We outlined a staffing plan for two stores and a plan to develop the internal capacity to meet the increased needs over the next several years. We added some administrative and middle management positions to support our development plan for more staff to advance to management positions with our upcoming expansion. We also began our site search for a second location.
We funded a study exploring issues of race and diversity at food co-ops and increased our focus on DEI as part of our internal capacity and community outreach development.
Ten years… and counting!
2018 As the store approached its 10th anniversary, a preferred site for a second location was secured at 228 Northampton Street in Easthampton! The site was chosen largely because of the significant number of co-op owners in Easthampton already, the community culture of supporting local business, its close proximity to our Northampton store, and the excellent site characteristics for our grocery store operations. We began work on the site feasibility and market analysis, environmental testing, zoning, and more. We asked our current co-op owner lenders to extend the loans and consider increasing them to fund the new store. $2.8 million was raised in a show of owner confidence and solidarity for moving forward with this project by year's end. (Our plan was to solidify our plans and open the owner loans to all our owners the following Spring to reach our $5 million goal.)
Some highlights of our first decade's accomplishments include:
- Quintupling of co-op ownership to over 10,000 local families over the last 10 years.
- Nearly $30 million in total 2018 annual sales, well over our initial 10-year projection of $13 million.
- Almost $40 million in local purchases from over 400 regional suppliers over ten years.
- Over $800 thousand in contributions to our community through sponsorships, fundraisers, events and in-kind donations over 10 years.
- Over 150 full-time employees at livable wages, 90% full-time.
2019 Thanks to our co-op owners' support for our Easthampton expansion project, we are able to exceed our $5 million fundraising goal with $5.4 million in co-op owner loans. Our local store development partners included our general contractor Wright Builders, Thomas Douglas Architects, and Berkshire Design Group. A collaborative effort with Co-op Power led to plans for solar panels on the roof and a large array on a canopy over much of the parking lot. These solar panels will help generate over 900kW in solar energy—approximately the same amount the store is projected to use!
Other green features included in the new store's design are:
- Electric vehicle charging stations
- A highly insulated building shell
- A stormwater management system designed to protect nearby wetlands
- No use of fossil fuels, except for propane in kitchen appliances and the emergency generator
In preparation for our two-store, one co-op vision, we added three positions to our management team. We increased the minimum wage for our workers to $15 per hour—a full four years ahead of the $15/hr Massachusetts minimum wage requirement taking effect. We implemented a 401(k) plan with a wider portfolio of socially conscious investments for employees, with a match component of up to 1.5%. We successfully piloted an electronic invoicing system to reduce paper usage. Membership increased to over 10,000 owners.
We own it… we built it!
2020 The co-op closed on the economic development financing and senior debt needed for the Easthampton store at the end of January. The nearly $20 million project was funded by over $5.4 million from individual co-op owner loans, which leveraged $5 million in economic development funding through our partnership with MHIC, VRV, NCIF, and Capital One. The balance in senior debt was provided by bankESB. We purchased the land and finalized the contract for construction of the store upon closing on financing. Construction began in early February with a target grand opening goal for spring 2021.
In March 2020, we found ourselves in an emerging global health crisis as COVID 19 was quickly becoming a pandemic. As an outbreak struck Massachusetts, construction was paused for several weeks to reorganize the workflow and schedules to meet new health and safety requirements effectively.
We made several Northampton store-level changes in response to the pandemic, including closing down our self-serve prepared foods offerings. We added plexiglass barriers at our customer service stations, hand sanitizer dispensers, and a hand washing station at our front entrance. We increased wages with a $2/hour premium for hours worked, provided extra paid time off to all our staff, and developed new programs and established resources for those who needed additional support.
We launched a curbside service to help our medically vulnerable shoppers and seniors get their groceries more safely, followed by a delivery service a few months later in collaboration with Lakbay Home Delivery, a women-led and locally-owned business that shares our values.
Supply chain issues, customer count limitations, and social distancing requirements recommended by the CDC and imposed by the city drastically changed our store operations.
We changed our plans for the Easthampton store to be more COVID-resilient, revised the construction schedule to accommodate pandemic-related delays, and set a new goal to open by July 1st, 2021.
2021 The co-op launched an Owner Drive initiative to invite new owners to join before opening in Easthampton. We added 1,200 co-op owners for the year! Curbside pickup service was expanded, and services improved over the year, with increased hours and next-day pickup options. Free workshops and classes for the community pivoted from in-person to virtual in response to the pandemic. Other key accomplishments this year include the installation and implementation of a new POS system and other integral networks to help integrate our two stores as one.
The availability of a vaccine for grocery workers in March 2021 led to a greater sense of health security. In May, we sunset the $2/hr premium that began at the start of the pandemic in 2020. The reopening and lifting of COVID restrictions also began in May. We maintained the face mask requirement through June.
Outside of all these operational developments, we also took a stand alongside local Indigenous leaders and community organizations to prevent the completion of a MassDOT project that would have destroyed an ancient cultural site near our Northampton store to build a roundabout. The project was canceled in the Spring of 2021—a successful effort!
The Hilltown Land Trust gifted us with their sustainably forested red oak, which was milled by Lashway Lumber and used to construct the front entrance structure in Easthampton. The co-op received grant funding for eight two-car electric vehicle charging stations at the new store and installed them to be visible from the street. MASSWorks supported the City of Easthampton with a grant to complete the street infrastructure needs for our store including sidewalks, a crossing lane, a turning lane, and changing a Y intersection to a T intersection.
Construction was substantially completed on the new Easthampton store on time and budget by the end of June. As the store neared completion, we hired 76 new employees to open the new store and promoted 48 of our current staff to elevated positions. Our experienced staff were soon joined by our many new employees in the final tasks of preparing the store for opening.
On July 1st, 2021, we held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to welcome the public into our store at 228 Northampton St, Easthampton, MA! An enthusiastic and grateful crowd gathered in a ceremony to cut the rainbow ribbon, and the community response and excitement were as heartwarming as the opening of our Northampton store in 2008.
For this store opening, we had a high number of experienced River Valley Co-op staff working along with our new employees and great support from the National Co-op Grocers store development team, who provided specialists to work with us throughout the store planning, setup and during our opening week. A new business startup is always a big challenge, and this was no exception. But the experience we started with made for a much higher capacity start for this store than our 2008 startup when everyone and everything was new.
2022 is our first year operating two stores, and it was a big wow in the results! We held a grand opening celebration in October.
The pandemic has continued to disrupt business over the years with supply chain shortages, flare-ups in cases of COVID in our community, and record inflation. Despite the challenges, we added 1,800 new co-op owners for a total of over 14,000. Overall sales have increased by $14 million this year, which was $3 million over our projections. This sales increase was 46% over the previous year for a total of $44.4 million in annual sales. Our Northampton store sales declined by 18% to $24.8 million (taking some pressure off the store was one goal due to crowded conditions there), and our Easthampton store achieved $19.6 million in sales for its first year. Over the past two years, we've increased our staff by more than 50% overall in spite of the challenging labor market. We also increased our local wholesale purchases from $7 million a year to a record $10 million in 2022!
We launched a climate justice initiative in partnership with Co-op Power to provide 50% of the power generated from our new parking lot solar array to 100 low-income area residents. We are nearing the completion and connection of our solar array.
We finalized a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with UFCW Local 1459, which union staff members ratified with 90% approval. Our lowest starting wage for employees at both stores was raised to $17.50/hr. The workforce at River Valley Co-op now totals over 230 employees, 90% full-time!
A Longer Historical Perspective on the Food Co-op Movement
Our community has long been an innovator in the cooperative movement, and our region has a diversity of cooperative businesses. To add context to our startup challenges and achievements, it is interesting to note that River Valley Co-op was the largest startup food co-op of any of the food co-ops since the "new wave" of co-op startups in the 60s and '70s. It was also one of only a handful of startup food co-ops in the 20 years previous to our opening.
We played a role in demonstrating that starting a new food co-op is feasible. This was important for our cooperative movement's recovery from losses through the 1980s. At the start of the 1980s, there were over 1,200 food co-ops across the country. Over the next ten years, that number plummeted to about 300 due to increased competition, cultural changes impacting customer needs, and inadequate operating practices and financial resources to sustain many food co-ops. While many predicted the extinction of the food co-op movement, many of the 300 food co-ops that succeeded through the 80s have continually improved their operations and expanded and grown their co-ops to become vital community resources.
But it wasn't until the 2000s that startup food co-ops began to come forward in a whole new "new wave" of co-op development, and River Valley Co-op is among the first of this newest movement. Since River Valley Co-op opened in 2008, well over 100 new foods have opened across the country, and over 100 more are currently in the organizing stage.
As we move forward to strengthen our newly expanded cooperative in these uncertain times, it is important to keep in mind that while we don't know exactly what our future needs will be, we're stronger together in our capacity to work toward a shared vision to build a better future.