Transitioning to another phase of the pandemic
On Thursday night the Northampton Board of Public Health lifted the City's requirement for face masks to be worn in indoor public places. On February 23rd, the Easthampton Board of Health made the same decision for the City of Easthampton. Both Boards of Health also stated that businesses may maintain face mask requirements for customers and employees at their discretion.
When Easthampton changed its policy a few weeks ago, we decided to proceed with a degree of caution to transition into this next phase of the pandemic. We recommended our customers continue to wear face masks for a while longer, but are not requiring it. We will continue with this transition phase now in our Northampton store as well, recommending but not requiring face masks for our customers.
Recommendations for Both Easthampton and Northampton Stores
We are recommending, but not requiring, that customers in both our Northampton and Easthampton store consider wearing face masks until March 25th. This will enable our customers and staff a little more time to adjust to this change in public health policy.
Our employees will be supporting this transition phase by continuing to wear face masks until March 25th. As always, health exemptions are accommodated in both stores.
It is important to note that the CDC still states that people with symptoms, a positive test, or exposure to someone with COVID-19 should wear a mask. Also, those at high risk for severe illness are advised to wear a mask in high-risk locations and consult with their physician about wearing masks in moderate-risk areas. See the CDC's new tool with face mask recommendations for any location by state and county for more detailed information.
It is called the "Know the COVID-19 Community Level where you live" tool and can be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/about-face-coverings.html
This is an easy-to-use tool showing a scale of Low, Medium, and High. You just enter your state and county to find out what the COVID-19 Levels are where you live and work.
Going Forward with our Daily All Masked Hour: 8am-9am
We established an All Masked Hour from 8am-9am daily in April of 2020 to support our customers needing and/or wanting that extra level of protection while shopping in the co-op. We will continue with this daily All Masked Hour requiring all staff and all customers to keep their muzzles covered (as our bear Ursula would say,) with a face mask. This has become a valued service to help support our community members with compromised immunity or other risk-related concerns. We plan to maintain this service going forward.
In spite of our abundance of caution, we do have a great deal of confidence in the air circulation filter technology used in both stores and our office. It works by disabling viruses, as well as killing bacteria and mold in the air. We credit this system's effectiveness in helping prevent the spread of COVID in our workplace, even during Omicron. This is only anecdotal evidence, but we have a workforce of over 200 people, most working 8 hours a day in our store with 1,000 +/- customers every day in each store. While we had some employees that contracted COVID (including many more in January than the entire rest of the pandemic), all but one had explicitly known sources of exposure outside of the co-op. One was unknown. Given the high number of employees and customers in both stores with highly variable face mask quality, our experience with Omicron certainly indicates that our co-op stores are a relatively safe environment for all our customers and employees.
We hope this helps provide some assurance for those concerned about the lifting of the mask requirements. Back in May of 2021, we also eased into a transition in Department of Public Health requirements by strongly recommending our customers keep their muzzles covered for another month if they could, most everyone did, and it worked out great.
We know our co-op owners have a wide range of opinions about wearing masks in different situations, and we all have different risk factors and situations to consider. We appreciate the high level of concern and care our community has shown to each other and our hard-working front-line co-op employees through this whole pandemic. Our staff has done great work in all the phases of this pandemic, and we have prioritized everyone’s safety from the start. We have worked through our COVID policy decisions in collaboration with our staff through the Labor Management Committee. The sincerity of the considerations this group has for everyone involved is heart-warming. Thank you all for your support in this next transition!
As always, we want to give both the Northampton and Easthampton Boards of Health a lot of gratitude for the care, considerations, and transparency in their public health policy. They and all our other healthcare workers have been working at public health emergency levels for two years. The Omicron surge in cases stretched our healthcare system and especially the hospitals to their capacity. Thank you to everyone involved for your service to our community!
We are so happy for everyone to see the number of COVID cases still going down.
Thank you all for all you do!
Updates from the General Manager
January 5th, 2022
COVID Update: New Store Hours Begin Thursday, Jan. 6th
Dear Co-op Owners,
There is a forecast for COVID cases to keep rising in our community this week and next. This is due to holiday travel, gatherings, and events exposing more people to the virus. We have a number of COVID-related absences on our staff, stretching us thin now. We’ve decided to close our stores two hours earlier over the next few weeks. This will alleviate the strain on our staff to cover the stores while co-workers recover and complete quarantine requirements before returning to work.
We plan to start the temporary reduced store hours on Thursday, January 6th this week. Our hours in both stores will be 8am – 8pm. We will evaluate staff availability and hope to return to regular 8am – 10pm hours on Monday, January 24th, or as soon as possible.
Nearly all the positive COVID cases on our staff resulted from a known source of contact outside the stores, but a couple are unknown. While we all know the Omicron variant is highly contagious, we feel really good about the overall safety of our stores and office due to the combined effectiveness of wearing face masks, high vaccination rates, and the filtration system we installed in all our facilities. This filtration system helps clean the recirculated air of viruses, bacteria, and molds. All these things together help to make our co-op facilities safer for everyone.
Thank you for your patience as we go through another phase of the pandemic together. Thank you to our staff for their ongoing flexibility and teamwork in rising to current challenges, and thank you for all your ongoing support!
November 24, 2021
An Abundance of Gratitude!
I am very grateful to have such a wonderful team of employees in both stores that have been working for months to prepare for this big week. We've had a few record-breaking sales days this week and we are having another great day today! This is usually the biggest sales week of the year for our cooperative and this year with two stores it is even bigger. It means a lot of people are buying a lot of local foods supporting our local farmers and food producers. And it means a lot of support for our cooperatively owned grocery store. On behalf of all of us, we are very grateful for your support of the co-op and our work to support our local food producers and the community. Thank you!
The Thanksgiving holiday itself brings up some hard issues for many community members. Not everyone has a roof over their heads or enough food to eat in stark contrast to the image of huge meals. The false story of peaceful Pilgrims celebrating together with Native Americans is a painful story for our many Indigenous community members. Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands and the erasure of Native cultures. Many Indigenous people gather at Cole's Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the US Thanksgiving holiday. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Indigenous ancestors and Native resilience. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection, as well as a protest against the racism and oppression that Indigenous people continue to experience worldwide. We can all make a point to stop telling a colonized version of the story of the first Thanksgiving and honor the resilience of our Native American community.
Gratitude is a good thing for every day. Gratitude has the power to spread more good energy and gratitude which in turn fuels more kindness, healing, harmony, and good work in the world.
River Valley Co-op has made it a tradition to donate to the United American Indians of New England and to Monte's March for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. We are so grateful for all the many people working for social justice and support for those in need in our community. Thank you for all you do!
We just finished our FY21 annual report which quantifies some of the impact of all your support through this last year. It was a milestone year with operating the Northampton store through a pandemic year while also building and opening a food co-op in Easthampton. We are full of gratitude to so many, our over 200 employees, over 14,000 co-op owners, over 400 local food producers and so many more organizations and individuals: Thank YOU!
August 10, 2021
One Co-op: Two Stores!
Dear Co-op Owners,
I recently showed our co-op to someone new to the area, starting with our Easthampton store. Driving toward the Easthampton store on Northampton Street, it's a pretty big "wowza" as the solar canopy and storefront come into view! And of course, once inside the beautiful fresh food and buzz of good energy from both staff and customers was more wow! Then we drove them over to show them our Northampton store. It is always like a breath of fresh air to turn off the North King Street strip and come up the co-op driveway to be greeted by the beautiful stone cliff topped with trees (a reminder of the city's late 1800's stone quarry). The trees planted in our parking lot just 13 years ago seemed so lush and mature compared to the trees just planted in Easthampton. The terra cotta clay and reclaimed pallet wood artwork (by local artist Emmett Leader) around the store entrance also help set the stage for the care and spirit present inside the Northampton store. Upon entering, it's a vibrant hub of activity with friendly staff and, of course, an abundance of fresh local food. It's pretty fun to think about how the community came together to make both of these co-op stores! What beautiful places we have made! So much creativity and love go into both!
We are very grateful for the warm community welcome in Easthampton! It is hard to believe that it has already been over a month since we cut the ribbon on our Easthampton store and opened for business on July 1st. It is a special thing to be part of building something new. Our customers, staff, vendors, and Board of Directors all share in the process of developing our community-owned food co-op to meet our mutual needs and aspirations. That co-op community engagement is ongoing, which is exactly how we grew our co-op to Easthampton.
Opening a second store is a major organizational step that my co-op management peers with multiple stores have long told me was the hardest step in their food co-op's development. (They say the third store is a piece of cake by comparison, LOL. Way too soon for that.) We have been fortunate to learn from our co-op network and utilize the support from our National Co-op Grocers cooperative development services. We planned this project over multiple years to build the internal infrastructure needed as well as engaging our community in the process. For me, it has been just as much of a challenge and just as rewarding an experience as starting the co-op store in Northampton. Like the Northampton store, the Easthampton store project would have never gotten off the ground had it not been for the amazing community support behind it. And unlike our Northampton store start-up, this time we had the advantage of our dozen years of operating experience with a strong staff in place. We hired 83 new people before we opened in Easthampton, but this expansion also included over 30 promotions of current staff between both stores.
We've only been open a month in Easthampton, but the sales have already been stronger than we had anticipated. I want to give our Store Manager Liesel and Assistant Store Manager Dom, a big shout-out as well as the whole staff. They are developing into a strong team there already! On the administrative front, we've been busy revising our budgets and working to add more staff positions to support the larger than anticipated sales.
The most labor-intensive department in our stores is our Prepared Foods department. We expected this department to grow a lot in Easthampton, but the immediate demand has exceeded our capacity to fully meet it. We've had to cut back on our offerings in an effort to be able to keep up. As we build capacity, we will be adding to our menu. Our plan is to offer the best of our prepared foods items from the Northampton store and pilot new offerings in Easthampton and transition them to Northampton, eventually with most of the same offerings in both stores. But for now, we are working on building our capacity in Easthampton. Please stay tuned for updates on changes in the offerings over the coming months. Our Prepared Foods team is working hard, even with our limited menu, the volume of food going through Easthampton’s Prepared Foods department is nearly as high as the Northampton store. We expect a lot of changes to come in this department, but it will take some time and we appreciate your patience and support in the meantime.
Big thanks to Edward Cohen for making the 22 beautiful cedar picnic tables and Jim Nutter for staining them for our outdoor seating area. Edward is working on making 22 more picnic tables for us as well. Our goal is to have more events on the patio like the 2021 Millpond Live! lineup reveal event we did with Laudable Productions on July 24th featuring StompBoxTrio.
Easthampton Grand Opening!
We are working on plans for our grand opening celebration from September 15-29, which will include a party on the patio on September 24th with live music, food, and awarding of six $1,000 River Valley Co-op Community Fund Grants to area nonprofits. The grand opening will of course also include some exciting special deals and promotions over that two weeks. (BTW, our July 1st opening ribbon-cutting ceremony was indeed grand, and our store opening was that day, but it wasn't our "grand opening" it was our ribbon-cutting and new store opening.) Like many new businesses, we wanted to take some time to get a few of the kinks ironed out and finish all the construction before we launched our actual grand opening celebration. We are looking forward to celebrating the grand opening with you in September and hope you'll bring friends and neighbors to come visit the store and get some great deals on really good food! We are also working on an outdoor screening of CISA's Field Notes film as part of our grand opening festivities.
Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle and Edward Lee
Our EV chargers in Easthampton are now activated and online with Charge Point. All our EV chargers are in the first row of parking along Northampton Street. These EV chargers were made possible with funding from Eversource’s EV MakeReady program, MassEVIP WPF (one charging station for employee use) and MassEVIP PAC program (six charging stations for public access). Each charging station has two chargers for a total of 14 available. We have room to add several more and hope to secure additional funding to add them next year. The co-op is covering the first hour and it is $2/hour after that.
Big thanks to Monica Nuñez, River Valley Co-op Expansion Project Manager, for securing funding for these EV chargers!
I want to give our Co-op Expansion Project Manager, Monica Nuñez, a shout-out for her diligent work during this project. She has been busy ordering equipment and coordinating with our staff and contractors with the installation and building details. She has kept a sharp eye on the management of expenses and securing grants. Untold hours have been spent on planning and problem-solving, working with the general contractor project manager, other contractors, store management, store designer, architects, equipment suppliers, and city officials through the last four years. Monica has been key in managing the expansion project details for us, and we are on the home stretch now for finishing this project.
We are still in the process of finishing up the solar canopy installation and the solar battery installation. Thank you to RBI, PV-Squared, and Co-op Power! We are also working through the final details remaining on our general contractor's punch list, plus some additional things we saw we needed near the end of the project. There are also some pieces of equipment we are still waiting for, some local art installations that are in process, some final landscaping and tree planting. ArtFx recently installed our roadway entrance sign. We appreciate your patience as we work through finishing all the construction and installations.
We planted much of our site with a wildflower pollinator seed mix and it needs a full season of growth with no mowing before we go in to start pulling out any invasive volunteer weeds. We know it looks wild and unkept at this stage, but we’ve been instructed by professionals to let it do its thing this year undisturbed and it will transform into a wildflower meadow by next summer.
The Northampton store remains our larger volume store. Part of our plan was to take a little pressure off this store with the opening of Easthampton. We are adjusting to our new normal with a transfer of about 20% of our sales to the Easthampton store at the same time we also have a lot of staff in new management positions in this location. I want to give Jason, our Northampton Store Manager, and all the Northampton staff a shout-out for their good work through this transition period. We had projections of what we expected for the transfer of sales to Easthampton, and it looks like we will end up about where we expected on that. Whichever way it goes, we can adjust as long as we meet our overall sales goals. So far, sales have been above our projections and we are very happy to see how well the Northampton store has held onto its customer counts. It is notable that COVID cut our customer counts in half last year while the size of shopping trips increased dramatically. This really opened up our parking lot even pre-Easthampton opening because this shopping pattern change has not bounced entirely back to pre-COVID patterns.
The opening of the Easthampton store came about the same time as the ending of COVID-related business restrictions. We are seeing changes in shopping patterns just starting to return to more pre-COVID patterns with bigger weekend sales days returning. Another change is big declines in our curbside business over the last couple of months as the vaccines have made many more people much more comfortable to joyfully do their co-op shopping in person again. We are working on reclaiming the indoor deli seating area and rearranging for a smaller-sized curbside operation. We continue to monitor the current news related to COVID and if things change and demand for curbside spikes upward, we can always readjust again to meet the needs. Some people have asked about our Northampton salad bar and hot bar. We did take that piece of equipment out for good and are doing ongoing work on reinventing our prepared foods offerings without it for the immediate future.
We will be holding our Truck Load Sale September 3rd-6th in both our stores. This will be good practice for November’s big local turkey sales. We had to place our turkey orders in June this year by the way…how crazy is that as we prepare to open a new store in July?! I hope Easthampton likes our local turkeys like Northampton does because we ordered them for you! It is interesting how doing what we’ve done before in one store takes on added dimensions of communication logistics both internally and externally for two stores. With each holiday and event, we will be learning a lot about how to do what we do in two stores and adapting as new rhythms for the flow of customers develops in each store. COVID resulted in us all getting a lot of practice with change. But unlike COVID, the Easthampton store is a good change—and one we’ve planned for and long looked forward to. One co-op, two stores: we are starting our new fiscal year (July 1st – June 30th) on this new cooperative adventure together.
Thank you for your support in both stores. It is going to be a good year!
11 July 2021
Dear co-op owners,
It has been a little over a week since we ceremoniously cut the ribbon for the opening of our Easthampton store. First of all, a big heartfelt thank you for the warm welcome we had from the community in attendance for the ribbon cutting! One of the many highlights for me was when the Easthampton fire department paraded into our parking lot with their fire trucks to join the celebration! That was quite an honor! It was also an honor to have Easthampton’s Mayor Nicole LaChapelle participate in our ribbon-cutting ceremony along with the other special guest speakers that arrived to help give the Easthampton food co-op a meaningful opening day, including:
- David Brule, Chairman of the Nehantic Native Nation and Chairman of the Nolembeka Project, Inc.
- Dorian Gregory, President of River Valley Co-op's Board of Directors
- Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian, Founder and Director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership
- Jonathan Wright, Founder and Senior Advisor of the co-op’s general contractor, Wright Builders, Inc.
- Massachusetts State Senator John Velis
- Massachusetts State Representative Dan Carey
- Moe Belliveau, Executive Director of the Easthampton Chamber of Commerce
- River Valley Co-op Board Member Emily Laine with Ursula Marjoram, our bear
We counted about 250 people in attendance for the ribbon-cutting. The crowd included our heroic bankESB friends Maureen Mahar, Nathaniel Munson, and William Judd. The bankESB is our lead funder in the complex economic development financing for building Easthampton's food co-op. This local bank, located right across the street from us, also supported us through the pandemic with PPP funding. Members of the Fedor family were there too. The Fedors' are the former property owners who so patiently worked with us over several years while we raised the funding needed to purchase the property and build the store. In addition to our project team from Wright Builders, we were joined by many of the other tradespeople and contractors involved with building the store and the solar canopy, as well as the architects and designers, and the co-op development team from National Co-op Grocers. There were longtime co-op owners, new co-op owners, and community members from our new co-op neighborhood, along with a variety of city officials, local vendors, the UFCW Local 1459, many of our local non-profit friends, members of the school committee, and co-op employees that joined the gathering for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. We shared the ceremony live on Facebook so those who couldn't be there in person could also share the moment, including our employees working in our Northampton store where we showed it on the big screen in the produce department.
Chairman Richard Neal of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee had to be in Washington on the 30th, but he came to honor us with an in-person visit a few days before the opening to wish us well. The Chairman's support of our NMTC economic development funding was pivotal in the financing for the Easthampton store as well as our startup funding in Northampton in 2007.
Thank you to all who participated in making the day so very special. We feel blessed by the opportunity to have worked with such a welcoming community with so many different people that brought a wide diversity of skills, helpful support, dedication and inspiration to this project. We were overwhelmed with gratitude and some of us, including myself, shed a few joyful tears along with some big smiles. We did something nearly impossible to do, and we did it together as a community.
The video recording of the event is available below:
Once the ribbon was cut, the fun of inviting everyone inside to see and shop in their Easthampton food co-op began! Inside, the co-op staff that had been working so hard to prepare the store for opening went into action, opening the store for the first time together. We had more customers than we've seen in our Northampton store since pre-pandemic days. Thank you for that exciting support to kick off our opening day. This was more than we anticipated to start, and it really added to the festive vibe in the store. We were grateful for the opening support from the National Co-op Grocer's development team specialists who arrived before opening to help us set up and work with us through the 4th of July weekend.
We appreciate your feedback and support through these opening days and weeks as our staff works together to get adjusted to the workflow in this store and get to know more about meeting our customer needs in Easthampton. We plan to do our grand opening festivities in September.
Operations in a new store, while also concurrently completing all the construction and getting acquainted with a new building, means we have a lot of systems adjustments and development to do. We expect to keep getting better and better over time and appreciate your understanding in these early weeks. We are fortunate to have a really strong Director of Operations and Easthampton Store Manager in Liesel deBoor, as well as a strong management team, and many experienced co-op staff.
The department with the biggest lift in getting its operations going is the Prepared Foods department. We cook a wide variety of prepared foods from scratch, and that food production requires many more steps for getting the product to our customers than the other store categories. Executive Chef Lauren Kendierski and her team have some great plans for our Prepared Foods department, but we will be implementing them in steps.
The Prepared Foods department is really important to our store operations. The ready-to-eat foods highlight the fresh flavors of the season. Chef Lauren plans to do this with a variety of cuisine styles from around the world that feature our local vendors and the many natural and organic foods from our store shelves. It is also an important department for the community building that comes from bringing people together for meals, conversations, and events in our seating area, both inside and out. Developing the diversity of our offerings will be a work in progress over the coming months and we really appreciate your support as we go.
One Co-op: Two Stores!
Opening the Easthampton store was just as momentous as the start-up opening of our Northampton store in 2008. In 2008 it was all new. At the time, start-up food co-ops were rare. We were one of about five co-op start-ups since the 1980s. No one had opened a start-up at the size that River Valley Co-op planned, and success was not a given.
Interestingly, since then, over 120 new food co-ops have opened, and there are 90 more in development right now. In comparison to our Northampton opening, our expansion project in Easthampton had all the benefits of our 13 years of operating experience and the resources we and our co-op support system had built up over time. The $15 million in first-year sales we project in Easthampton is among the highest for new stores in our food co-op system, nearly double the groundbreaking first year we had in Northampton, and double the development investment of 13 years ago. It is a major organizational step to open a second location, and we've had deep support in our community and staff for this, as well a lot of technical support from the National Co-op Grocers' development team (our co-op of food co-ops), every step of the way.
We have heard from other co-ops that have opened multiple stores that the biggest surprise in a change from one location to two was the impact on the original location. It was helpful to have this information before it surprised us. Internally, one of the hardest aspects of this change is that we had become accustomed to constantly adapting to increasing store sales in Northampton over 13 years. To prepare for a second store opening, we added mid-level leadership positions a few years ago in hopes that we could launch our second store with many internal promotions. In the finalization of our staffing plans, the fact that we would be growing our sales by over 30% this year with two stores, both at lower sales volumes than we were accustomed to, really hit home. We planned for the Easthampton store to do $15 million in first-year sales based on our market study (this is about half what our Northampton store sales have been the last two years). We also planned for a 17% reduction in Northampton sales. This required adding a 83 staff to the overall organization to support the second store, but less total staffing in both stores than what we had been used to Northampton. Having fewer customers and staff in both stores will feel different. Many staff promotions (over 30 staff were recently promoted to higher-level positions) put us in a really strong position. Still, it also has the challenge of many people in new positions with different situations to manage. These are big changes, and change is always a bit challenging. So, as much work as it was to get the Easthampton store open (a feat made more Herculean by operating our store and doing construction through a pandemic for more than a year), the heavy lifting of working through the change from one store to two has only just begun.
I am happy to report we've had overall better sales for our initial opening period than we had anticipated. The impact on Northampton was a little less than we expected at this time, and sales were higher in Easthampton than we projected as well. We still think that sales will settle with more people doing more shopping in Northampton than Easthampton, but they may be closer in sales volume than originally projected by the end of the year. We are also in a time of transition from pandemic shopping patterns to post-pandemic shopping patterns, so many things are in flux as we watch the sales for clear patterns to emerge. July, August, and September are somewhat slower months of the year for sales compared to the rest of the year, so this gives us a chance to get on our feet at a relatively good time of year. We can adjust staffing in either store, and it will work out fine as long as we continue to reach the overall sales we projected. Starting with higher sales than we expected in our first week is a good sign, but we know we need to work hard to meet your needs well to keep people coming back in both stores. I'm also happy to report that the number of new co-op owners continues to climb. We had over 250 new owners the day we opened and every day, more people are joining. That is also a very encouraging sign!
What's Next in Easthampton?
We are anticipating getting our Easthampton store's EV chargers online in the coming week or so. Eversource installed the transformer on June 28th and we are awaiting the connection to their server so customers can use them. These chargers were made possible through Eversoure's EV Make-Ready grant funding. We will take the bags off them and announce it on social media when they are ready.
We are expecting our roadway entrance sign to be installed this week. That will help us feel even more officially open for business!
The solar canopy project is currently taking up about 60 parking spaces for solar panel storage and workspace. They will be installing the rails to hold the panels. Next, the panels that are parked along the wetlands end of the parking lot will be mounted on the canopy. They plan to finish by week at the end of July or early August, depending on the weather. The plan is to do a section every week so we open more parking spaces every week until it is completed.
There is also work to be done to pour the pad for the two 50 ton solar batteries and transformer near the driveway entrance. Eversource changed the code requirements several months ago for all solar installation projects. We are still awaiting a feasible interconnection agreement. We need approval on the final engineering requirements before we can finish this step and get the interconnection for the canopy completed. It is especially challenging because we had our interconnection agreement last summer and proceeded to get financing and start building based on that plan. A number of solar installation projects are in this same situation and we are all asking for support to be able to proceed with our projects. In the meantime, we need to keep the fence up along the entrance where the driveway is adjacent to the meadow and wetlands buffer zone. Big thanks to Co-op Power, PV-squared, RBI, and Wright Builders for their long work on this project.
The solar project has been a nail-biter at every step of the way. There is a lot to say about this, but the short story is that the current system makes it very challenging for private and community-owned solar installation projects to proceed. The reason not everyone puts a solar canopy over their parking lots is that the system requires a lot of upfront investment at high risk without clarity on utility timelines or utility charges that will be required to complete the project. We are keeping the faith, along with our partners at Co-op Power, that this will all come back together soon without added adverse impacts to our solar project plan.
In case you missed my last article, here is some helpful background information:
How did we get here?
We began dreaming of another store through a series of discussions at both the Board and staff level over multiple years. Our co-op had expanded every year in customers, sales, employees, local vendors, local purchases and the number of customers that invested as co-op owners. But we have not physically expanded the size of our facility or parking lot until now.
In 2014 the Board of Directors held a day-long multi-stakeholder strategic planning session with co-op owners that included customers, employees, and local vendors. Together we assessed our progress, challenges, needs, the grocery business environment, community impact and reviewed our values. At the end of the day, a vision emerged for the future of our co-op with multiple stores. Our key goals are growing the local foods movement, expanding Union job growth and advancement opportunities for our employees, serving more community members, and growing the cooperative movement. This vision received enthusiastic support from the membership and community. In many ways, the second store vision and plans were needed to catch up to how we had already expanded while also enabling us to support continued growth.
Our strategic plan included investing in improvements to our current facility and strengthening our operations first. We upgraded equipment, remodeled the store, and added supervisor and assistant management positions to prepare for the leadership needed in two stores. We conducted a market study to understand potential store volume, size, and locations for a second store and began a site search.
It is difficult to find locations for grocery stores due to the logistics required for parking, deliveries, and customer access. We prioritized a site within 4-8 miles of our current store, where a significant number of our current customers already lived. This location strategy supported our goal to take some pressure off our Northampton store by offering a more convenient location for many of our current co-op owners. The former car dealership in Easthampton was a great match for our needs. The property owners were supportive of our timeline requirements for community fundraising and planning. The Easthampton community is very welcoming of local businesses and we are very grateful for that support.
How did we fund our co-op developments?
We engaged our co-op owners in investing in these developments for a store remodel in Northampton and a second store with co-op owner loans. Our co-op generates the funds required for operating the store, but major real estate developments require additional owner investments and outside funding sources. Our co-op owners embraced the opportunity to invest in their co-op's development. 300+ individual co-op owners made loans totaling over $5 million.
These co-op owner loans leveraged the additional outside bank and economic development funding we needed for the $20 million Easthampton store project. Thank you to our co-op owners, bankESB, Massachusetts Housing and Development, National Community Investment Fund, Vermont Rural Ventures, Capital One Community Renewal Fund, Twin Pines Cooperative Development Foundation, and the Cooperative Fund of New England for their financial support.
- Co-op Power has provided the support for our amazing 928kw solar array constructed on the roof and a canopy over our parking lot.
- The City of Easthampton, with grant funding from MassWorks, provided the roadway and sidewalk infrastructure improvements needed.
- Grant funding through Eversource's Make-Ready and the state's Smart Program supported the installation of our EV charging stations.
Who did we work with to design and build the Easthampton store?
Our project planning and building team included our general contractor Wright Builders, a local contractor specializing in green buildings, the Berkshire Design Group for site planning, Thomas Douglas Architects for building design, National Co-op Grocers Development Co-op for store layout and equipment planning, and many local subcontractors. The solar project team includes Co-op Power, Solar Design Associates, and PV-Squared, as well as Wright Builders and multiple subcontractors.
It has been an intensely busy year. Our staff has been preparing and planning for the opening of the Easthampton store all through this last year while also dealing with operating our store during a pandemic. We've added over 80 new employees, over one thousand new co-op owners, as well as many new local vendors to our cooperative. All these new people engaging with our co-op are energizing for the whole organization and our many partners.
We are opening our Easthampton store amidst a time of overall transition from COVID to recovery. It feels like we are coming out of a kind of hibernation of sorts as a community, and it feels full of hope. What we look forward to most is seeing what good things we accomplish together over the coming years!
Thank you for all you do to support our community food co-op.
17 April 2021
Dear River Valley Co-op Community,
In the interest of transparency and to underscore the ongoing importance of remaining vigilant about the importance of COVID-19 safety precautions, we want to inform you that on Friday, April 16, 2021, we learned that an employee from our co-op store has tested positive for COVID-19. Please note that we are not required to provide this information by the health department or any other agency. The CDC and public health departments emphasize that a positive test result does not make River Valley Co-op a higher risk environment than other public spaces. We are providing this information because, as co-op owners, we know you care about our staff and how we are making our co-op operations as safe as possible for everyone in our community. We hope the following information helps you understand the key details of importance to you on these issues.
Out of respect for the employee's confidentiality, we will not share any employee information that will allow them to be identified. However, we can tell you that they last worked at the co-op on Wednesday, April 14, and are self-quarantining at home as recommended by their healthcare professional and will remain out of the workplace until recovered and meeting all required timelines and testing for eligibility to return to work.
Upon learning of the result, we notified our local health department. We are following all recommended guidelines from public health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and city, county, and state public health departments.
We have identified and notified all staff members who may have been in close contact with the affected person. They will be self-quarantining at home to self-monitor for symptoms until meeting the health requirements, timelines and/or testing for eligibility to return to work.
We've done extra cleaning and sanitation in the area of the store that the employee worked in. This is in addition to our ongoing regular daily sanitation routines and overnight cleaning procedures. We require face-coverings for all employees, as well as customers. Our ventilation system settings and equipment are designed to provide fresh air and filtration to help minimize the risks to both employees and customers inside the store.
As part of our daily COVID-19 safety practices, we ask that any employee with known contact with a person that tested positive within the last 14 days or who exhibits symptoms to stay home, contact our HR department, and notify their physician as appropriate. We also require a quarantine period and/or testing for employees that travel before they can return to work. Our co-op has a generous sick leave and vacation policy. We are working with staff members on a case-by-case basis to ensure they have the support they need for required self-quarantine monitoring periods or any illness.
Our co-op prides itself on its cleanliness, social distancing, and safety standards, and we are taking multiple steps to serve your needs, care for our staff, and be a responsible member of our community. Here is an overview:
- All staff members verify they meet all the COVID-19 safety work eligibility requirements daily.
- All staff self-monitor themselves throughout the day and stay/go home if sick
- All employees and customers are required to wear face coverings as well as washing or sanitizing hands.
- All employees and customers are asked to maintain 6-foot social distancing from others, and Plexi-barriers are installed where 6-foot social distance is not possible and interactions between people may extend to several minutes at a time.
- Our HVAC system equipment and settings are designed to provide ample fresh air and specialized filtration to help minimize risks to both employees and customers inside the store.
- All common areas such as offices, bathrooms, and shared electronic equipment are disinfected and cleaned routinely every day.
- All high touch surfaces such as grocery carts and hand baskets and door handles are disinfected routinely throughout the day.
We are very grateful that more and more community members (now also including grocery workers) are gaining access to vaccines to help limit the risks and spread of COVID. Everyone's ongoing support meeting our safety requirements while shopping and working at the co-op, as well as mindfulness of safety in other activities is highly appreciated! This widespread community attention to safety helps us all to support each other through this ongoing challenging time. We also want to appreciate our local health department for their dedication to prioritizing high safety standards, often exceeding the state requirements on key issues.
We are also grateful to our employees for keeping the store going every day and remaining focused on our mission of supporting local farmers and food producers, and providing fresh, healthy food for our community. In addition to regular shopping services, our co-op staff has developed an online ordering program for either curbside pick-up or delivery. We offer curbside pick-up service at no extra charge to help support our community's needs. We've been improving our system for this program and are now providing next-day pick-up for online orders. Click here for more information about our online services: http://rivervalley.coop/curbside-pickup.
This is the first time we've had to send you a notice of a positive COVID case in River Valley Co-op, which is a testament to the work of our employees and the support of customers to follow our safety guidelines. Thank you!
If you have any further questions, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you, everyone, for your ongoing support!
10 June 2020
Dear Co-op Owners,
Over the past couple of months, I’ve felt the unprecedented collective response required to fight the COVID-19 pandemic has in many ways elevated the national consciousness of our shared well-being and the importance of care and protection of each other. Making our store and staff safer through this crisis has been a collaborative process internally and we’ve had great community support as well. We’ve also engaged with a lot of local organizations to help support their work meeting new pandemic-related community needs. I’m very grateful for this supportive collaboration and community partnership through this difficult time. It is inspiring.
The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, followed closely on the heels of the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, has overwhelmed us with tremendous waves of fear, grief, and anger. White supremacy, the other deadly national pandemic, is terrifying. To echo the statement of our Board of Directors, racism has been a deadly disease raging through our country for over 400 years, killing countless people. Everyday racism is causing fear, pain, suffering and death for Black people and people of color in this country. Clearly, we are long overdue for an unprecedented collective response to fight this disease.
As the days have unfolded since George Floyd was murdered, unprecedented numbers of people have already come together to call for justice and an end to racism in widespread demonstrations across every state and the District of Columbia. Despite efforts by some to silence protesters and further divide us, there appears to be momentum building for solidarity that black lives do indeed matter and that we must join together to fight racism now.
I’m hopeful we can nurture this sense of shared responsibility on a national level to effectively unite in the work to dismantle racism. I recommit to this work in solidarity with people of color. I recommit, as a white woman with much to learn, to this work on a personal level, and I also recommit to this work on an organizational level as the manager of the co-op. I’m grateful for the support and guidance of LaDonna Sanders-Redmond, our Diversity Equity and Inclusion Program Manager, as well as the many local organizations and community members providing leadership, support, and education about undoing racism.
In a recent demonstration, co-op owner Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian said some things worth repeating and reflecting on, including the following: “White silence is violence. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’ White people, he was talking to us. There is no such thing as passive anti-racism. There is only active anti-racism. White people, we are either part of the problem or part of the solution. So let’s get serious about creating profound systemic change. White people, I’m talking to you: let’s get busy.“
Our hearts go out to all who have suffered and lost loved ones. We need to keep working together to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to unite now to fight racism and dismantle the white supremacy that has long plagued our country. To again echo the statement of our Board of Directors last week, we don’t have all the answers―but at the co-op our shared cooperative values of equality, democracy, and solidarity help guide us forward in our ongoing work for a just marketplace that nourishes the community.
Our community’s response of working together to care for each other is a good start on the work that lies ahead for building a better future. We are stronger together. Thank you for all you do!
An Update on Store Operations
Pandemic time in the co-op has been an intensely busy time for our employees. About a third of our staff have been out on leave due to a family member or themselves being in a high-risk category or having childcare issues. It has only been a few months, but the number of changes that have taken place makes it seem like years. The following summary highlights key issues, changes and what is coming next.
Expanding Hours in Our Store
In March, we cut back our hours in response to limited staff availability to ease the stress on those working. We have now increased our staff and also expanded our store hours to 8 a.m. - 8 p.m. as of Monday, June 1st. The first hour, 8 a.m. - 9 a.m., is reserved for those 60+ or people with high-risk health concerns. By increasing our hours, we can spread people out more evenly over more hours throughout the day. Over the last few months, shopping patterns have changed―our weekdays have become our busiest days, while weekends, which prior to COVID were our busiest, have been our slowest. Also, our formally busy weekday lunch hours (12 - 2p.m.) are now our quietest. This shows how much our collective routines have changed.
We are maintaining the maximum customer count of 40 people―a current health department requirement for social distancing. At this time, we do not have a specific date for going back to our regular 8 a.m. - 10 p.m. hours. We will make that decision based on recommendations related to COVID-19 safety for our staff and community, as well as our internal capacity.
Safety is Essential
Our priority has been to help keep everyone safer at the co-op. We've appreciated your flexibility as safety guidelines evolved and new practices were implemented at a rapid pace. You've supported our hand washing and sanitizing process, clean gloves, face masks, social distancing, limits on the number of shoppers, one-way aisles, the prohibited use of reusable packaging and bags and limited store hours with the first hour reserved for 60+ and others with high-risk health conditions. There have been a lot of changes for everyone to keep up with.
We will continue with safety measures for the duration of the pandemic and adapt them as needed. With more people out and about, it is as important as ever to remain mindful of all the key COVID fighting measures―especially in public locations. Of course, state and local officials call for self-quarantine of all persons with COVID-19, however any of us could have and spread the disease without knowing. To help protect us all from unknown exposure while shopping at the co-op, we require that you either wash your hands with soap and water or use the hand sanitizer we provide in the front entryway. We also offer, but do not require, gloves as an added layer of protection. We do require that all store customers and staff wear a face covering. We have some face masks you can purchase if you don’t have your own. A bandana or scarf that consistently covers your nose and mouth is also fine. Note that you must keep whatever covering you use over your nose and mouth at all times while inside the store. The concept of all of us wearing face masks is that we protect each other by keeping our droplets to ourselves. We are now requiring customers unable to wear face masks due to health conditions to wear a complimentary face shield in combination with attention to social distancing for shopping in our store. This is a measure we’ve developed in consultation with the Department of Health for employees unable to wear face masks due to health reasons as well. The face shields are not as effective as the face masks, however they do help mitigate the risks in combination with social distancing. Special thanks to UMass for the donated face shields. For those with allergies or health conditions preventing them from meeting our COVID-19 shopping safety requirements, we are also offering a curbside pickup service.
We know not everyone likes or agrees with everything we've implemented, but we are making these decisions based on the information we have to minimize health risks for us all. We appreciate your overall acceptance and support, as well as your feedback. It does seem that the measures we've been taking have been effective for minimizing our risk. We are very grateful for that―thank you!
Handmade Face Mask Donations
We've had lots of people sewing and donating cloth face masks for us, as well as taking the time to thank us for our work. The beauty and care of the handmade masks and the words of appreciation have helped buoy our spirits through this unprecedented period. Thank you for your heartwarming care and support!
National and Local Supply Chains
Through all of this, you've had patience and endured the disruptions in the national grocery supply chain resulting in erratic product availability. In my 35 years of co-op grocery business experience, I've never seen anything like this. It has been a hard couple of months for those of us working and we know it hasn't been easy for you either. We are continuing to work to bring in new vendors while seeking alternative supplies of key items that are in short supply. While the "in-stock" situation overall is much better than it was in late March and early April, we expect it to continue being erratic for the coming months. We appreciate your flexibility in brands and product options. An emerging supply shortage issue we are watching with concern is the anticipated shortage of paper grocery bags due to the combination of widespread plastic bag bans and COVID-19 restrictions on reusable grocery bags.
The “just in time” supply chain systems for everything―from food to other essential supplies―quickly collapsed in March when the whole country was advised to stock up their pantries. The national supply systems were incapable of responding to the immediate changes needed in this crisis. Overly stocking up exacerbates the problem. At the co-op, daily deliveries of grocery staples are still falling about 30% short of what we order. This is anticipated to continue for some time. In short, our large scale consolidated national food production and distribution system is built for efficiency and profit. It has not been built to allow us to stock up and meet our needs to get through a national and international crisis like this―at least not with the level of product availability we have become accustomed to when grocery shopping.
While we are seeing the weaknesses in the national food system, on the flip side we are seeing the strengths of local food supplies and the importance of essential workers, including immigrant workers in our food system. Local food producers are also facing challenges with the loss of customers due to the closure of schools and restaurants, the shortage of workers due in part to federal policy related to seasonal immigrant farmworkers, and the challenges of implementing COVID-19 safety measures in their operations. The good news is that local and regional independent food producers have enough diversity and flexibility to respond more quickly to changing community needs. They have come through to help fill our shelves at the co-op, as well as to fill a wide variety of community needs―from local breweries and distilleries making hand sanitizer to home deliveries and food donations. And importantly, because they are part of the community, they are more motivated to collaborate in problem-solving to address our mutual challenges.
Continuing to strengthen our local food systems and support essential workers, including our skilled immigrant farm workers, is clearly key to rebuilding our economy and communities. Cooperative businesses, cooperative values and working in partnership with local businesses and community organizations with attention to social and environmental justice are important parts of the path forward. Thank you for your participation and support!
What is next?
We are coming to terms with the reality that serving our community through the COVID-19 pandemic is not a short term project. It looks like we are going to be dealing with the disease until we have widespread effective vaccinations. This means we will need to continue with safety precautions moving forward over the coming year or more. This is longer than we originally expected when the pandemic arrived in March. That reality takes some emotional adjustment. It also requires some practical planning.
We have been serving up to 60 - 70 people daily with high-risk conditions by providing a curbside pick up service. We quickly put together a low-tech program for online orders and have been working to improve it over the last couple of months. Our goal has been to develop a system to support our most vulnerable community members immediately while working towards developing the capacity to roll it out to our full community.
We are in the process of a technological upgrade which includes an online ordering program in late summer. Our goal is an improved online ordering system for the curbside pickup program and opening it to everyone by fall. We have a vision to not only provide a much-needed community service, but also to make it a fun, interesting and engaging aspect of how we do community building, support local vendors and highlight our cooperative values.
In the meantime, we are continuing to develop our curbside program for those most at risk. For the foreseeable future, our former inside deli seating area has been repurposed for our curbside program staging area.
The stay-at-home guidance included no on-site dining, so we shut down our indoor and outdoor seating areas. Even prior to that, we closed our popular self-serve fresh salad and hot foods bar, and we doubt that feature will be back. We still have great made-to-order sandwiches and pizzas for takeout, freshly made sushi, and we've expanded our Grab n' Go meal offerings and composed salads.
We are now working on a redesign of our programs for takeout orders and meal kits to utilize a more convenient ordering, payment, and pickup system. We hope to finalize our plans and start phasing in the implementation over the coming months, so stay tuned.
We eliminated our bulk scoop bins because of potential issues with hand scoops being a heavy touch point for the potential spread of COVID-19. We also eliminated all reusable containers for the same reason. We have continued to offer bulk via gravity bins, which offer all the benefits of bulk purchasing with minimal touch and risk of contamination. We have been pre-packaging as much as we can to replace the scoop bin products. We have replaced our jars of herbs and spices with pourable containers. We are also in the process of bringing in new liquid bulk dispensers to meet our customers' needs for cost-effective quality solutions with less packaging. We don’t know when reusable packaging will be allowed again or what steps will be required for us, but the use of gloves in this department is likely for the long-term.
Thank You to our Employees
It has been nearly three months since our employees found themselves as essential workers on the front lines of a world pandemic. While grocery shopping in a world pandemic has many challenges, working in a grocery store during a world pandemic has at least many challenges―and most of us are full-time. We’ve worked through a lot of issues to improve our procedures and adapt our facility to meet the new needs for sanitizing and social distancing. We’ve all learned it isn’t easy working in a cloth face mask all day long, and a few of us are wearing face shields as the next best option because we are unable to wear the face masks. We’ve developed many new systems and keep adapting them to work better. We are so lucky to have such a talented and dedicated team. They take safety seriously, and they take their role in providing essential community service seriously. Through all of this, our employees have maintained their commitment and pride in supporting local food producers, providing delicious, fresh and healthy food, and providing authentic welcoming service. A big thank you to our co-op staff!
Thanks again for your support! Shopping for groceries has been a whole different experience in many ways since the pandemic stay-at-home guidance began. Your ongoing support with your shopping dollars has kept us buying from our local vendors and farmers. It has also kept our staff employed at well deserved higher compensation levels as essential workers on the front lines of the pandemic. We know you have non-local options for groceries and your commitment to our co-op and the local economy makes a difference. None of us expected to be on the front lines of a pandemic crisis, yet here we are―stronger together, doing our best to serve and support our community safely and to continue working for the greater good. Thank you for your support!