Feb. 25 2015 12:00 AM

East Lansing Food Co-Op increases share price to stay afloat

It was 1976. Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” was on the Top 40 charts. The Oldsmobile Cutlass was the hottest selling car. And food co-operatives were popping up around the country, including mid- Michigan.

It was in that atmosphere the East Lansing Food Co-Op was incorporated as a buying club for those who wanted healthy, organic food and eventually grew to the store we know today on Northwind Drive in Meridian Township. The system is supported by owners who buy shares. Over the years that price leveled to $60 per share per vote.

But the “love to love you” business is focusing on the bottom line as it continues to lose revenue even before Whole Foods Market opens across the street.

To stem that tide and to have its share price in line with other Michigan co-ops, the price of shares will go from $60 to $240 April 1.

“It’s a huge jump,” said David Finet, the co-op’s general manager. “It’s something we’ve needed to do. The challenge is to explain the value.”

The share increase is just one of several strategies in play for the food cooperative, including possibly moving or creating a satellite location on Lansing’s east side at the Allen Market Place.

“Some are saying you’re not freaking out nearly enough,” Finet said about Whole Foods opening soon across the street. The 36,000-square-foot grocery store is expected to open this year. Officials with Whole Foods and the project manager, Grand Rapidsbased Wolverine Building Group, did not return calls for comment.

“Standing and fighting on Northwind Drive may not be our best purpose,” he said of the 4,500-square-foot store location that’s set back from Grand River Avenue.

The co-op has 3,500 owners, according to Finet. Of that only about 1,400 are active, meaning they’ve come into the store in the last month.

Owners buy a share once and receive monthly discounts.

If the 1,400 kept their shares and paid the $180 difference that would infuse $252,000 into the co-op’s coffers. Owners have 12 months to pay their balance of their share equity.

Finet said the co-op lost $24,000 in revenue last year, continuing a trend that’s several years long. He said when he became general manager in 2006 the co-op was los ing $15,000 a month. That bleed has been controlled to about $20,000 for the year in 2012 and somewhere between $8,000 and $12,000 in 2013.

He said the road construction on Grand River and Michigan Avenue in 2012 had a big impact on the store.

“We lost of lot of business,” he said. “We haven’t rebounded.”

Owner Yvonne LeFave said she supports the increase in share equity.

“The price of everything has gone up,” she said. “This is a nominal increase that just helps close the gap.”

The increase in share equity could be a shot in the arm the co-op needs to steady itself and sell itself anew to a community inundated in natural, organic foods and more farmers markets offering local produce.

Finet said the co-op isn’t in competition with those stores because the co-op is more than a store. It’s a community, living an ethic.

Finet said the co-op’s purpose has a “triple bottom line.”

“We need to be financially stable, environmentally kind and socially responsible,” he said.

Being a part of the co-op means you support these missions and want the business to practice these ethics. Examples include the recent “environmentally soft” remodel and installation of $25,000 solar panels.

“We are not rebranding,” he said. “We need to trumpet why we believe a co-op is a more just option.”

Finet said Elfco supports making healthy food accessible and ending food deserts — areas where fresh produce and grocery stores are non-existent.

“What I’d like to see for Elfco is to be not unlike Quality Dairy in this town where there’s a neighborhood Elfco Quality Dairy on every corner,” he said.

Tying social consciousness with commerce can be a hard sell for people with meager means and for a store to stay in the black.

“It comes down to whether or not people want that on the consumption side,” he said. “We need to start that conversation to see if folks believe in community control.”

Owner and former board member Julie Cotton said community outreach and socially-motivated spending is difficult.

“Just like Fork in the Road, it´s hard to make ends meet if consumers aren´t willing to or able to make it out for your product,” Cotton said, referring to the farm-to-table restaurant on Lansing’s westside that closed last year. “I don´t know that Lansing folks are driven to make purchases based on that.”