Dec. 14 2016 12:26 AM

Troubled Food Co-op puts building up for sale

The East Lansing Food Co-op, which has been troubled financially for several years as competition has increased in the healthy food market, has placed its building on the block.

“We’re concerned about being able to pay our bills,” said Anne Woiwode, speaking for the board of directors. She added that the co-op has been able to hold on longer than many expected.

The board voted last week to recommend the sale to the co-op’s owners, who will receive a letter in January. Meanwhile, the board has listed the property, at 4960 Northwind Drive, with Realtor James Vlahakis for $675,000. The property is listed as 8,044 square feet, of which about half is occupied by the food co-op’s retail store, which is open to the public. The rest is leased.

Woiwode said that in addition to cash flow concerns, the co-op wants to preserve its equity, which she valued at $100,000 to $200,000.

She discounted a report that foreclosure was imminent, but she said the mortgage holder, Lake Trust Credit Union, is “concerned about our finances and wants us to be realistic.”

The food co-op is located a few blocks from two major healthy food competitors, Whole Foods, which opened last spring, and Foods for Living. Meijer and Kroger are nearby in Meridian Township.

“We’re at a location that is extremely well populated with grocers,” Woiwode said.

She said that if the owners decide to sell, the co-op would not necessarily relocate, at least immediately, even though several communities have expressed an interest in having it.

“We’ve been batting around some ideas,” she said, such as forming a buyers' club, participating in farmers markets, selling through special orders and serving vegans, “who don’t have a whole lot of options.”

“This is the beginning of the discussion.” Woiwode said the co-op is in some ways a victim of its own success.

“Ironically, we were at the cutting edge” in the Lansing area of introducing organic products that are much easier to find now, not just at grocery stores but at farmers markets and elsewhere, Woiwode said.

But she said the co-op’s mission isn’t just about the groceries it provides but the “value of having a community-owned store.”

She said it is more committed to its workers than large corporations. It is also more involved in the community through volunteer efforts by members, as well as by providing financial support.

“Cooperatives are not the most efficient corporate structure,” she said, “but they are the most democratic. And that, for us who are the owners, is what really matters.”