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Co-op Community News: A New Chapter with Our Giant Eagle Partnership

By: LeAnna Nieratko, CEO/GM | 2023-11-16

Greetings, Co-op community! We’re thrilled to bring you exciting news about a significant development at our downtown Erie Food Co-op. In collaboration with Giant Eagle, we’re introducing a new line of affordable food staples. This represents a unique collaboration between our community-owned co-ops and a larger corporation in the same retail space. This partnership underscores our commitment to meeting the diverse needs of our community utilizing new strategies when our traditional channels aren’t able to.


Background of the Co-op:

As a community-owned cooperative, the Co-op is dedicated to serving its customers and adapting to the evolving needs of the community. Since [some occasionally debated date in] the 1970s, the Co-op has been locally owned and controlled.  The needs of the community are decided and driven by member-owners who elect a Board of Directors to steer the Co-op based on their feedback.  This can sometimes be challenging, as the Co-op is a refuge for many people with specific needs and expectations.  Over the years there have been many impassioned debates about our food system at Board meetings, with valid points made on either side of complex issues.  The Board has to juggle accessibility, cultural needs, dietary needs, and important social values that may differ over the 7,000+ member-owners they represent.  It’s really valuable for community members to have this outlet of control, even when the topics are challenging.  Working together on solutions is what makes Co-ops great.  As the outside world changes, so too do the needs of the customers and the challenges the Co-op must face to meet them.

In the early days, Co-op shoppers were looking for alternatives to new supermarkets that were carrying mass produced products from faraway places.  The Co-op became a place where member-owners could trust the ingredients and sourcing of products they were buying, with a focus specifically on organic (which wasn’t easy to find at the time).  Since then, supermarkets have adapted to have more varieties of sourcing to include organic, but in doing so have needed larger and larger footprints, and a greater economic certainty of success. This is generally calculated by the median income of potential consumers in the area, meaning neighborhoods with low median incomes are having to travel farther and farther to grocery shop.  As many large grocery retailers in the city shutter or move out into the suburbs over the years, the Erie community began to search for grocery stores who would be willing and able to service neighborhoods without food access.  This brought member-owners and community leaders to the Co-op to ask how community ownership could meet this need by running a smaller scale store.  What began as a response to the lack of organic options has transformed into a commitment to providing affordable and accessible groceries, especially in Downtown Erie.  


Challenges in Downtown Erie:

Opening a downtown location posed challenges amid the landscape of Erie city’s food options.  Prior to opening, we held listening sessions to gain feedback on what we would need to do to be successful in a new location.  These sessions revealed, among other things, a clear need for affordability.  We curated a product list through our existing distribution channels, but knew we were up against higher prices than many folks are used to due to our size.  Our legacy distributor is primarily natural/organic foods which also carry a higher price point than conventional groceries.  

Many distributors arrange pricing based on the total amount the retailer is expected to purchase.  They also set minimum purchase amounts for delivery. We tried to find new conventional distributors, but were met with high prices and very high order minimums that, at our sales volume, we would be unable to maintain.  The downtown store is so small and does not make enough to support more than one delivery from a conventional distributor every other week, so this would make sourcing produce or perishable items unsustainable. Thankfully, we have relationships with other co-ops to maintain our distribution with our natural distributor, but these prices and products were not necessarily what the community Downtown was looking for.  

The Downtown Co-op is supported by a great community of regulars and supporters.  With these challenges in mind, we gathered together to engage in brainstorming on what it would take for us to have the products and pricing that is needed to serve the community we’re in.  We tried a lot of different things, but the reality was simply that we needed a distributor who could sell to us at prices we could reasonably pass on and would deliver to us without the really high order minimums.  We met with interested parties from the Erie Downtown Development Corporation (EDDC), Erie Insurance, The Erie Community Foundation,  the Arctaris Impact Fund, and many others.  It was in these conversations we discovered that we had some connections to people working on food insecurity at Giant Eagle.  The idea that they could be a distributor for us, considering they have stores somewhat nearby, seemed far-fetched, but we were in a position where we needed to just make the ask and see what was possible.  


The Giant Eagle Partnership:

Enter the innovative partnership with Giant Eagle!  Giant Eagle is a Pittsburgh-based giant in the grocery industry, who has a stated commitment to fighting food insecurity. After the initial pitch, some Giant Eagle representatives came and toured the store. They were immediately troubleshooting with us on what products we need and how to get them.  It took some time to work through the logistics, but we have received our first shipment and have a system in place to get regular deliveries.   With this partnership we are able to carry a wider variety of affordable conventional produce, more recognizable brands at affordable prices, and the products we are required to carry to participate in a program to provide nutrition services to women, infants and children (WIC). 

This collaboration allows us to tackle challenges head-on. Recognizing the need for a distributor with the buying power that a community-owned co-op lacked, Giant Eagle found a way to participate in our local food system and give back to the community.


What’s Happening Now:

We've already introduced a number of items to our shelves through this partnership. These products are not just any items; they are familiar brands that our customers know and love, all at great prices. The response from customers has been overwhelmingly positive, and we’re eager to grow this selection based on your needs.



We anticipate you might have questions, so let’s address some FAQs:


What does this mean for prices? 

Prices will be influenced by the new distribution channels, but we remain committed to affordability.


Do I get a discount? 

Discounts and specials may differ from Giant Eagle stores, but we will have internal discounts and specials, as always.


Will you still carry my favorite items? 

Absolutely! We’re committed to retaining beloved products and catering to special dietary needs.


What if my favorite item isn’t available anymore? 

Share your feedback; our community partnership relies on open communication.


Will you also have these items at the 26th Street location? 

While not currently available, we’re exploring expansion based on community demand.


Thank You!

We’re immensely excited about this new chapter and look forward to continuing our journey as your community-owned Co-op. Your feedback and support have brought us to this point, and we’re here to ensure the Co-op remains a place that reflects the desires and needs of our community. Stay tuned for more updates. Together, we’re building a stronger, more vibrant food system.

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