Friday, October 05, 2007

Bumps in Road to Park Slope Food Coop's Time Shift to 1990

There's either something weirdly charming or alarmingly strange about an establishment in which the installations of debit card readers in 2007 can be a topic of much excitement. Yet, that's the case at the East Berlin People's Food Coop Park Slope Food Coop. The Coop, as many people know, is either a beloved institution with anti-corporate values or the reason Park Slope craves a Whole Foods built in a toxic hole in Gowanus, depending on one's point of view. Readers at OTBKB have been reporting in about some pretty long lines and the Brooklyn Paper has a full story on the Coop's brave journey into the Reagan 80s. Miraculously, members can now circumvent the cashier's line by swiping their card at the checkout. The normal routine, which always brought to mind buying North Vietnamese vodka in a state-owned store in Bucharest in 1988, goes like this: Wait on checkout line so items can be totaled. Take receipt to cashier to pay by cash or check. Take that receipt to worker at door who mysteriously looks at one's bags and stamps the receipt. (Can you say, "create employment by bloating the staff, comrade"?) The glitches--freezing readers, cards not going through, lines around the store, should be cleared up shortly. The story, however, is priceless.
[Photo courtesy allysonmurphy/flickr]



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now, now. There was a reason the payment process had three steps. Breaking the check-out process in two was done in order to limit the number of people handling cash reduced the risk of mistakes/loss/theft. And the checking of the receipts at the exit door (one from check-out giving you the tab, one from the cashier when you pay) was to make sure that you had actually paid for your groceries, instead of just walking out!

Yes, there's a lot of labor redundancy at the co-op, but that's because so much of the work is done in 2.5 hour increments by people who are only there once every four weeks. Regular, full-time jobs have to be broken up into small parts, which inevitably leads to waste.

Yes, we are thrilled to be able to use debit cards! There are a lot of reasons it took so long, including the unusual nature of the co-op's "business" model. The computer system had to be specially tailored to our needs, which include tracking joining and investment fees, and easy access for managers to the computerized menu (because we buy so much seasonal produce, our product list changes frequently). The first company hired was bought out by another company that decided the job was not right for them. The second company hired got bought out twice over. Although they stuck with us, it led to further delays.

And because all major changes at the co-op require a degree of consensus on the part of the membership, that part took a long time too. There was a lot of discussion about whether we would accept credit cards, and concerns about the charges merchants have to pay credit card companies, among other things, among many other issues. The co-op definitely takes its time, but by the time we do something, most members are on board.

Clearly, I'm one of those who find the co-op weirdly amusing. It's a remarkable institution -- really the only one of its kind in the entire country. It's a one-stop market where every shopper is also a worker. For over 30 years, it has provided a link between the city and local farmers (the co-op single-handedly supports several upstate farms). You will not find fresher produce or goods anywhere -- the entire inventory of the store turns over more than 52 times per year. And it's affordable -- organic produce at the co-op cost about the same as conventional produce anywhere else.

Sure, there are plenty of inconveniences and it isn't for everybody. But for over 12,000 co-op members, it's indispensable.

--Sincerely, proud co-op member since member numbers were only four digits long!

10:45 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Well said, anon, although you are much more patient with GL than I am. This proud member thinks all the "East Berlin Food Coop" comments are pretty stale and unoriginal. I can only shop during the dreaded and overly crowded weekends, but I still love the Coop and its organic, community-centric ways. I thought Liberal wasn't a dirty word anymore?

3:20 PM  
Blogger JackSzwergold said...

&I'm a tad disappointed at the condescending tone of the post. I think that any complaint about the Park Slope Food Co-op should provide perspective on the other options. Ever wait in line at the Pathmark at Atlantic Terminal? Takes forever and not pleasant. Ditto with Target which is 2 blocks away from me but I avoid like the plague. The "express; lines there are barely express. And security grabs you to check receipts on everything. Trader Joe's at Union Square? Those lines are WORSE than anything I have seen at the co-op.

The main reason people join the PSFC is good food at affordable prices and while the working 2.5 hours per month to be a member sounds "harsh" to some, that's laughably easy to handle. Mainly because it's 2.5 hours every four weeks. And you work where you want to work. And if you can't do something, let people know and they will help. As a work environment I must say it's actually one of the nicer places to work... Even if it is for a few hours... And since you get to know people in the co-op and see them every 4 weeks, it's pretty friendly.

If people complain, whatever. It's your choice to be a member. And it's actually a great community asset in an age where "community" in Brooklyn is a joke at best.

Anyone who complains deserves to just sit at home and wait 4 hours for Fresh Direct to maybe deliver what they ordered correctly.

Oh debit cards. What the anonymous poster above said is 100% true. Despite the delays, the system is great and works better than one would expect. If people find it quaint, c'mon. The place isn't a retail store. It's a group effort. And honestly it speeds up checkout despite the length of lines; people need to get used to the fact the lines are long but the turnover is faster.

3:39 PM  
Anonymous slick said...

I dont need a second job in a grocery store so I can buy arugula.

9:23 PM  
Blogger Marie said...

No! Viva the caustic blogpost Viva!

One thing: Co-Op's produce is delish.

Other thing: I like to mess with them by walking in (oh, maybe once a year) and acting as though I belong. No more than two seconds and I practically hear the click as automatics are taken off safety, leveled at my back, and somebody screams HALT!!!!!!

It's fun. For me anyway.

10:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First commenter here:

I want to add that if the only benefits of the Co-op were the freshest foods anywhere at the lowest prices, that would probably be enough to keep it going. But I agree with Lisa and Jack that the Co-op delivers other, more intangible benefits, such as a sense of community. It's a chance to live outside our relentlessly profit-driven, commercial culture.

My commitment to the Co-op was reaffirmed when I read The Omnivore's Dilemma. Pollan focuses on how the problem of distribution -- the system that delivers food from where it's grown to where it's sold -- turned organic farming into organic agribusiness, with all the attendant ills, especially the massive use of fossil fuels. Organic agribusiness does not preserve rural communities; it does not preserve that countryside we all love to visit. Organic agribusiness may be an improvement over conventional agribusiness, but it still leaves a lot to be desired.

Relatively small scale farms cannot sell their goods to national corporate chains like Whole Foods. Whole Foods, for the sake of efficiency, has to deal with other large corporations that can provide a full line of items year-round. Only agribusiness can do that. Only a large corporation can shift it's production facilities from California to Mexico every winter in order to keep supplying Whole Foods with arugula, no matter the season.

The co-op does stock produce grown around the world so that we can have lettuce in January, but our buyer strongly favors local farms. Much more than any other market, the items available vary seasonally.

I could go on, but I'll stop!

1:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since I occasionally go to Pathmark and Target to pick up things the co-op doesn't carry (and took the train to Trader Joe's once but abandoned the effort when I saw the line was going to take longer than my subway ride) I have to echo what Jack said. If the co-op were part of a big corporation, we'd be testing the debit cards at one register while we continued the old way otherwise, to get out the kinks, but at the coop that would cost us more.
While I admit I am using my debit card to avoid waiting in two lines, I'm still a bit concerned that each transaction is costing the coop money. These bank fees have to affect the markup. (I'm one of those people who brought pockets full of exact change because I know the coop pays the bank a premium for the rolled up change we use).
But it still will be nothing like the prices at Back to the Bank or Whole Check Foods.

6:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I tried out shopping at the co-op this past weekend after attending orientation. I live in Manhattan so joining is questionable, and working in the egalitarian atmosphere will be interesting to say the least. But the quality and freshness of the food was extremely impressive. I also like the idea of supporting small organic farmers. The bottom line is that you get top quality food for reasonable prices. I purchased Swiss chard which seemed fresher than what I get at the farmers market. Amazing.

7:16 PM  

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