I am currently recovering from a knee replacement, an unfortunate reminder that age and arthritis march along, regardless. This has occasioned me to be ever so grateful to our entire staff and to my colleagues on the management team, for allowing me to be offsite for several weeks in recuperation while things around the store continue to hum along at a pretty good clip.
The most important announcement this month is that we were able to finalize negotiations on the new contract with our union employees. Negotiations are always long and gnarly, and sometimes make all who participate wish they were doing something else. But nonetheless, the hard-working team members on both sides of the table stuck with it and in the end, chose priorities that we could honor in the next two and a half years. It is fair to say that both sides were comfortable with the outcome.
This process also calls up our never-ending struggle to meet occasionally competing priorities. We are very well taken care of in our benefits and health insurance options, a choice that was made years ago and that we have continued to prioritize despite the crazy costs of health care. It is no secret that we remain committed to our starting wages and annual increases, in order to ultimately arrive at a truly living wage in today’s very challenging environment. This long arc is frustrating to both the bargaining unit of the Co-op and the management team. But we have, as I have said a hundred times, three constant requirements: improving the situation for our staff, ensuring good economic support for our vendors, and presenting good prices and promotions to our customers. Mixed into all of this is the debt service that we are slowly but surely working down from the great leap that our Co-op made over ten years ago in planning and constructing this home that we now occupy.
Each of these priorities have underlying goals. In continuing to upgrade our support for our staff, we have to get better at our operations, so that we can be more efficient and less wasteful, in order to have more profitability to spread around in wages. These process changes can be difficult and sometimes seem more disruptive in the short term. But to ensure our long-term viability, and our commitment to our staff, we have to be very focused over the next couple of years to tightening up the ship. We have made good progress on this, but there’s much more to do.
In supporting our vendors by paying fair prices for product and prioritizing local farms and producers, we also have to look at our role in the predominant food system that historically and fundamentally relies on immigrant labor, often in poor conditions, and essentially has blocked the success of farmers and producers of color. (If you need more information about this, I heartily recommend becoming familiar with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to understand the shocking effects of our chasing black farmers off of their land, and with Food Solutions New England, which every year presents a 21-day Racial Equity Challenge in which you can engage, a very worthwhile effort.) So, our task is complicated.
And in continuing to improve our shelf prices and the breadth of our offerings to better serve our entire community, we also have to uphold our operational excellence to make this possible. We have to continue to be most vigilant over our margins, so that we can offer good prices without sacrificing profit on these sales. Obviously, that profit makes all the rest possible, including debt service and replacing aging or inadequate physical infrastructure.
And COVID, with all of its challenges, drones on, adding more steps, concerns, and tension that impacts our staff and our customers significantly.
It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world out there, but there are twinkles of light at the end of some of our tunnels. Despite our early assumptions that grocery store workers who have put themselves on the line since March would be among the first few groups to receive vaccinations, this has not proved to be the case. Still, if we can remain sharp and careful—and we know how to do that pretty well—then we can make it until next summer, or whenever they finally get to folks younger than 65 in Vermont. Our sales volume has continued to be strong, and we have been managing inventory well despite some curious out-of-stocks from distributors. When restaurants reopen for real, this sales growth will undoubtedly slow. But we are hoping that you have discovered some new pleasures of cooking at home, and will want to keep some of those new discoveries alive when life returns to a bit of normalcy. And we have lots of work to do for our farmers, future farmers, and producers of color. Cooperatives understand better than most that if we attack a problem as a group, spreading investment over a large base, we can do anything.
So let’s keep working on these priorities. You are very much part of the solution too, and your support will be key to our continued improvement.
See you in the aisles. Stay safe out there.
By Sabine Rhyne, General Manager