C'mon, you know what goes on behind the scenes: hidden at every retail counter there is a big money shredder, and as soon as you spend a dollar on something-say groceries, a CD, some clothes-the dollar is destroyed forever. No, of course that's untrue, but isn't it how we often think about money? After you spend it, it's gone, so you better be economical and get things as cheaply as you can.
In reality there is no shredder, and if you spend that dollar to buy something from your neighbor, your neighbor will probably end up spending that same dollar to buy something from you, or to employ you, or to fill potholes in your street. And if you spend that dollar to buy something from a company owned by Australians, that dollar will go far away across the sea: good for Oceania, but not so good for you, your job, the potholes in your street.
This is exactly what C.E. Pugh-former general manager and de facto project manager for Santa Fe's La Montañita Co-op-means when he says, "This business of always looking for the lowest price is what has put so many locals out of business. At La Montañita we're trying to say "No, that's backwards!' If you want to have local producers, if you want the opportunity to have a local regional bounty, then the people who are producing that have got to make a living. That means we as the consumer have to see value in paying more for this locally produced product than we pay for the stuff in California. The money you pay into the community, comes back to you."
C.E. is passionate about La Montañita, its 100% organic produce, its New Mexico-raised beef, and the fact that 20% of the store's sales come from locally produced goods. On top of that, he is a big advocate of the whole co-op concept, and apparently so are Santa Feans. Since taking over The Marketplace more than two years ago, La Montañita experienced at least 20% growth month after month, so much so that when the landlord offered the space next door for expansion, it seemed like the obvious next step. The new open feeling of the grocery and dry-goods store offers a more browseable produce area, a more extensive deli, and shelves that are better stocked. There will be greater variety now on the shelves and in the bulk bins as well as better work-stations for employees, resulting in even more delectable food in the deli and grocery areas.
"We put our money where our mouth is," states Pugh, who emphasizes that because La Montañita is a consumer-owned co-op, the revenue stays here in New Mexico. Just think about the options-from Trader Joe's the money is siphoned off to the German corporation that owns it, and from Whole Foods the money is distributed to shareholders all over the world. At La Montañita, the assets of the business are owned by the members, like a credit union. They can vote for members of the board of directors to govern the business on their behalf, and best of all, members receive a check each year for a percentage of the profit based on how much they spent at the co-op. So the more involved consumers are with their local co-op, the more they will quite literally profit from it.
In addition to supporting shoppers with end-of-year refunds and voting power, the co-op concept puts an interesting kink in America's beloved concept of "healthy competition." Yes, La Montañita competes with other health food and grocery stores such as Whole Foods and Wild Oats, but at the same time these shops are also functioning in an interdependent, cooperative manner-they have to.
La Montañita actually has a fleet of trucks that distributes organic produce from regional growers to Whole Foods, Raileys, Sid's, and other "competing" independent grocers. It is called the Regional Foodshed Project, and its purpose is to keep alive those small farms and dairies on whom La Montañita depends. States C.E., "You have to keep in mind that the focus, the outcome, is to help drive local and regional business. It's going to take more than La Montañita's business to make a meaningful impact there, so we desperately need retail partners like Sid's and Raileys and others to buy from them." Wait a minute, did someone say cooperation? In this day and age?
"Remember," says Pugh, "the needle we want to move is the economics of the local producers, and it's going to take all of us." After all, the average age of a small farmer in America is around 60 years old. Many of the small farms in this region are going to die away when the children raised on them grow up, look at the economics of the situation, and say, "You want me to work that hard for HOW much money?" The loss of these local growers would mean a great loss for people who love homegrown foods, it would seriously impact La Montañita's business, and it would also negatively affect the local economy. Whenever a small business goes under, other small businesses in the area feel the effect as big box stores become more and more powerful. "If we're not careful, we'll wake up and it'll all be coming from China," says Pugh. "That's the endgame we're looking at."
C.E. admits that it isn't easy. As long as the co-op is serving the members well, things do run smoothly, but when a good percentage of the store's 14,000 members start to feel unsatisfied they can come to board meetings and they can email the board; there is likely to be a lot of input that needs to be sorted out. The upside, however, is that instead of simply becoming dissatisfied and switching to another store, as folks do in the typical competitive model of commerce, buyers stick around, get involved, and try to make a difference. "It's a good problem to have," says Pugh, but he also states, "I don't want to paint this beautiful picture. There's a sign out there right now: "Joe's Main Street breads no longer available'." Yet another local producer has closed. These are tough times, and let's face it: no one is going to make their first million on a small-scale Taos bakery.
Says C.E., "We have the best and the most expensive produce in town. People make fun of us. They say we're the rich hippies or the rich elite grocery store...but I challenge the assumption that it's all wealthy people. There is another whole body of people out there that have an awareness, but are certainly not wealthy. These are people who make conscious choices about where they are going to put their resources."
Indeed, many co-op shoppers are those who have noticed that if you buy conventional groceries and, for the sake of the savings, are willing to eat strawberries that are the furthest thing from sweet and spinach that is big and leafy but relatively taste-free, you are likely to develop a post-dinnertime habit of browsing the cabinets for something more.
Says Pugh, "Eating organic foods, you can eat less and feel more satisfied." Then there is the savings in health-care costs from getting better nutrition in your food. In fact, La Montañita is not just a different place to shop, it's a kind of paradigm shift in the mind. After all, how does a gourmet chef shop? Do you think he or she goes out looking for the biggest bunch of broccoli, the fattest potato with the most starch per pound? No, in fact foodies look for choice morsels-a handful of organic, sweet, young snap peas; a tomato with an irresistable, spicy aroma; greens with small, tender leaves that will be served in minute but delicious portions. Consumers don't have to take some kind of specialty cooking course to bring gourmet foods into their homes; all they have to do is think about quality instead of quantity.
La Montañita is not standing on principle alone, either. The store has experimented with carrying less-expensive, lower-quality, organic produce. It was a dismal failure. By "voting with their forks," La Montañita's members have made it clear that they prefer to spend more per pound and get premium goods, many of which are not available elsewhere in town. Also, while other health-food stores in town do give limited support to local growers, La Montañita's total commitment to the local economy and the people behind it really appeals to people who are, well, locals.
Without a trace of apology, Pugh lays it on the line: "We're not in the cheap food business here. We're in the quality food business." The co-op's ongoing success and new expansion is proof that many in Santa Fe believe that that philosophy is a step in the right direction.
Founded in 1976, La Montañita Co-op has three stores. The Albuquerque locations are at 3500 Central SE, 505.265.4631 and in the valley at 2400 Rio Grande NW, 505.242.8800. In Santa Fe, it's 913 West Alameda, 505.984.2853.