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Q&A: Carefully curating food at the EA Co-op

Opened in 2016, The East Aurora Co-op is a member-owned food store founded in part to give the community better access to healthy, local foods. As the new year begins (and we all vow to be healthier), we asked two store managers, Sheila Conboy and Monique Brannon, how it all works…and why co-ops matter.

How do you select where you source from?

Monique: We work with many local and regional distributors including dozens of individual small vendors because it’s an important part of what the co-op offers to customers and member-owners. We’re proud to carry TopSeedz crackers, Five Spoke Creamery cheeses, Ithaca Milk, GoodRich Coffee and loads more. It’s a win for shoppers, and creates market access for our local farms and producers.

Can you explain the concept of a co-op for those who don’t know?

Sheila: The co-op is open to everyone. It’s a common misconception that only member-owners can shop. We are a community-owned grocery store that focuses on whole and natural foods with the whole works—a full produce department, cheese case, meats, dairy, frozen and packaged foods. Maybe the best part is our prepared foods department and bakery. Hot food and soup, grab and go options, a salad bar, and a bakery department that’s constantly challenging our waistlines. My current favorite is the apple pie. And the pumpkin bread. I could go on.

What makes the co-op different is the business model. When a member-owner joins the co-op, they’re purchasing a share of the business. Member-owners receive benefits every day, and they will receive patronage dividends in profitable years.Members built this store, they elect the board of directors, and ultimately shape the direction of the business.

And finally, the co-op makes intentional, values-based business choices. We choose local products, local people, and local providers whenever possible. 42 cents of every dollar spent at the co-op is returned to the WNY economy, and we’re not stopping there!

How do you attract people who shop predominantly on price?

Monique: We’re always working on ways to create more value for customers. Our Co-op Deals sale flyers offer competitive pricing on dozens of nationally sold products weekly. Think Muir Glen tomatoes, Cascadian Farms cereal or Annie’s crackers at great sales prices for all shoppers.

Bulk foods is another great way to save money shopping the co-op, especially for spices! Our fresh produce is great quality, comparable on price to other grocery stores, and we have unique products, like local apples year-round that are 99 cents a pound. We also have a line of products called ‘Co-op Basics,’ which are staple products with competitive everyday pricing on everything from organic pasta sauce to grass fed-beef to Clif bars.

Sheila: The co-op is a small store, and while we can’t always compete on price, we’re committed to keeping our pricing as close to the competition as we can while minding the finances of the business. But beyond that, the co-op’s mission is to serve the community, and we hope to do that through educational initiatives and events. Last summer we filled the patio with folks enjoying $1 organic ice cream sundaes to celebrate our second birthday, making DIY frozen banana treats another night, and hosted a local farmer meet and greet complete with grilled sausage.

Highlights or a favorite memory since opening?

Sheila: For me, it was the first time I saw our sign above the refrigerated section. It’s huge, locally handmade, and says ‘Great Food, Great Friends.’ It really captures everything—the co-op was born of a desire for access to high quality food in the Southtowns, and thousands of people came together to make it happen. The co-op startup process is long—it took 7 years from idea to opening day. Along the way, many people became connected through the co-op - by joining, investing their money to build the store, volunteering to spread the word—there are hundreds of people in this community that I know just from my experiences with the co-op, and I know that’s true for many others.

Many times we’re able to go out of our way for our customers.  We once had a person call from out of state, asking if we could deliver food to their elderly aunt. The aunt lived in the Southern Tier, and found herself suddenly in need of help. We acquired the list from her niece and shopped for what she needed. One of our regulars heard about what we were doing and jumped right in, volunteering to drive the groceries to her house. It was a great collaboration, and this kind of thing has always been a part of the vision we had for the co-op from the start, to serve the community, in the greatest sense of the word.

Monique: My favorite memories include our customers—they’re bringing in new babies, and running into old friends and neighbors, it’s incredible to watch. It’s so rewarding when I suggest a product in our wellness section and a customer returns to say that the product worked and they, or a family member, are on the mend.

I love the way that the co-op brings together so many different groups of people and has quickly become a gathering place for our community. Summers on the patio are special with Music Mondays.

What are you hoping to do or grow in 2019?

Sheila: This winter we’re continuing our Whole Eating Tours—free, personalized nutrition tours led by a registered dietician. We also have a slate of classes related to eating healthfully in ways that are also really delicious. The list and registration are on our website!

Monique: I agree! I’m excited about helping our customers to connect to the producers of their food, and try new things. Friday nights we do beer and cheese tastings, and we’re expanding that effort, particularly to feature local products.

What are your own favorite picks or finds in the store?

Sheila: The Salted Turbinado Sugar Chocolate Almonds and the Maple Glazed Mixed Nuts make their way into my basket constantly. And our prepared foods are just fantastic. All the food is made from scratch, including all of our baked goods. Our chef blows me away on a daily basis with our hot bar offerings.

Monique: Our kitchen’s African Peanut soup is everyone’s favorite, and I’m no exception. The peanut butter freshly ground in our machines is a definite staple at my house. So is the Ithaca Milk, and their yogurts. We can hardly keep them in stock! And those Citrus Pecan Cinnamon Rolls that our bakers make. It’s heaven when I can snag a warm one.

**Even more Q&As: Mighty Taco's CEO, OnCore Golf and "Buffalo Everything: A Guide to Eating in Nickel City" author Arthur Bovino.

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