By Carlos Alcalá
Jul. 7, 2010
When David Harde opened Noah's Ark in Placerville in 1993, it was the
only place in the area for a good selection of organic produce.
Melisa Clark started shopping there immediately, then worked there as
a cashier, and now is the store's general manager. When Harde decided
to sell the store, Clark took what she thought was the next logical step.
She's spearheading an effort to turn Noah's Ark into a shopper-owned
If co-op organizers are successful, they will be riding a wave of
Many co-ops formed in the first half of the 20th century and co-ops
flowered again amid the counterculture movements of the 1960s and
'70s. Those include the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, a $25
million-a-year business, the Davis Food Co-op and the BriarPatch
Co-op in Grass Valley.
Now, however, the 200 to 300 food co-ops nationally could nearly be
doubled by an additional 200 food cooperatives currently in the
works, according to the Food Co-op Initiative in Minnesota.
"Right now we're seeing a resurgent interest in food co-ops," said
Stuart Reid, executive director of the Initiative.
A co-op is a business established to fill the needs of its
member-owners, who also can control the co-op through democratic governance.
In practice, many co-ops, like outdoor gear retailer REI, look much
like any other business, but often return special discounts or
dividends to the members.
From the late 1980s when the famed Berkeley Co-op died until the
early 2000s, there were no new co-ops, said Luis Sierra, the food and
agriculture specialist for the Davis-based California Center for
"It's clear that there's a huge resurgence," he said.
Part of that interest is the burgeoning food consciousness
exemplified by the movie "Food Inc.," Michael Pollan's best-seller
"Omnivore's Dilemma," and the slow food movement.
After Pollan's book, "a lot of people who had never paid attention to
food did pay attention," Sierra said.
"Many people are more interested in knowing about their food," Reid said.
It's not just about "natural" and "organic" now. It's also about local.
"We have a growing local foods awareness in our county," said Lynn
Wunderlich, farm adviser for UC Davis Cooperative Extension in El
Dorado and Amador counties.
It can be seen in the crowds at farmers markets, where shoppers meet
their farmers, she said.
Shoppers who can't wait for a weekly market can go to a co-op.
While supermarkets often want a single produce distributor, co-ops
will deal with many small farmers in a way bigger stores find inefficient.
"As a small store, we can control where our food comes from," said
Clark, who's leading the Noah's Ark co-op effort. "That's a way a
small store can offer something Raley's can't."
The shoppers like knowing the farms are local, and small local
farmers who often have difficulty marketing benefit, too, Wunderlich said.
Clark is eager to try joint planning with farmers so both producer
and buyer will have more predictability.
Paul Cultrera, general manager of the Sacramento co-op, has heard
that feedback from its long-time farm suppliers like Full Belly Farm
in Yolo County.
"They will tell us we helped them grow to the point that they're at,"
A co-op store can also do things that Noah's Ark couldn't, Harde said.
It can take advantage of co-op networks to have big-store buying
power for non-perishable goods while maintaining the local control.
"I think the co-op can take the store to another level," he said.
New levels sometimes have risks for co-ops, as the 11,000-member
Sacramento co-op found out when it built a new store in Elk Grove.
Market research said the demographics were ripe for the expansion,
but the store failed, as did a call to open a branch in Natomas.
In Natomas, it proved impossible to reach the desired membership threshold.
"They (potential Natomas members) didn't get the idea of what a co-op
was," Cultrera said.
The Placerville Food Co-op (a placeholder until members pick a new
name) may be better off starting relatively small.
It has about 80 of the 100 member sign-ups it wants to start, but it
already has clientele familiar with the Noah's Ark store.
"This place is great," said John Tillman of Coloma, going into Noah's
Ark last week.
He not only shops there, but hopes ultimately to place some of his
Gold Hill olive oil on its shelves.
Placerville's 100 members may not sound like much, but the Sacramento
co-op started even smaller.
"The legend is it was 12 people who started a buying club," said
Cultrera. "It literally grew organically."
Clark and other members of the Placerville steering committee are
lining up financing, signing up members, and running by-laws and
articles of incorporation by lawyers.
They hope to be ready to turn co-op by the end of the year.
The one thing they don't have to do is find a site.
They have the advantage of starting with a two-story building already
set up as a store, stocked with inventory and powered by solar panels
Harde had installed in 2006.
"Most people," Clark noted, "start a co-op with nothing."