Communities across France are using a co-operative supermarket model pioneered in New York to sell quality food at affordable prices. In 2010, Tom Boothe and Brian Horihan, from the USA, set up a co-operative food store in the 18th district of Paris, home of the Montmartre hill.
The project drew inspiration from Park Slope Food Coop in New York, founded over 40 years ago to offer Brooklyn residents the finest food at reasonable prices. The 16,000 members of the co-op account for 75% of the workforce and are the only people who can shop at the supermarket.
They work for the co-op once every four weeks, saving between 20% and 40% on groceries.
Similarly, the new Paris co-op was designed to help cut costs and reduce prices for locals who couldn’t afford organic produce, while paying producers a fair price. Members aim to source products from local farmers engaged in environmentally responsible and ethical practices.
Co-operative supermarkets are not new to France. Biocoop, a chain of organic food shops, runs 382 outlets with 6,600 products. The consumer co-op was set up at in the late 1970s by a group of consumers and producers who wanted to promote organic farming.
However, La Louve – which translates as the Wolf – proposes a different approach where customers volunteer their time to cut costs. Once they join the co-op, each member is asked to dedicate three hours of work every month to help out in the co-operative’s daily activities. As a consequence, prices could be between 20% and 45% cheaper than at other supermarkets.
The supermarket has already attracted 1,500 members and secured premises which will employ up to five full-time workers, alongside volunteers.
Pierre Ananou, member of La Louve, said: “We are a participatory co-operative.
“This was not a theoretical choice: we have seen that this supermarket model works, as put in practice by Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn.
“This has convinced us. How could one not be seduced by the idea?”
As well as quality products at affordable prices, the supermarket will provide a social space.
“Historically the market has been the social meeting point of the city, a place of exchange and friendliness and that is sadly lacking in our era,” said Pierre. “People don’t want to spend their Saturday afternoon in a supermarket, the place where most of them do their shopping – so we have really lost something important.
“The idea of a co-operative supermarket is not just about sharing capital – it can only work if work is shared equally. That changes everything. It gives a real sense of ownership to co-operators. They know the supermarket, they look after it, it’s theirs, they are at home.”
Pierre thinks a key challenge for the co-op is French hostility towards supermarkets.
“We do not have customers at La Louve, only co-operators,” he said. “This is not just a slogan.
“At La Louve we are owners and managers of our shop […] we sell products to ourselves so the word ‘client’ is irrelevant. All members participate in almost all activities: check out, supply, reception, administration, cleaning, IT.”
If its plans are approved by the local authorities, the supermarket could open its doors this summer. The project has already attracted the interest of other French regions. The co-operative calls these initiatives Babylouves.
In Lille a group of residents have set up Super Quinquin, a co-operative based on the same principles applied by La Louve. The initial ten founding members included public servants, business managers and activists; all are interested in food issues and unhappy with the current state of affairs when it comes to responsible consumption.
“The shops are really expensive, the local products are hard to find in urban areas, the whole experience of shopping in a supermarket has become disagreeable to many of us. Coming across the project of La Louve in Paris, which is inspired by the Brooklyn model in New York, is what convinced us that it was possible to do this,” said co-op member Nicolas Philippe.
The 1,000 sq/m supermarket is expected to open in 2017 in the popular neighbourhood of Fives, once the co-op attracts more members. In the meantime, members will sell products at provisional premises that will open twice a week.
“All this is to gradually mobilise the 1,000 people required to open the supermarket, but also test and select the best possible products,” said Nicholas.
“The objective of this supermarket is give access to the greatest number of high quality products, including local and artisan products, and it will also have conventional products to satisfy all needs.
“Today we are approaching 200 members, the grand opening is due to take place in two years.”
Customers must join the co-op before they can shop there, and can get involved in a number of activities, from checkout to receiving deliveries, packaging products, running tasting workshops and writing articles for their newsletter.
Bordeaux has also adopted the model, with Supercoop growing to 320 members who have invested at least €20. The co-operative needs 1,200 members to start trading.
After hearing about the co-op supermarkets in New York, Paris, Lille and Bordeaux, locals in Toulouse started their own co-operative – La Couette Coop. It is still in development and will adopt the same principles applied by La Louve.
“Seven of the members of La Louve have been here in Brooklyn this week to work with our staff. We have a long-standing relationship with La Louve going back four to five years,” said Ann Herpel, general coordinator of Park Slope Food Coop.
“Once a week, another general coordinator and I meet by Skype with members of La Louve. We’ve been having these weekly meetings for over a year. We have also met a couple of people from Bordeaux who were interested in our model.
“We also have worked with a group of people in Limerick, Ireland who have started the Urban Coop. They too are trying to follow our model. I have been to Ireland once to meet with them and have some regular contact with one of their members.”
Back at La Louve, Mr Annanou has advice for communities looking at setting up their own supermarket.
“Creating a supermarket of this kind is an enormous task,” he said.
“It requires having a handful of people ready to give a few years of their lives to the project in order for this to eventually work. Creating a strong co-operative culture is also extremely important: it can be done informally and by giving the opportunity to invest and work.
“Having real transparency, requiring high quality work without being afraid of failure and above all, without being moralistic. We are not there to dictate what people eat, this is to be discussed. Co-operating with people who have ethical and existential priorities is also very rewarding.”