Chris Maher is general manager of BriarPatch, a consumer-owned retail food co-op in California and Nevada County’s first commercial building certified by the US Green Building Council’s LEED: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. In addition, he is vice president of National Co+op Grocers, which is a business service co-operative for 148 food co-ops with combined annual sales of nearly $2.1 billion. We caught up with him at NCBA’s Co-op Impact conference in Alexandria, Virginia, USA.
How did you get involved in the co-op sector?
My background was in food service. I was a professional chef and I got into food co-ops because of the food, learning about new food, wanting to get the highest quality of food. When I started to work in the co-op for the first time I realised that the whole model itself, structure, ownership and the attention to the social mission, as well as the financial success of the business, was something that really resonated with me, personally, and, once I started, I just wanted more of it.
What does a regular working day look like?
It really varies. It’s a retail operation we see about 3,000 customers come through our store each day, which brings a whole variety of activities. It can range from working on the floor and interacting with customers and staff to participating in meetings with our management teams and our board of directors. I do work that’s strategic to help guide the mission of the co-op and I also work with the various teams in the co-op to implement systems to make sure that the business is run efficiently.
What are the best aspects of the job as well as the ones you like the least?
I love interacting with people, having such a wide variety of people that are part of the co-op is the thing I find the most inspiring. We have connections with our community, we support a lot of the non-profits and community missions that go on in our area. What’s difficult is that the food industry in the USA is incredibly competitive. Amazon has bought Whole Foods, which is likely to be a game changer. We are seeing a lot of pressure on price, customers are hearing a lot of different mixed messages about the quality of their food, from genetically modified to the value of local, so they don’t have a clear understanding so the challenge is to keep educating people, keep telling the co-op story, let them know what we are doing and why we are different so that they are inspired and want to get involved.
We’re at the national Co-op Impact Conference – what is the main point you’ll be taking away from the event?
What has been most interesting for me is looking at all the different sectors and types of co-ops and the overarching need that we have to be able to tell our story better, so people understand who we are, what we do, why we are different and why they want to support our work.
How do you see the future of the retail co-op movement in the USA?
I think that ever since the recession there has been an increased level of interest in co-ops and people are beginning to wake up to a new model of business. I personally have been contacted by a number of smaller communities in my area that are trying to start co-ops, so I think that the growth of localised co-ops can be one thing that we see more of. Another aspect is the different co-operation between the existing co-ops – better activity through things like the NCG, which can serve as a vehicle to leverage our collective strength to make us individually stronger.