Food Conspiracy Co-op Sheds Its 1970s Ambience for a Modern Update

November 30, 2012

By Teya Vitu

Daylight now floods the Food Conspiracy Co-op, the better to admire the astonishing transformation that the grocery store at 412 N. 4th Ave. has undergone in 2012.

General manager Kelley Kriner admires the upgraded salad bar.

Before the hot weather set in this year, the co-op still bore the same claustrophobic ambiance it has carried since opening in 1971. And why not? It’s a members-owned co-op, where organic and natural products are king, not fancy lighting or furnishings.

But there comes a time when you indeed prettify the place – for practical and logistical reasons as the real motivation. Having open offices right in the middle of the store wasn’t exactly logical when the same space could offer a salad bar and hot bar.

Now that the cooler weather is back, you’d think you were at a downscale, home-town version of that national organic grocer with the initials WF.

The 41-year-old Food Conspiracy Co-op has suddenly grown up into a modern, appealing grocery store where you don’t have to be part of the co-op set to feel comfortable.

“We can be attractive to a much larger demographic,” said Kelly Kriner, the co-op’s general manager since summer 2011. “We’ve always wanted to increase our demographic.”

The co-op has 2,450 members and would like to add 400 new members by next October. They added 107 new members in October, quite the endorsement for the $500,000 remodel and $280,000 kitchen that the co-op funded with no debt.

“We’ve upped our game. If someone wants lunch, you can do hot or cold. It’s organic. You can sit at a table or you can go,” Kriner said.

Food Conspiracy now has a café corner with about a half dozen tables plus sidewalk tables that are proving quite popular.

The hot bar and salad bar redefined lunch on 4th Avenue when the co-op opened them on Aug. 20.

You can now dine in at Food Conspiracy.

“It’s super convenient for people,” said co-op chef Forrest Fallows. “We seem to be selling a lot of enchiladas. We do a Greek curry that is fantastic.”

The co-op now has air conditioning for the first time. The northernmost room nearly doubled in size and now has 12-door refrigerated and 8-door freezer units. The overhead fluorescent tubes are gone.

But the most modern touch could well be the new storefront windows.

Until the remodel, the co-op just had small half-moon windows that largely helped give the store a claustrophobic feel in Kriner’s eyes: “It was not a pleasant place to be.”

Now, each of the store’s four bays has tall, wall-to-wall windows that add a dramatic sense of welcoming openness.

“One customer told me ‘This looks just like a Swiss grocery story,’” Kriner said.

This major overhaul came about in a rather spontaneous manner. At the start of 2012, no major renovation was in the works. By early May, construction started.

The seeds were unwittingly planted in the summer of 2011 when the co-op leased the 6,500-square-foot, two-story building across the alley (Hoff Avenue) in back to build a commercial kitchen and house Food Conspiracy’s offices. (Yes, they call it the Hoff Building and have a David Hasselhoff poster at the top of the staircase).

Picture the old kitchen: Maybe 150 square feet, two electric hot plates, a quarter sheet convection over and a small sandwich bar.

The new kitchen could serve a full-scale restaurant – or a second Food Conspiracy store, an idea that’s been floating around for a few years. A second store is not front burner right now, but it is on the table.

All the renovations also gave the co-op a new sign.

Food Conspiracy’s kitchen now has a full walk-in cooler and freezer, a double stack convection oven, a six-burner commercial range and oven, a steamer, two built-in produce sinks and a dishwasher.

“Now we make our own bagels and muffins and we have the hot bar and salad bar program, and we’re just getting started,” Kriner said. “We have the best bagels that I’ve had in a long time.”

The co-op brought in a consultant from the National Co-operative Grocers Association to guide them though the kitchen project. He laid the eureka moment on the platter: “So what are you going to do with the store? You have a lovely kitchen but where are you going to sell your food?”

The co-op board had a series of conversations in February and March, signed a contract on May 7 and local contractor Hidden Hollow Construction was on site right after that, and construction wrapped in September. The store celebrated its grand re-opening on Oct. 20.

“We had a fairly new board that was really excited about bring our facility into the modern age,” Kriner said.

Kriner has worked at the co-op since April 2004 and was deli manager and the designated No. 2 when long-time general manager Ben Kuzma left. The kitchen idea was in place when Krinerbecame interim general manager in July 2011 but there were no plans drawn for the kitchen and no talk of a store remodel.

“Ben wanted to get a second space and then return and remodel this store,” Kriner said.

“I think the time was right. Everyone was ready.”

The co-op has always had that scrappy feel. Does this modern look mean Food Conspiracy is selling out?

“There’s certainly some fear of us going corporate in spirit. That’s not what our co-op is about. We really are here to serve the needs of our members,” Kriner said.

“Now we have lot of opportunity for growth. Natural foods is a big industry now. Co-ops don’t have a corner on the market any more.” In the last three or four years, big retailers have embraced organic and natural foods, “which is positive, but it is definitely a challenge for small, independent grocers.”

Let’s take a look at the “new” Food Conspiracy Co-op room by room. In all, the co-op added about 400 square feet of retail space, about 13 percent.

The northernmost room with the bulk tea and spices nearly doubled in size as the back room buyer’s area was converted into new retail space for the refrigerated and freezer units. The expanded refrigerated space allowed the co-op to bring in 80 to 90 new products to build the refrigerated total to 200 products. About 15 to 20 new frozen item were added.

These coolers are in new expanded space at Food Conspiracy.

“Before, to bring in a new product, we had to let go of something else,” Kriner said.

The co-op brought in 30 new flavors of bulk tea with 64 varieties now available.

The next room over has 250 new packaged grocery items and 24 more linear feet of shelving. This room gained the square footage of where the tiny kitchen used to be at the rear.

“We have a lot more beer and wine,” grocery manager Steve Spencer said. “It’s enough for people to find something they want.”

The room with the cash registers has changed the most. Behind the registers, there used to be an elevated crow’s nest with open offices overlooking the store and more enclosed offices behind that.

“It’s just not what you want to see when you walk into a grocery store,” Kriner said.

The crow’s nest is gone as are all the offices, which are now in the Hoff Building. That space is now lunch central with the salad bar and hot bar.

“This is going to be the best way to get a return on investment,” she said.

The original brick wall was exposed in the southernmost room, which has the new dining area up front and new open merchandise refrigerated produce cases in back.

In tandem with the huge storefront windows, compact fluorescent track lighting now adds to the modern feel of the Food Conspiracy Co-op. Bye-bye, fluorescent tubes.

The purple and pink paint is gone, replaced with a more soothing pale green, a green that really doesn’t draw shoppers’ attention.

“Everything is neutral because our main priority is we want you to see the food, not the floor, not the walls,” Kriner said.

Even outside, the co-op is an entirely new space. People are embracing the sidewalk tables, and there is a new 3D sign and awning along with the storefront windows.

Beyond public view, the co-op has also upgraded its infrastructure. All the refrigerators are now hooked up to one condenser instead of seven condensers. The store also has new plumbing, new electrical systems, new flooring, new fixtures, new lighting.

All this makes Food Conspiracy a much more pleasant shopping experience. But it also sets the stage for the co-op’s future, which will likely include a second store.

“We’ve made our original location professional,” Kriner said. “If we were to find a second location, landlords or banks could come and see we have a professional operation.”