'The Largest Food Co-op In The State': An Oryana Oral History, Part 3
By Craig Manning | July 16, 2023
Today, The Ticker concludes its three-part oral history of Oryana, which in June marked the 50th anniversary of its organization as a food cooperative. Last week, we traversed the middle years of the co-op, leaving off with Oryana’s move to its current Tenth Street location in 1997 – and with the realizations among board members that “the little hippie co-op had to grow up” to make way for future growth and prosperity. This week, we tell the story of how Oryana matured beyond those late-90s growing pains into the two-store juggernaut it is today.
Steve Nance (current Oryana general manager): I credit some very smart board members and staff [for keeping Oryana alive], as the ‘90s were a difficult time for Oryana. We had moved to a very out-of-the way location. We were not full and abundant. We were a bit lacking in customer service. I came in one evening to find no staff on the floor; they were all out back playing hacky sack! And we charged an additional 15 percent to non-members, which was not very inclusive. Luckily, the board hired Bob Struthers, who is now the general manager at Grain Train Co-op in Petoskey. Bob made sure we were full, abundant, and welcoming, and the co-op grew to about $8 million in sales.
Coming aboard as Oryana’s new general manager in 1999, Struthers brought retail experience and handyman skills from his previous job at Wolohan Lumber. Bob performed a variety of odd jobs around the store to help finish a renovation that Oryana didn’t have the money to complete – including roof fixes, floor repairs, and plumbing work – and also worked to whip the business aspects of the co-op into shape.
Bob Struthers: I told the buyers not to buy too much product so we could make payroll. It was a really bad situation [that Oryana was in at the time] and it had to have been scary for a lot of people for a few months in the beginning. But then we got things balanced out pretty quickly.
Woody Smith (‘90s Oryana board member): [Bob] brought discipline to running a grocery store.
Struthers: There was a buyer for everything, and we had five or six department managers. That was a lot of people with not the most efficient use of time.
Nance: Bob was also smart about customer service. He eliminated the 15 percent surcharge we were charging to non-members, which changed the perception of Oryana as being exclusive. He also knew the shelves needed to be full and abundant, and that we needed to offer better customer service and be more welcoming. Shopping became a much nicer experience. With these changes, we started growing.
Struthers was also instrumental in making Oryana the first co-op in the country to obtain Certified Organic status in 2002. Per Oryana’s website, the certification doesn’t mean everything in the store is organic, but “does mean that we provide a level of assurance to our customers that the integrity of the organic products you purchase is protected from the farm to your shopping cart.”
Struthers: I was really proud of that. It was a really cool thing. I thought, why wouldn’t we become certified if we’re holding those values? Why wouldn’t we demonstrate those values to our operational approach? Why wouldn’t we want to be a leader in that?
Smith: That’s the story of the middle period. We went through some growing pains. Some people thought we were becoming a traditional corporate business, but you need to give people a good experience. People liked Oryana’s mission and values. If the store experience isn’t good, the rest doesn’t matter. So without sacrificing the values and commitments, Oryana became really good at creating fair pricing and offering the amazing Oryana experience. Just delivering a great experience, that is at the root of its success. People would try it and then they came back.
Ultimately, Struthers navigated Oryana away from its renovation-related troubles and toward a new era of annual double-digit growth. The prosperity led the board to approve an expansion in 2005, which brought a new 8,000-square-foot brick block segment to the Tenth Street building, complete with a new café and an array of new sustainability features, like high efficiency heating and cooling and use of reclaimed materials. In 2005, Oryana opened with the expanded store – a store that looked a whole lot like the Oryana of today.
Nance: I was eventually elected to the board myself after [my wife] Robin’s term ended, and was board president as we expanded Oryana in 2006.
Lori Korb (30-year Oryana employee and recent retiree): Expanding the Tenth Street store again and adding the café was a big deal.
Nance: Oryana Prepared Foods have roots in the offsite kitchen [on Cherry Bend Road] that was built to service the Oryana store on Randolph, where the team of staff and volunteers made items that were delivered to the store to sell. Famously, Oryana used to make our own tofu and tempeh and even sold it to other co-ops and restaurants. The Oryana staff and volunteers were often seen at outdoor music events making pizzas.
The Tenth Street Café came out of the expansion in 2006 at our Tenth Street location. After moving to Tenth Street, there was a kitchen and small food program, but one of the things owners and shoppers asked for was a ‘real café,’ and when the board finally agreed it was time to double the size of the Tenth Street store – instead of moving or opening a second location – the café took root.
In 2009, Struthers stepped down from his role with Oryana and moved to New Mexico with his wife. His departure left the need for yet another new general manager.
Nance: Bob left and moved west just before the Great Recession, and at some point, some of the board and staff asked if I’d throw my hat in the ring. I made a decision of the heart, and with my wife’s support, left my corporate job and became an ‘unintentional, intentional grocer’ and started as general manager on January 1, 2010.
A key part of Nance’s tenure (so far) has been Oryana’s journey to open a second location. In 2015, the co-op announced plans to buy the former Williamsburg Showcase Dinner Theatre on M-72 and turn it into an Oryana store. Those plans ultimately fell through, but a different expansion opportunity was on the horizon…
Nance: Based on a 10-year strategic vision, we spent three years preparing for a second location in Williamsburg. But, instead of that being our second location – and this is one of the hardest business decisions I’ve made – I had to advise the board of directors, staff, and the owners that it was not the right time and too much risk for the co-op. This was as competition came to town in the form of Aldi, Costco, Lucky’s Market – at a location we had quietly also explored – and more.
All the competition affected our sales, but throughout the 2010s, the Oryana team worked hard to keep Oryana viable. We refreshed Oryana with a remodel of the café, added 800 square feet for seating and gathering, and replaced and repainted and rebranded so the co-op was able to stand against the headwinds of the new competitive environment. Oryana, with a lot of work by a resilient team, started regaining sales in 2018.
Jeff Smith (communications director, Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities): The co-op’s largest leap forward happened when Oryana outbid competition for the local Lucky’s grocery store during the national chain’s bankruptcy proceedings in 2020. The move displayed business acumen and nimble action, but equally important, the business deal reflected how the buyers club ethos still shapes decisions at Oryana. When the Lucky’s store first became available, it was only available in a package of six stores. Since Oryana wanted only one store, General Manager Steve Nance spent weeks creating what was essentially a buyers club for the stores. He found independent grocers in Ohio, Colorado, and Missouri willing to join together to collaborate and pursue their local stores at the bankruptcy auction and to beat the competition – giving birth to Oryana West.
Nance: I am proud that I was able to correctly assess that our main competitor, Lucky’s Market, was in trouble – and that I had the gumption and trust of the board to be able to pursue and acquire them in bankruptcy in 2020, just as the Oryana team became ‘essential workers’ as a worldwide pandemic turned the world upside down.
Has it worked out? By all measures, yes! Sales jumped from $16 million to $26 million in 2020 with now two locations. In 2022, sales for both stores were over $33 million, with the Oryana West location doing over $17 million and the smaller Tenth Street Store still doing almost $16 million in revenue. As a co-op we are focused on giving back to staff, our community, and our owners. The doubling in revenues has helped increase our positive impact dramatically, including sales of locally grown and locally produced products at over $9 million, increasing to over 200 good local jobs, and more giving to our amazing local non-profits.
Jeff Smith: More than 50 years. More than 10,000 members. More than $30 million in annual sales. More than 200 employees. The largest food co-op in the state – and 16th largest in the nation – despite the Lilliputian size of our regional population.
Oryana’s current future visioning plan, dubbed ‘Oryana 2030,’ calls for additional growth going forward, including the possibility of a third store, as well as “Oryana kiosks, carts, and zero emissions food trucks” that would operate “at a variety of local events” during the summer months. The co-op projects that its sales will reach $60 million annually by the end of the decade.Comment