The Sugar Beet Food Co-op in Oak Park, Illinois, is the recipient of Food Co-op Initiative‘s annual Startup of the Year award, which recognizes the heroic efforts made by new co‐ops to open stores in their communities.
Just a month after Sugar Beet opened in July 2015, a direct competitor opened a mile away. Initially, Sugar Beet fell far short of its projected sales volume and expenses were threatening to deplete their working capital.
General Manager Chris Roland and the co-op’s committed Board of Directors reacted quickly. The co-op’s management team was restructured and new marketing efforts were instituted to attract more shoppers. Sugar Beet also introduced a Healthy Staples program that featured everyday low prices on many popular grocery and household items.
Co-op staff even made personal calls to more than 700 owner-members who had not been shopping and encouraged them to support their store or risk losing it. The effort paid off quickly; sales began growing in 2016 and have not stopped increasing since. A new co-op that looked like it might fail became a rare example of a startup that showed its first profitable quarter before the end of its first year.
Profitability and double-digit sales growth have continued, with Sugar Beet achieving $3.6 million in sales in its second year of operation. The co-op supports the local economy by purchasing over $1.4 million in goods from nearby farmers and producers. In 2018, the co-op was recognized as the Best Small Business in America in a competition sponsored by Rubicon.
Sugar Beet Food Co-op demonstrates how community ownership and talented leadership make cooperatives stronger, more resilient businesses. Their story is an inspiration to the estimated 140 other communities in the U.S. currently developing their own local food co-ops.