by Treva Bennett/staff writer
It all comes down to making a difference in the community.
When she started her job as CEO of Seattle’s Central Co-op on March 25, Catherine Willis Cleveland said she felt as if she had come full circle in her career. After almost dying in a climbing accident in Nepal when she was 21, Willis Cleveland said the experience led her to see life as a gift and left her wanting to make a positive impact. It has affected her job choices throughout her career.
“Coming out of that I really felt a sense of, wow, what a gift it is to be alive, and what I want for my life is to make a positive impact,” Willis Cleveland said. “I owe it to the needy world to make a difference. It’s a gift to be here.”
She started out of college working at a natural foods co-op, then worked with nonprofit organizations for about the last 10 years, focusing on mission-driven organizations.
“I feel that’s been an underlying theme in every career decision I’ve made and every position I’ve had,” she said. “…I feel that it’s very easy to see at the co-op the way we’re making a positive impact in the world. We’re a hub of like-minded people who care about health and local producers and our environment. We care about strengthening community in a world that really needs that.”
Much of her time with Central Co-op has been overseeing construction of a new store in Tacoma. In an interview with The Shelby Report April 24, she said the new store is “looking great.”
The co-op already has around 2,000 members in the Tacoma area and a lot of the design centered around feedback from them on what they wanted in the new store.
“We listened to what they are looking for,” Willis Cleveland said. “An example would be in our very large bulk department. We’ve got a little island that has five kinds of nut butters, like peanut butter and almond butter. We also have three different bulk honeys, and two of them are from local bee owners. It’s pretty exciting to build a store from the ground up, keeping in mind the kind of products we’re carrying and choosing those products after having heard from the local community.”
The deli will have a hot bar, a soup bar, a juice bar and a taqueria, all in response to community input. There will be outdoor seating available, along with pre-made foods if shoppers want to grab and go.
Central Co-op is shopper- and employee-owned but is open to the public. Willis Cleveland said at a recent “Get Out the Vote” event for an upcoming co-op board election, held at the site of the new store, many people in the neighborhood came by to ask questions. Benefits of co-op membership were explained, such as additional discounts, electing board members and having a voice in running the co-op.
“It’s been kind of amazing to see the way the community is responding to this upcoming store grand opening,” Willis Cleveland said. (It is scheduled for June 15.)
“I think we’re going to open with some grand success,” she said. “We’re quite excited and we anticipate it to go well.”
The new store will have around 50 employees. Some of those employees have been reaching out to new vendors in the Tacoma area. Willis Cleveland said the co-op sources local vendors whenever possible.
“We have over 400 Washington producers at our Seattle store, if you can imagine,” she said. “It’s a big part of our focus. It’s one of our core values.”
Those core values also include concern for community, concern for workers and concern for the ecosystem.
“Part of our responsiveness to the community is to support local vendors, so that’s a big theme and a big focus for us,” Willis Cleveland said. “The month of July we call Indie Month, and that’s for independent vendors. We hang tags throughout the store to help people see all the independent vendors we support. It’s a big focus of our efforts in Seattle and that’s going to translate into Tacoma.”
Carrying products from local vendors is good for the co-op but also benefits the vendors. Due to the exposure to co-op customers, many local vendors are able to expand due to greater demand for their products.
“We have a lot of stories about people who are now statewide but started with us, as the first store that carried them,” Willis Cleveland said. “It’s exciting!”
Central Co-op had an economic impact study done in 2017 by Civic Economics to measure the positive impact it has on the state. In 2018, the co-op asked Civic Economics to update the study to show the ripple effect the co-op’s compensation package and support for local producers has on the economy. The report showed that the co-op’s economic activity generates an additional $8 million in Washington’s local economy compared to a conventional grocery chain store.
The report also found that:
- Central Co-op returns 48 percent of its revenue to Washington State through direct economic activity alone (compared to 26 percent at a comparable chain grocery);
- Including direct, indirect and induced economic activity, Central Co-op returned 74 percent of its revenue to the State of Washington in 2017 (compared to 42 percent at a comparable chain grocer);
- Central Co-op’s economic activity supports 82 additional jobs in Washington State compared to a similar chain grocery store; and
- With an average wage of $21.68/hour, Central Co-op’s wages are a full 27 percent higher than the statewide average for grocery stores.
“Really exciting information came out of that for us to help guide what we do and to capture the impact of what we’re about and the difference we’re making,” Willis Cleveland said. “…The impact on the reduction on the carbon footprint, the support of local vendors and just strengthening the local economy is something we’re really proud of.”
The living wage paid to workers is one of the co-op’s core values, with benefits to both parties. Willis Cleveland said the co-op has staff members who have worked there for 20 years, which gives them expertise in the products they sell.
“I think the longevity of staff really helps us be food experts and we’re known for that in our region,” she said. “There’s also a real trust in the quality of food we’re making. That’s another reason people feel comfortable coming to our store and knowing that the bar is high on quality in our deli and our perishable departments. In addition to that, we’ve carefully vetted the ingredients and contents of everything we’re carrying in the store.”
Outreach and support in community
Another core value of the co-op is support of community partners, such as St. Leo’s Food Connection, a food bank that supports 500 families and also supports children on weekends and holidays.
“We provide financial support as well as food to our partners, and in addition to that we have community donations we give that are smaller amounts to many more organizations,” Willis Cleveland said, including gift cards for silent auctions or to be used to buy food for an event.
Central Co-op recently was recognized for its generosity by receiving the Heart of Seattle Award for Stellar Social and Environmental Practices. It also received the Seattle Sustainability Award. The awards reflect the difference the co-op is making through its community donations, vendor support and providing a living wage to its employees, Willis Cleveland said.
On Oct. 16, 2018, its 40th anniversary, the Seattle City Council declared it to be Central Co-op Day “because of the difference we’re making in the region,” she said. “We’ve been here 40 years in Seattle, on Capitol Hill, and seen a lot of change. We’ve had to be really nimble and responsive to the community to keep thriving in this environment.”
Willis Cleveland said one of the co-op’s strengths is being connected to the community and being responsive to its needs.
“When you’re a co-op, the owners have a stake in the game,” she said. “There’s quite a bit of responsiveness to the community, which is what I’m illustrating in Tacoma that we’re doing right out of the gates—what the community wants. That’s an ongoing theme for us and part of our core value for sure.”
Willis Cleveland said she grew up in a European family where mealtimes “were a huge, community-making, multi-generational event.” She said she is excited about great quality, healthy food and the fellowship that happens around breaking bread together—the conversations, circles of friendship, family and community.
“I feel like that’s happening on so many levels at the co-op,” she said. “People come in and they recognize the workers and they have conversations. People keep track of each other’s lives so it’s face-to-face time, which is getting rarer in our world. And there’s also the wider circle of the vendors that are jazzed to be placed on the shelf and get their start because of the co-op. And then there’s the food banks that get support. We actually have a healthy community program that gives 10 percent off every Tuesday and Thursday for people who are living on restricted income. That’s one of the ways we’re giving back and helping promote good health and food security for people that are struggling.”
The co-op also offers basic food essentials at “rock-bottom” prices on a daily basis. “We really value not being seen as an expensive place to shop but an accessible place to shop,” Willis Cleveland said. “That’s part of the larger picture of caring about the community and giving back and also strengthening the Washington food economy. We’re part of that.”
Central Co-op is open to the public, but membership is encouraged at a $100 fee for life.
“You just pay once,” Willis Cleveland said. “If you move or change your mind, you get the full $100 back, so you don’t lose it. It’s really sort of a no-brainer.”
With the membership comes discount days—10 percent off quarterly, as well as weekly owner-coupons, case discounts and more. This is a return on investment that many people realize quickly, she said. Members also get to vote for the board of directors or can run for a seat on the board. This gives them a say in the co-op’s future.
Another benefit is the low prices the co-op offers, compared to mainstream grocery stores. As a member of the National Cooperative Grocers Association, Central Co-op gets purchasing discounts because of the “sheer volume of all the co-ops coming together to buy,” Willis Cleveland said. “It’s like a giant buying club of co-ops that are strung together all across the country. That’s what enables us to be price competitive with other natural foods markets. That’s part of the benefit for people.”
It all amounts to a win for co-op members, she said, as they can shop from local vendors and get deep discounts on other products due to the cumulative buying power of the NCGA.
As the opening of the Tacoma store nears, Willis Cleveland said the future is looking bright for Central Co-op.
“From what I’m hearing through the responsiveness in Tacoma, people are really jazzed,” she said. “It’s easy for me to imagine being in a situation to open another one….”
She said while there are no concrete plans for additional stores, her hope is to continue to expand.
“I think it also circles back to what community needs are,” she said. “We really heard strongly from the Tacoma community that they were ready for this co-op, and we’ll continue to listen and see what other community needs come forth and what the membership envisions for the next step…”