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Distraught Earth Fare fans clamoring for Charleston food co-op face significant challenges

Earth Fare

Zahra Gauthier looks at tomatoes inside the natural food market Earth Fare Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018 in West Ashley. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

Charleston residents who, in the wake of Earth Fare’s closing, wondered why the city couldn’t support a co-op grocery may not like the answer: Co-ops generally can’t compete on price or carry all of the brands that shoppers demand. Plus, they demand a tremendous amount of work and patience from their members.

And that’s according to a longtime supporter of the co-op system, under which a business is collectively owned and democratically governed by its users.

“I love the idea of cooperative business,” says Theresa Pizzuto, the volunteer general manager of Upstate Food Co-op in Six Mile. “But it’s definitely a challenge.”

Upstate Food Co-op has been the only food cooperative in the state since 2018, when Spartanburg’s Hub City Co-op shuttered just two years after opening with the help of a $375,000 investment from the city. GoUpstate.com at the time reported the closure was precipitated by complaints about high prices and the store’s failure to develop a distinct brand identity.

The news site characterized the operation as “caught between being a niche retailer and a place shoppers could get everything on their list.”

According to Pizzuto, co-ops have struggled to win over customers now that big-box grocers keep vast inventories of natural and organic foods, and take advantage of economies of scale to sometimes sell them at cheaper-than-wholesale prices. Membership at the Upstate Food Co-op, which was founded in 1978, has plummeted from 300 to 100 since the 1990s.

“In our heyday, we were the only game in town for organic,” says Pizzuto, a vegetarian who joined the co-op in 1987.

Nationally, the picture isn’t entirely grim. The support network National Co+op Grocers counts 200 co-op stores in 37 states among its members and associates, despite several high-profile closings attributed to increased competition from chains such as Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s.

Civil Eats in 2018 reported the number of food co-ops nationwide is on the rise overall, in part because successful co-ops have cultivated a sense of community that major chains can’t match.

Still, those stores aren’t evenly distributed across the country: Co-op groceries are clustered in the Northeast, upper Midwest and California.

Despite South Carolina’s lack of a co-op tradition, Pizzuto doesn’t believe culture would necessarily prevent Charleston eaters banding together to form a member-owned store. Based on her experience, she’s more concerned about people making time for the volunteer shifts, which are essential to co-op operations, and waiting for the co-op to order an item readily available at a nearby supermarket.

Compounding those hurdles is the human drama, which is unavoidable when everyone’s supposedly on equal footing: At Upstate Food Co-op, the honey manager has the same standing as the person who coordinates sending get-well cards to sick members, and both of them have the same say-so as the person who oversees packaging bulk beans.

“You can have personality problems: People have a difficult time communicating in conflict,” she says. “It helps to have at least a couple of people in charge who are calm and don’t get ruffled.”

In true cooperative fashion, though, Pizzuto concludes, “If you had enough people, it could work.”

She certainly appreciates their motivations.

“I’m very sad about Earth Fare,” she says. “I loved the Earth Fare up in Asheville.”

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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