BRIARPATCH CO-OP GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT
From “Grub Club” to Member-Only Store
In 1976 the first BriarPatch cooperative retail store — restructured from a food-buying “Grub Club” that had become unwieldy — opened in an unheated warehouse building near the airport on Loma Rica Drive in Grass Valley. The store’s founders looked to food cooperatives in the Bay Area as models and took the name BriarPatch from food co-ops in Mountain View and Menlo Park, California.
A good bit of the food club impetus in those years was rooted in a Depression-era desire to acquire food at low prices and to control its source. Many of the co-op’s founders were in their fifties, were Quakers, and were involved in a number of other community endeavors. The store sold staple food items in bulk, carried as much meat and other perishables as would fit in its old refrigerators, and made special orders.
In the beginning the store was open only to members, who were required to volunteer. Prices were kept close to wholesale, and members paid weekly dues to cover operational costs. The membership totaled around 200.
The dues never really covered the costs, however, and the going was tough for the new cooperative in the early years. The refrigeration broke down a lot; a woodstove provided little heat in the two-story space. The lack of cash meant the store couldn’t keep much inventory. Members made personal loans to the co-op and raised money through yard and bake sales. A $5,000 grant from Joan Baez’s Agapi Foundation was a godsend. According to David Bowman, one of the first directors, BriarPatch was a good name for the co-op “because we had such a thorny beginning.”
After a few years, the decision was made to move to a more central location.
The Washington Street Store
In 1981 BriarPatch moved into a much smaller space fronting Nevada City Highway in Grass Valley, near the current Brunswick Basin Jack-in-the-Box. The store was opened to the public, and volunteer work was no longer required. Members received a five percent discount on purchases, and younger members began asking for more organic produce.
The new location proved to have serious drawbacks, however. Traffic was too fast in front of the store, parking was problematic, and utility costs were too high.
In 1982 the co-op moved again, this time to Washington Street. The setting was an elegant old residential neighborhood above downtown Grass Valley. The new building had approximately 1,000 square feet of retail space and very little warehouse space. With cheap rent and a friendly landlord, BriarPatch began a new stage of growth.
At first, manager Hilary Dart was the only employee. But with growth and stability, the number of employees grew to twenty. Volunteer cashiers were phased out, and sales grew. Dart remembers that a $3,000 week was considered a good one.
At Washington Street, BriarPatch’s focus on natural and organic foods grew, along with the sale of vitamins and supplements. The co-op was ahead of its time, with an excellent recycling system maintained by owner-member Ted Lyons. A fenced-in backyard with a swing provided a place for children to play while their parents shopped, and pear trees in the side yard were a treat for all. Products had to be brought in through the front doors, but improvements were continually made to the building.
The Joerschke Drive Store
In 1992 BriarPatch moved to 131 Joerschke Drive, a peaceful corner of Grass Valley’s Brunswick Basin shopping mecca. With 2,160 square feet of retail space, the new building was twice a big as the Washington Street store.
The two to three years following the move were difficult ones, due in part to the embezzlement of tens of thousands of dollars by an employee. When this problem was finally discovered, it pointed to the need for tighter control of the store’s money. In 1992 the Board had hired the store’s first finance manager, Warren Zimmerman. In 1995 Paul Harton began his tenure as operations manager. The store’s finances began to stabilize with the adoption of new systems.
Sales and membership began a swift and steady rise in the mid-1990s. In 1997 the store hosted a grand reopening in celebration of a remodeling project, which had added 1,000 square feet to the store’s retail space. From then on, double-digit sales increases became the standard. Staff, wages, and employee benefits grew commensurately.
In 1999, with the leadership of the Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation, BriarPatch established its Community Fund, an endowment fund created to generate interest that would be donated to local charities. The store’s annual October Harvest Fair was established in 2000. Improvements to the store continued throughout the first years of the 2000s, with new bulk bins, freezers, a cash register system, and parking spaces.
BriarPatch’s double-digit sales growth continued to outpace upgrades made to accommodate it. The Finance and Strategic Planning Committee had begun investigating new store options as early as 1998, but an existing, well-situated 13,000-square foot building was not to be found.
So in the fall of 2003, BriarPatch signed a letter of intent with the Litton family to lease store space to be built just off the Sierra College roundabout in Grass Valley, only three-quarters of a mile from the current store.
The new store opened on June 30, 2007. In compliance with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program, “green” building techniques and materials were incorporated into the new structure. New features included a deli with a salad, soup, and hot food bar, a large eating area, an outdoor patio, fresh fish and meat counters, and a customer service desk.
A collection of images
from the last 40 years.
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