Seward Co-op opened in 1972 on the corner of 22nd and Franklin avenues (where Welna II Hardware is today), with the help of North Country Co-op members. In the beginning we were run by a core group of volunteers and had a small selection of products with a heavy emphasis on bulk goods.
By 1976 we had grown quite a bit, and it was time to reorganize. We incorporated, issued our first stock to members, required members to volunteer at the store, and established an elected board of directors.
In the early 1980s, we were facing several challenges. Membership had dwindled to 50 members and interest in volunteering had declined. We knew we had to change to survive. In 1983, our board and collective adopted a general management structure, and we reincorporated as a consumer co-op. Patronage refunds were introduced and volunteering was no longer required of members.
Our willingness to change paid off! Between June 1984 and June 1987 our membership grew to 1,000 households and sales grew 54 percent. In 1987, we voted to increase the stock purchase in order to help finance an expansion, and we were able to expand the building into the vacant space next door. Again, we found that growth led to growth. By 1989, sales topped $1 million.
By the mid 1990s, it became clear to our board and management that we weren't done growing. With their guidance and the support of our member-owners we built a new store on a lot one block west on Franklin Ave. The doors opened in 1998. By June of 1999, our sales, staff and membership had doubled.
In the fall of 2003 we launched another smaller expansion that created a front-end seating area and more checkout lanes. Sales once again rose. By fiscal year 2006, sales had reached $8.9 million.
Almost as soon as the last expansion was completed, staff and members realized that we weren’t going to have enough space. In 2005, the board directed the general manager to plan for a new store expansion on Franklin Ave. As chance would have it, the old Riverside Market site became available. Seward Co-op member-owners invested $1.46 million in the project and the current location opened Jan. 8, 2009. The new 25,600-square-foot new store has 13,000 square feet of retail space, a second-floor classroom and is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified. Immediately, sales and membership skyrocketed.
On August 4, 2012, Seward Co-op celebrated its fortieth anniversary. Way back in 1972, when the co-op took shape, few people could have imagined it would grow to be the thriving community center and source of healthful food it is today. From a few working volunteer members, Seward Co-op membership has grown to more than 11,000 owners. Store sales were $28 million in 2012 and the co-op now employs 220 people. What’s most important, though, is that amidst great success and profitability, the co-op has remained true to its mission, never losing site of its commitment to its members and the greater community. In its lifetime, Seward Co-op has created a vision of great food, sustainability, and cooperation.