It took five years of community meetings, fundraising, and planning to open Bloomington’s first grocery store cooperative. Seven months since opening day, the work still isn’t over.
Facing increased competition and softer sales than one market study predicted, Green Top Grocery is making some bold moves to stay on track in its first year. It added hot food to its deli, and opened a taco bar in October. Friday tastings are driving even more business to the successful beer-and-wine section. It’s also doubling down on its No. 1 marketing pitch—shopping at Green Top is about what you value, not just what you eat—while not ignoring cost-conscious consumers.
“We are adjusting to the reality of running a grocery store," said Michael Pennington, the store's general manager. "We are adjusting and developing to better serve this community. Sales in some departments have been good. Departments that focus on local products, like produce, meat and surprisingly beer and wine, have been doing really well. A little softer in other areas, but we’re making adjustments."
The $3.6 million store at 921 E. Washington St. opened in May. It now has 1,684 owners and features products from 66 farmers and producers around Central Illinois. Its emphasis is local, healthy food.
While warmly welcomed by its loyal fan base, Green Top faced big competition from Day 1. Fresh Thyme, a natural food grocer owned by Meijer, opened just before Green Top did.
Green Top’s creators did a market study a few years ago, but a lot has changed since then, said Pennington. That includes new competition like Fresh Thyme, but also existing competition that has “upped their game in natural and organic foods,” he said.
“The landscape is a little different. Sales are not quite what the market study said (they would be), but they’re still strong and steady, and we’re seeing growth as we move forward,” he said.
The store's workforce is also changing. A few employees have been let go. The store opened with more than 30 employees, and it now has between around 25 and 30, Pennington said.
“Retail grocery is a very seasonal business, and our employee count fluctuates significantly with traffic and sales,” Pennington said. “Part of running a responsible business is making those necessary adjustments.”
Some have been surprised at Green Top’s prices, which for some products can appear high. That’s one of a few “disconnects” and “misalignments” that Green Top’s leadership has faced since opening, between what people expected—over those five years of planning—and what Green Top became, said Green Top board member Melanie Shellito.
“I don't feel we strayed from what we said we were going to do. We’ve accomplished beyond what we said we were going to do,” Shellito said.
Her comments echoed an introspective statement from Green Top’s board of directors shared on the store’s Facebook page in October, five months after opening.
“When we talked about bringing local food, a lot of organic and well-labeled (food), people thought local would be cheaper,” Shellito said. But cheap food is a misnomer, she said, because it comes at a cost, such as poor working conditions for producers in the supply chain.
The price issue means Green Top’s marketing will emphasize its mission and values even more, Shellito said, trying to set it apart from chain grocery stores that may have cheaper cereal.
“That’s the kind of thing we’re trying to talk about more, those values, because if it’s purely cost, then chances are Walmart is going to win that every time. But Green Top isn’t really about cost. It’s not just about food. It’s that this store is an economic driver for so many things.”
But price still matters. To that end, Pennington said they recently dropped the price of 400 items throughout the store. There’s also a biweekly sales cycle, he said.
Locally sourced products have performed especially well, said Pennington. They now represent 27 percent of Green Top's sales, compared to the industry average of around 2 percent, he said.
"Across the store, most of our best-selling items come from local suppliers, which I think demonstrates the high value our community places on supporting our local economy," Pennington said.
Beer and wine sales have outperformed expectations, he said. And they’re pushing in-store food samples to introduce shoppers to unfamiliar brands, he said.
"People are creatures of routine,” Pennington said.
Once they’re in the store, shoppers have been eagerly participating in two programs that support Bloomington-Normal community organizations. One asks shoppers to “round up” their total shopping bill, with the proceeds going to one charity each month. A separate program lets shoppers “vote” with a wooden token which organization to support.
Those programs have raised some serious money. The Midwest Food Bank will get $1,232 from November’s Round Up at the Register program. Home Sweet Home Ministries was presented with a check for $1,346 on Nov. 7. The YWCA’s Labyrinth program got $1,103.
Those programs reflect that Green Top is more than a grocery store, Shellito said.
“The store is a catalyst for good things that flow throughout the community,” she said.
You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Shellito and Pennington:
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