You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 5:58 a.m.

People's Food Co-op upgrades: New leader keeps millennials in mind

By Janet Miller

While the People’s Food Co-op was the first Ann Arbor storefront committed to locally grown organic food, the past few decades have seen a marketplace flooded with Goliaths like Whole Foods, stalwarts like Arbor Farms and upstarts like Plum Market.

Despite the competition, the co-op — founded in 1971 and today housed inside a small, historic building on the edge of Kerrytown — remains strong and ready to grow, said its new general manager, Lesley Perkins.

“We’re no longer the only game in town,” said Perkins. “But our business model, where members buy shares and elect the board, is our strength. If we didn’t have this, we’d be just another little health food store out of business.”


New general manager for People's Food Co-op Lesley Perkins stands outside the door of the store. Perkins hopes to expand the bakery as well as catering, amount many other changes.

Janet Miller | For

After two years without a permanent general manager, Perkins joined the co-op in the spring, promising change, such as reconfiguring the coffee bar operation for a better work flow and building the catering-end of the operation.

Perkins’ only experience with food cooperatives was as a customer since the 1990s. But as president of Kerrytown Market & Shops for a decade, she knew how to run a business and understood the area. She also had experience in the food industry. Along with her husband, Perkins bought and ran the 17-room Betsy Bay Inn and a 100-seat restaurant in Frankfort, which they sold last year.

The interview process for general manager was long, and a bit intimidating, Perkins said. After sitting down with a search committee made up of three employees and three co-op board members, Perkins was asked to meet with more employees and board members in a town hall-style session.

“While there were just 14 people, it felt like hundreds,” she said. “It was a little scary.”

Six months after she applied, she landed the job.

Perkins' first order of business was to paint her windowless, gray basement office a cheery gold. Next came small physical changes to the cafe half of the building, which houses the coffee operation and hot bar. A wall was removed, opening up the narrow building and creating a sight line from the front door to the back wall, along with new paint.

Bigger changes are on the way: A new hot bar/salad bar will be ordered, which will double the space for hot dishes. The kitchen will begin producing more variety and there will be more grab-and-go items.

“There is a huge trend with grab-and-go,” she said. “Cafe Verde needs to be modernized and needs a good cleaning up, but we don’t want to close down the operation in the process.

Ann Arbor’s People’s Food Co-op

Gross sales year-over-year

  • 2007: $3,401,000
  • 2008: $4,441,190
  • 2009: $4,685,000
  • 2010: $5,890,043
  • 2011: $6,200,598
  • 2012: $6,541,189

Gross sales at People's Food Co-op, which has 7,500 members, totaled about $6.5 million in 2012, compared to about $6.2 million in 2011, annual reports show. While a dividend wasn’t paid to members in 2011 or 2012, they can expect one late this summer, Perkins said.

Now, she said it’s time for the co-op to grow. The baking department will add another shift and move into selling wholesale. The bakery just received a standing order from a University of Michigan department. They also hope to update the catering possibilities for the store.

It’s impossible for the retail side of the co-op to physically expand. The co-op is landlocked, shelves are packed and aisles are tight, Perkins said.

“The co-op’s only real issue is a space issue,” she said.

“We are looking for ways to expand, but it’s measured in inches,” she continued.

Still, it’s important to be able to respond to trends, Perkins said. “People who started the 1960s and '70s wave of food co-ops were baby boomers. But there’s a whole new wave of younger people who expect different things, they expect it to be more like Whole Foods and we have to evolve."

She said the co-op would consider the possibility of opening a new store, but only if the decision was supported by the members.

It’s important, she said, to appeal to the millennials as the next generation of co-op members, while still satisfying the baby boomers who founded the co-op.


lou glorie

Tue, Jul 9, 2013 : 6:30 p.m.

PEOPLE'S FOOD CO-OP. "Co-op" is the operative word here--or should be. Being a co-op, it is a member run enterprise--or at least it should be. If the members want the co-op to be all organic, non-gmo, then it should be that. The Board's job is to see that the interests of the members/investors are promoted and protected. Though, overall, I think Ms. Perkins is doing a great job, I'm sorry that she seems to have fallen in with the notion that, to succeed, a small businesses needs to ape the formula of giant concerns like Whole Foods. Anyone who wants to shop at Whole Foods is free to do so. Also, she has made a gross generalization about millennials--in suggesting that they are a monolithic group unappreciative of the differences between a co-op and a mega corporation. I doubt this is the case. And adding fuel to the generational war fomented by Wall St. isn't going to help the co-op. It is incorrect to say that the co-op is more expensive than WF, Plum or Arbor Farms. There are many items available that are less expensive--the fresh mozzarella is an example. But again, this is a member/shopper owned business and if we choose to sometimes pay higher prices for organic produce or limit the availability of gmo products in the store, that's our choice. It would be a bad business decision to try to be another WF. WF is already doing what it does and the co-op is successful in an entirely different niche. Why not expand the concept of co-op into other areas, such as health insurance, or provide services like home delivery for people who don't have cars--or can't stand the parking situation? In any case, these decisions should involve the members.

lou glorie

Tue, Jul 9, 2013 : 7:55 p.m.

My comment is based on the print version which featured more of Leslie Perkins' comments about changes, millenniels, Whole Foods, etc.


Mon, Jul 8, 2013 : 5:16 p.m.

Please add more vegan items and options! There used to be more a few years ago it seems. Thank you :) a Co-op Member


Mon, Jul 8, 2013 : 2:56 p.m.

My main problem with shopping there is the lack of parking. This is a great location for those who go to the Farmer's Market and those who live downtown,. But for me, the parking problems (lack of spaces and cost to park) outweigh the advantages of shopping there. I find that I can buy my organic produce (the Dirty 12 plus 3) at Busch's, Krogers, Plum or Arbor Farms more conveniently. Also, there are Farmer's Markets in Dexter and Chelsea as well as small farm stands. For beef and pork I go to Arbor Farms for their Lamb Farms (Manchester) grass fed meats. And chicken and eggs I get from local farmers - (free range). I also grow a chemical free garden every year and can and freeze the produce. Since we eat virtually nothing out of a package with a label I find that my food dollars do stretch pretty far.

lou glorie

Tue, Jul 9, 2013 : 7:41 p.m.

I don't think the co-op is comparable to the larger stores. It is in the core of the city where parking is not free. If this was my main issue, I guess I wouldn't shop there either. I think the co-op does a better job than any of the above mentioned of promoting local produce. But while you're puttering in your chemical free garden, think about the chemicals, greenhouse gases etc you are sharing with the rest of us driving your car. I guess, the best thing would be to shop at the place closest to your home.

Susan Montgomery

Mon, Jul 8, 2013 : 11:41 a.m.

Small typo - In the Perkins photo caption, "amount" should read "among"

Bryan Ellinger

Mon, Jul 8, 2013 : 5:54 a.m.

Remember the oven-hot veggie cheese rolls at Wildflower that would sell out before noon on Wednesdays? The pecan sandies were also tasty. Mmmm.

Mark Wilson

Mon, Jul 8, 2013 : 12:54 a.m.

I've been a Co-op shopper since the first month it opened on State St. in August of 1971. I still shop there for some items, but less than I used to since other sources for healthy food have become available. Whole Foods or Kroger or Busch's or Plum Market will not stop selling organic produce if the People-s Food Co-op were to close. I call that a win for the co-op movement and for consumers. It's called "Creative Destruction".


Mon, Jul 8, 2013 : 2:57 p.m.

I don't understand what you are saying here?


Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 10:17 p.m.

PFC has a long history of multiple tensions: Is it a cost-conscious grocery store alternative, or does it offer the highest quality, "purest" products, and damn the price? Does it prioritize the social goal of an employee-friendly, non-exploiting workplace, or is its first responsibility the economic goal of serving its member/owners? As the range of other local options has grown, I find myself shopping less and less at PFC. I can find bulk for (frequently much) less at By the Pound, and better quality and variety at Whole Foods. There are multiple stores where employees seem more informed and more eager to assist customers. I wish Lesley well. A monumental task awaits her.


Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 4:46 p.m.

I'm a dedicated co-op shopper and have been delighted recently to discover the baked goods as they've expanded the selection. The macarons and, especially, the sea salt chocolate chip cookies are divine, and well-priced. I encourage the expansion of grab-and-go -- I'm amazed at how quickly some of my favorites sell out. Keep carrying local produce and Avalon bread!

lou glorie

Tue, Jul 9, 2013 : 7:42 p.m.

The oatmeal cookies are the best in the world! I'd gladly pay a few pennies more for a gmo free sugar version.

Jaime Magiera

Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 10:43 p.m.

Yeah, the Sea Salt Chocolate Chip cookies are amazing.


Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 4:29 p.m.

Still, it's important to be able to respond to trends, Perkins said. "People who started the 1960s and '70s wave of food co-ops were baby boomers. But there's a whole new wave of younger people who expect different things, they expect it to be more like Whole Foods and we have to evolve." ************* If the coop turns into Whole Foods, it will fail. No one, boomers or millennials, want another WF approach to retail grocery (overpriced products, arrogant customers and cashiers who are more interested in chatting with coworkers than service to customers). WF is targeted to the rich and those who aspire to being rich, and that is not a viable business plan for the food coop.


Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 3:40 p.m.

I've shopped on and off at the Coop for years. Now, I'm permanently on. For a small, local store they have excellent produce and offer a variety of brands. Their organic produce is very expensive vs. conventional. They should be a leader in bringing down the prices of organic food so that others besides the very wealthy can afford it.


Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 3:23 p.m.

so it's important to appeal to the boomers... but you have to keep an eye on bringing in the millennials (who are the children of the boomers)... there is a generation in the middle there that wasn't mentioned... which is pretty typical as the Boomers never wanted to admit that there was a Gen X..... just one more reason I no longer go to the co-op....


Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 3:22 p.m.

Overrated food, terrible management, and mistreated staff. Not a place I go or would recommend anyone else goes to.

Milton Shift

Mon, Jul 8, 2013 : 10:02 a.m.

Red peppers have been a maximum of $3/lb for 12 months straight. Even a decade ago, WalMart didn't offer them for less than $5/lb.


Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 7:48 p.m.

I'm certainly no "expert", but I shopped there a couple times and was very unimpressed. The RTE food was overpriced and bland, the produce overpriced, and the atmosphere reminiscent of a place trying to be something more than it is capable of being. Plus, I have heard horror stories of former workers dealing with inadequate pay and insufferable management.


Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 6:20 p.m.

Funny how all the experts admit they aren't even customers.


Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 4:31 p.m.

Overpriced produce, no parking and crammed aisles, with incredibly expensive groceries. Not a place my wife and I have gone for many years.

Jaime Magiera

Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 1:39 p.m.

The proposed changes make good business sense. The kitchen does a really good job on their products. Getting those products into other stores and providing them through catering could increase the cash flow and increase the name recognition of the co-op. Godspeed!


Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 1:14 p.m.

Hopefully, the new manager will take more care and attention to the food bar. The past year the food bar has been sloppy and not attractive. I stopped eating there.

Jaime Magiera

Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 1:42 p.m.

Jean, it doesn't seem difficult to find a manager on shift during the day. Also, you could call or email your concerns. They do value member feedback.

West Park

Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 12:55 p.m.

In 1980, the Coop was in 4 separate buildings. The Food Coop, Wildflower Bakery, the Vegetable Coop, all on Fourth Ave, with the Herb and Spice Coop sharing a space around the corner on Ann St. with The Soy Plant Collective. At that time, a $20 membership was important for cash flow, but I thought it was exclusive. Now that it is $60 and the cash is not needed, I always feel that it is unnecessarily exclusive when each customer is asked "are you a member?"

lou glorie

Tue, Jul 9, 2013 : 7:47 p.m.

If you don't get the concept of member/shopper control, I can see why you find it unnecessary to have memberships.


Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 3:38 p.m.

@ West Park, Maybe you do nto understand business, but NOWHERE does it say there is close to $7 million in INCOME. It does say there was $6.5 million is GROSS REVENUE. Do you understand the difference? Just so you also understand numbers. If there are 7500 members, and each paid $60, that amounts to $450k How many employees does that cover? Maybe a couple months of rent? Utiliy bills? Nobody has ever forced you to buy a stake in the organization. It is a MEMBER OWNED co-op (same as a credit union). The profits are distributed back to the members if there are enough. If you think the prices are too high,. then don't shop there. If you don't want to pay for a membership, keep giving your money to Kroger or Meijer. They love giving their profits back to the "members" who bought their stock.

West Park

Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 2:24 p.m.

Steve, the question that they always ask me is "are you a member?"

West Park

Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 2:23 p.m.

Jaime, I would think, that with projected 7 million in income this year..........

Steve Bean

Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 1:36 p.m.

The question asked is, "Do you have a member number?"

Jaime Magiera

Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 1:25 p.m.

The cash is no longer needed?

Linda Peck

Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 12:05 p.m.

I remember the original food coop on Packard next to the laundry, just off the corner of State/Packard. It was a charming little spot and convenient, and I shopped there for exotic bulk and organic items. This was around 1975.

Mark Wilson

Mon, Jul 8, 2013 : 12:41 a.m.

The Packard store wasn't the first Co-op storefront. There was a tiny shop on State St. between Hill and Packard before that. It was a few steps down from the sidewalk level.

Jaime Magiera

Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 1:33 p.m.

I shopped at that one until it closed about 12 years ago.

Mark Wilson

Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 11:54 a.m.

I like all of the proposed changes. The PFC went through a lot of changes in its first few years, not so much the past 15 years. I fondly remember shopping at the original store on State Street. It was tiny and dark and probably very dirty (who could see?). I can still imagine the long row of antique refrigerators in a narrow room at the back of the store where eggs were stored. Free love, cheap food, and a new co-op opening every year or two (PFC, Daily Grind, People's Wherehouse, Wildflower Bakery, Soy Plant). Those were the days.

Linda Peck

Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 12:07 p.m.

Mark, those were the days. I loved those days of newness and miss them. Thanks for the reminders of our favorite shops.


Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 10:54 a.m.

The People's Food Coop was originally founded in order to offer a low cost alternative to the chain grocers. Now the People's Food Coop is more expensive than the chain grocers.

Koivu Tree

Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 4:25 p.m.

I don't find that true at all. First of all typical chain grocers don't carry the same brands and items. Next, I have found that the co-op is very well priced in comparison to chain grocers. You have to consider where all this food comes from. The co-op carries a lot of GMO-free items, items from local farmers and food artisans, and a lot of small companies. You get what you pay for. You can't expect these sorts of items to be as cheap as big brands that use cheap labor and cheap ingredients at a largely mass-produced level. It's just not realistic. And lastly, I believe the co-op was started to make healthier choices in food available (and lots of times in bulk, therefore lower in cost) for people in Ann Arbor. One thing that's really great about the co-op is that they carry local produce and they label it as such. They are also starting to label items as GMO-free so we can be in-the-know. And they have a fabulous bulk food section with all sorts of spices (which when bought in bulk are much much cheaper than chain grocers - and of higher quality) and flours, grains, etc. Anyway, that's my two cents. ;-) Take care.

West Park

Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 2:29 p.m.

Just yesterday, I was telling someone at the Farmer's Market about the Coop. She replied that she should join so that she could save money. I didn't say anything but the fact is, as much as I would like to buy more from the Coop, the prices are prohibitive. Same goes for organic over conventional. Only the more affluent can afford.

Jaime Magiera

Sun, Jul 7, 2013 : 1:32 p.m.

Not sure that's completely accurate. Even so, the Ann Arbor community wants food that is particularly healthy, organic and GMO-free. Acquiring such foods is more expensive than chain stores purchasing corporate food in high quantities.