Here at the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance, we are big fans of the Dating Spaces series. We also care about you and don't want you to rush into a relationship that's not sustainable in the long run. We've heard too many stories of food co-ops falling in love with a space before they were ready to commit, or a co-op discovering skeletons in the closet after it's too late. Here's some relationship advice from someone who’s been through it before.
In 2012 and 2013, I chaired the Kensington Community Food Co-op Planning Committee, leading a great group of volunteers and experts on a search for a space. We toured a couple dozen possible sites, discussed a new construction development, but none fit the criteria that we were looking for. We certainly felt the urgency to find a space in a short amount of time, and the fear of never finding a suitable space was very real. New possibilities continued to pop up, which kept us feeling hopeful. We circled back to a great looking site that was previously way out of our price range. The price dropped by enough to set up a meeting with the owner, and the price continued to drop, allowing us to eventually commit to signing a lease. Patience paid off for KCFC, and patience is still needed as there is still more fundraising to do.
Opening a successful co-op grocery store is really, really, really, really hard. It's even harder to pull off when you're a group of residents pooling money $200 at a time to do it. South Philly Food Co-op has already overcome a lot of the hurdles that prevent most food co-ops from ever attempting to secure a location. With over 650 members and their $200 equity investments, your Co-op has become a mature start-up food co-op that is ready to commit to a space. This hard-earned capital must be used wisely, and shouldn't be spent on just any space that looks like a good deal or has the appearance of a good potential grocery store.
Grocery stores are complicated operations and they have very specific needs. They need suitable areas to receive deliveries, enough room on a single floor to properly display and store all the products, and staff will need some sort of an office to work in. If you want to dig deeper into these requirements, check out the great blog post from May 26th. These requirements eliminate most eligible commercial properties, unfortunately. People are also creatures of habit that are used to shopping along routes that they already know. As such, the store should be on a commercial corridor if possible, but those buildings can be very expensive. You're starting a grocery store with very thin margins, so the rent has to be affordable. There are a lot of variables to consider, and the Real Estate Committee clearly has a handle on things.
I commend your Co-op for being so patient; a lesser co-op would have pulled the trigger by now. The store of your dreams may be right around the corner. Keep your standards high, but understand that compromise is inevitable. Be wary that too much compromise might compromise the Co-op's ability to be profitable. Food co-ops do have a much higher survival rate than most independent businesses. I think a lot of this success has to do with food co-ops forcing themselves to be patient and work with a group of people to make the best decision.
Executive Director - Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance
South Philly Food Co-op Member # 1578
Dating Spaces is a series of blog posts in which we share information about our search for a location with our member-owners and supporters. In our first post, we revealed our dating profile; next, we asked our Real Estate Committee chairwoman to share her insights. In this post, Jess Calter gets into some technical detail about what size and shape we're seeking.
You might be wondering: How do we decide what makes a great space?
Aside from the financial modeling and market analysis that goes into site selection, a key part of our search is making sure that we have the space we need to do what we need to do in any given location. In other words, we're not just looking for a certain size, we're also looking for a certain shape for the South Philly Food Co-op.
Through a grant from the Community Design Collaborative, the Co-op got hooked up with the fabulous folks from UCI Architects to provide programming and advisory services for our site feasibility. UCI helped us to turn research, case studies, interviews and our feasibility study and business plan into a roadmap for Co-op success. Three key components of this plan are the Adjacency Diagram, Program Table and Program Diagram, all three of which have helped the Co-op understand our needs throughout the search.
First up: The Adjacency Diagram (above) is a graphic version of an outline, representing proposed building spaces and their relationship to one another. This diagram shows the hierarchy of spaces: retail space, back-of-house storage, and staff/office/amenity spaces. The size of the bubble relates to the amount of space required, and the location on the diagram shows how the spaces need to relate.
The Programming Table is a written table of square footage requirements for the program spaces. Based on requirements from our market and feasibility studies about retail space size and ratios of retail to back-of-house, each department was evaluated on the Co-ops needs, shelving requirements and subsequent circulation requirements. You can see the results in the table above. This is really helpful when we look at a location: Just by knowing the width of a space, we can determine if there is enough room for shelving and shopper circulation.
Lastly, the Program Diagram combines the information in the Programming Table and the Adjacency Diagram, showing how our required spaces can work together as puzzle pieces. It can be scaled and resized depending on the specific location, but it serves as a starting place for our ideal situation. Think of the Program Diagram like Colorforms for creating our perfect Co-op!
Together, these tools are at our disposal as we evaluate each and every site. Not only do they help us visualize our needs, but they also help to highlight potential problems and fantastic features of a possible location.
Questions about these tools? Got a hot real estate tip? Email [email protected].
Dating Spaces is a series of blog posts in which we share information about our search for a location with our member-owners and supporters. In our first post, we revealed our dating profile; next up, we asked our Real Estate Committee chairwoman to share her insights.
Dating Spaces is a series of blog posts in which we share information about our search for a location with our member-owners and supporters. The following is from the Co-op's Real Estate Committee Chair Angel D'Ippolito.
"Everyone's favorite hypothetical grocery store."
I remember attending the very first meeting of the Co-op's Real Estate Committee back on July 9, 2012. There were a lot of people at that first meeting, which really showed how eager people were even back then to get the store up and running. Now, as the chair of the committee nearly three years later, no one is as eager as me to turn the hypothetical store store into a physical reality.
The Real Estate Committee is 100% committed to finding the right space for our store. We have examined the viability of over 80 properties. We have done site visits of about 20 of them. Committee members have had countless meetings with potential landlords, developers, state and city legislators and agencies, civic leaders, lenders, other co-op leaders, and realtors. We interviewed half a dozen realtors and hired one. Through a Community Design Collaborative grant, we worked with a local architecture firm to prepare an architectural program for the store. Market studies have been obtained, financial pro formas prepared, and so much more has been done in the effort to find the right location.
You might have noticed that I didn't say we are looking for the "perfect" space. The reality is that no site in South Philly can meet every single item on our dream store wishlist. However, I am convinced that we will find the space that has the necessary balance in location, shape, size, loading, accessibility, and price. We face a fair amount of challenges. The biggest challenge thus far has been in finding spaces that (i) exist and are available, (ii) fit our few must-haves, and (iii) are priced in a way that gives the Co-op a good chance at long-term success. Places that are too big are too expensive to operate. Spaces too small don't offer the ability to stock enough product to sustain necessary sales. Locations on ideal commercial corridors are often priced way too high or get scooped up quickly by other suitors. Locations hidden away in neighborhoods often don't offer high enough sales projections to justify the start-up costs.
Phew - that's a lot of generalizations, I know! Know, however, that we analyze each and every location that comes to our attention with specificity and balance. We investigate every location that is brought to our attention, while actively searching for new potential sites. Sometimes we revisit prior sites to see if anything has changed.
We really need you, fellow members, to be on the lookout for spaces that you think match our dating profile. Call 215-839-8213 or email us with any possible locations. As I said, we'll leave no stone unturned!
We promise that we are moving as quickly as reasonably possible while exploring sites with diligence. As winning basketball coach John Wooden once said, "If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?"
It's been awhile since we've updated our member-owners and neighbors about the search for our dream location, so we know what you must be thinking: When is the Co-op going to find a space? Why are they being so picky?
Let's work backward on those questions for just a moment. We're being picky because we want to be sure we find a space we're completely, entirely committed to. We've done market studies and developed performance indicators that give us a clear sense of what we need in a space that would serve us well, not just the other way around.
Isn't that what a healthy relationship is all about? You know, this whole process has felt a lot like dating. It's been exhilarating and frustrating and inspiring and maddening -- sometimes all in one day. On the upside, though, all the disappointing site visits (the one-night stands of real estate) and unsuccessful developer negotiations (the brief flings) that have yet to result in the real-deal relationship have made us stronger than ever.
We haven't forgotten your first question about when the Co-op will find a location. We just don't have a clear answer for you -- because, as it turns out, love is hard! Three wise ladies (well, technically, their mama) once told us "you can't hurry love," so we’re taking our time before we tie the knot.
Even though we haven't gotten hitched yet, we promise you, we're serious about looking. At the beginning of the year, we took stock of our romance landscape. At that time, we had examined over 80 properties, visiting about 20 of them in person. We met with at least 6 developers (think speed dating event managers) and 5 realtors (professional matchmakers), hiring our favorite realtor last fall. (You'll meet him soon. His name is Jake, and he helps keep us emotionally balanced.) And, of course, we got plenty of advice from a wide network of family and friends.
For a while, we felt a little shy about sharing our dating life online. But in true co-op fashion, we want to be open about our search for real commitment, and we want anyone reading this to know our wants and needs and be ready to give that approving thumbs-up when we find a space we really, really love.
So we tucked away our nostalgia for the days when dating wasn't so complicated, put on our big kid pants, and went for it... We made an online dating profile:
We're just giving you the screenshot for now, but rest assured, we'll keep you updated with plenty of juicy behind-the-scenes action from our logged-in account throughout this Dating Spaces blog series. Circle back for a first-date flop story or two, plus photos and interviews with our crew of dating advisors that is the South Philly Food Co-op Real Estate Committee.
Now that we're putting ourselves out there digitally, we hope you'll help us find the one by sharing our dating profile screenshot on Facebook and telling all your friends we’re looking for love. We invite you to email [email protected], too, if you want to get more involved with the matchmaking process.
Till next time, internet lovers.
South Philly Food Co-op