Food Front rallies in competitive market
In the 1970s, when Northwest Portland residents bound together to start the first Food Front Cooperative store, its fresh, locally sourced ingredients helped the grocery stand apart from the competition.
But now, with locally sourced grocery stores everywhere and the popularity of online grocery delivery growing, Food Front Cooperative has struggled to adapt to the increasingly competitive marketplace and stay afloat financially.
As General Manager Miles Uchida puts it, "everyone's in the natural foods game."
Despite budget cuts and staff upheaval, Uchida still says the cooperative, which is owned by more than 10,000 people and is located in Hillsdale and Northwest Portland, can remain solvent long term.
"I still think we can be competitive and have a place in the market. We offer something that is a unique experience for the community," Uchida says. "We're at a point where we want to rebuild the culture internally and become a great grocery store again."
Food Front Cooperative's assets totaled $1,489,702 in 2012, but that number has decreased markedly in subsequent years — to $786,484 in 2016 and $681,872 in 2017.
According to its 2016 annual report, the coop's sales at the Northwest store dropped by 20 percent from 2015 to 2016 alone, largely as a result of the opening of a New Seasons Market and the reopening of a Fred Meyer nearby.
"At this point, we're not in danger of closing. But we can't keep losing sales. At some point, it comes to be too hard to bear," Uchida says.
Though sales at the Hillsdale location have held steady or even increased in recent years, the Northwest store's descent affected both locations, according to Uchida. The Hillsdale store terminated 15 positions and was so understaffed, he says, that the meat and deli sections were vacant at various times last year.
The cooperative also replaced four general managers in 2017.
"I think that's where the rumors of closing came. They wouldn't see a person in the deli and that caused concern. That was more of a temporary situation. We have those positions filled now," Uchida says. "Based on our sales, our labor is adequate. Just figuring out how to do more with less has been difficult."
When he assumed the role of general manager in October, Uchida said staff morale was low. He says staff felt left in the dark about recent changes, but that he's trying to be more transparent moving forward.
"The key is to engage with people and show that there is nothing to hide. We are all part of the coop and need each other to get through this," Uchida says.
Uchida also says that although bigger businesses like New Seasons are more easily able to offer attractive island pricing (in which certain items receive major discounts and lure customers to buy full-price items), Food Front can be more competitive pricing-wise. He also wants the store to do a better job of promoting sales.
"We have work to do with the layout of the store, making sure people see the great deals we have. Other stores have big displays that look really nice and you know the deals right away," says Uchida, who has discussed promotional opportunities with the Hillsdale Library as well as OnPoint Community Credit Union.
"We're just getting started with that. It's a very tight-knit community and businesses can benefit from engaging with each other," he says.
Additionally, Uchida hopes to encourage a commitment to customer service.
"Part of it is reminding people, 'Here's our standards for our customer service.' Cultural change is going to help," he says. "Building a team mentality is the first step, and also making people feel like they're involved."
Eventually, Uchida hopes the cooperative will become involved in the push to provide affordable food access across the city.
"I'm trying to keep those things alive. It can't be where the bulk of our energy goes, but I don't want us to fall off the map as far as those conversations are concerned," he says.
Although Amazon's delivery service could blow up the grocery market and local competition is unlikely to go away, Uchida believes Food Front will be around for a long time. However, he admits that the future is hazy.
"I could totally imagine us existing within that framework and existing for sure," Uchida says. "But it's hard to envision 10 years from now what changes will happen."