A packed crowd of co-op member-owners attended July’s urgent KCFC meeting, where board members outlined plans to pull the co-op out of debt

A lifeline has appeared to keep the Kensington Community Food Co-op afloat, but the member-owned grocery store is still searching for permanent leadership. Meanwhile, as plans for an apartment complex take shape next door, some have suggested shutting down the co-op’s free community fridge.

The market, located in a neighborhood with lower median incomes than many other Philly food co-ops, opened in 2019 after a decade in the works. It has been struggling to rebound from a pandemic slump.

This week, days after an emergency meeting where the board pleaded for members to “deepen their equity” by forgiving loans and making new donations to stave off an imminent shutdown, KCFC announced a major infusion of funds: a $100,000 loan from the National Co+op Grocers’ Development Cooperative.

“This influx of capital is huge for us, and at the same time, the fundraising and funding strategy work continues,” co-op president Nadia Schafer told Thetelegraphfield.

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The new loan doesn’t end the fundraising dash — the co-op needs $233k to pay its debt and make necessary improvements — but it’ll at least allow the store to begin restocking its shelves as it searches for a new manager. Whoever takes on the leadership mantle for the neighborhood grocery store will have some large changes to oversee. The co-op is giving up part of its property at 2670 Coral St. in a deal with the landlord, who plans to build apartments in the current parking lot.

At the KCFC emergency meeting last Thursday, members were divided about the plans for new housing. The market would lose easily accessible parking for customers, some noted. Others noted the store could gain a lot of new customers once residents move in.

If the co-op can survive that long. Leadership in April estimated the market had six months to live.

With the business way behind on accounts payable, and several thousand dollars short of making last month’s payroll, KCFC’s volunteer board is asking members to increase their investment in the co-op, work at the store for free, and forgive loans they already made. Membership requires a $300 investment in the co-op, and the board is asking people to increase their contribution, up to the maximum of $1,500.

For some — like two board members who pledged to give $1k on the spot at last week’s meeting — it’s a no brainer. Others, KCFC leadership acknowledged, are wary of throwing money into a business with an uncertain future.

Some cast blame on the co-op’s surroundings, saying the store’s success is impacted by the people nearby experiencing homelessness and addiction. Several members said the community fridge must be shut down, because it attracts the wrong kind of people to the building. Others stuck up for it, noting that co-op prices aren’t attainable for many in Kensington.

“I don’t think we’re a charity,” one member said at the meeting. “I would much rather see a policing of the perimeter so that we have a clean and pleasant place to shop.”

KCFC employee Rashel Rivera poses next to a message left on the co-op’s community fridge. ‘Thank you,' the message reads. ‘You have made my hunger not an issue.' Credit: Beatrice Forman / Thetelegraphfield

Two staff workers spoke up on behalf of neighbors who regularly depend on the fridge to eat. “It shows the potential in the heart of the co-op,” staff member Rashel Rivera told Thetelegraphfield after the meeting. The contents of the fridge are donated, and do not cost the co-op money.

One former board member offered a personal appeal.

“I use it,” the former board member said, adding that the fridge is part of what makes the co-op inclusive of the surrounding community. “Until our prices come down, I think we should keep it.”

Several times, leaders of the meeting tried to steer the conversation away from the fridge and back to more pressing issues, reminding attendees of the co-op’s urgent financial needs. Where those topics converged was in the central issue of whether KCFC should prioritize the community mission or the best business practices.

One member stood up to share a statement from the co-op’s founder, Lena Helen, who has moved to Colorado and isn’t involved with KCFC anymore.

“Over the years as a business owner,” Helen wrote, “I have reflected a lot on the nature of cooperatives in general, and have come to the conclusion that this model, at this scale, is unsustainable — and that an all-volunteer board, made up of people who in general have little time to give, will inevitably lead to dis-organization.”

Mike Richards, who served as the store’s GM from 2017 to 2019, cast doubt on the ability to execute long-term strategy at a time when the co-op can’t even pay for day-to-day needs. When several members suggested enhancing the cafe, he noted it would require near-doubling of staff they already don’t have.

“What you’re gonna do is you’re gonna ask people to come and work here, after a meeting, they were talking about closing the business,” Richards said. “So we’re talking about fixes that this place needs to make, but the real fix is we need to find some leadership to take control of this thing full time.”

“What we’re not here to do is announce that we’re closing,” board member Jeff Carpineta said. “Anytime a co-op falls it’s a major hurt to the movement.”

These slips of paper represent commitments for KCFC member-owners to clear out specific outstanding bills, debts, or improvements, such as increasing outdoor signage or a $250 debt to a coffee supplier Credit: Beatrice Forman / Thetelegraphfield

Goodbye parking lot, hello liquor license

Rumors had been circulating since earlier this year that Kensington Community Food Co-op’s landlord, Mike Wade, wanted to develop the next-door parking lot. The rumors had sparked concerns about customer parking, as well as outdoor space for co-op events.

At Thursday’s meeting, Schafer said it’s happening: the store is giving up the lot and apartments will be built there. City records don’t yet show any applications for the parcel, which is listed as 9,000 square feet with an assessed value over $1 million.

Schafer framed the new development as a big win for KCFC. She said it’ll increase foot traffic and free the store of liabilities like maintaining the space, covering the property tax and worrying about illicit activities in the lot at night. She said the board has already sought city permits to create 30-minute parking spots in front of the store for quick shoppers, and plenty of city businesses including grocery stores do very well without parking lots.

In exchange for the parking lot, Schafer said, the co-op will have an opportunity to own its liquor license, which it had been renting from the landlord. She said that’s a savings of multiple thousand dollars each year.

Several members at Thursday’s meeting said the liquor license has not been put to sufficient use in the co-op’s three years so far, and that the bar area has been neglected. Member Richard Zurlnick said it looks like “the break room at Staples.”

But Carpineta, the board member, noted there hasn’t been money to buy kegs of beer. Richards, the former GM, noted the extra staffing needed for the bar to operate all day.

“Is there a bartender among us who wants to work at the cafe?” someone in the crowd suggested.

KCFC board members and interim general manager Valerie Baker (bottom left) Credit: Beatrice Forman / Thetelegraphfield

Meanwhile, the co-op is still without a permanent leader. Richards left the GM role in December and the interim GM who took his place recently resigned. Valerie Baker, an assistant manager from successful Philly co-op Weaver’s Way, recently stepped into the interim GM role.

Part of the long-term strategy hinges on the leadership search. Once it has a permanent general manager, KCFC has the opportunity to officially join the National Co+Op Grocers — the organization giving it a $100k loan — and gain access to lower pricing on many products the store sells.

Current staffer Rivera and coworker Kyle Corcoran were a little more positive after Thursday’s meeting. They’re both working at KCFC temporarily because they have other plans in the fall, Corcoran said, but in the past they’ve felt like there was a disconnect between the staff and the board.

“I didn’t anticipate the amount of transparency that was put out about how the events have played out over the last couple months,” Corcoran said. “There seems to be a plan in place.”