The Co-op on Yelp? Yikes!

If you’re ever inclined to feel complacent about our Co-op and its place in the local food economy, just head for the consumer rating site Yelp.com and check out the reviews of the Co-op Food Stores in Hanover and Lebanon.  (For some reason they have no reviews of the Co-op Food Store in White River Junction.)  One greets with slack-jawed astonishment the extent to which the Co-op can be misunderstood and misconstrued.

For example, there is this review of the Hanover store from July 11, 2016:

“This store was recently remodeled to be more of a chain-style quickie-mart. It now has more processed and pre-made food, but no longer has a full selection of groceries.

“It's still a fake coop, and you don't actually own your shares.

“I can't recommend this place to anyone but the desperate or car-less. Prices are like double what they are at normal stores and coops. Quality and selection is horrible. Veggies/fruits are old and rotten inside for the most part. Meats are gross - the supposed "natural" and "eco" type meats are horrible, worse than midwestern feedlot stuff. Regular grocery stock is old and sometimes well past the sell-by date. Pre-made food is fair-to-bad.

“They do sketchy things like using rainbow trout ("steelhead") instead of salmon in their sushi.

“Like other reviews say, If you have a car, it's best to go one town over and stock up at Hannaford, and then stop by the "big Coop" at Centerra on your way back if necessary.”

Where to begin?  I don’t see how even the most casual visitor to the Hanover Co-op Food store could conflate its product selection with that of a convenience store chain.  There is, admittedly, a growing emphasis on grab ‘n’ go items at all grocery stores and the Co-op, for good or ill, does not pretend to be immune to this trend.  But you can still shop for old-fashioned groceries at this store – everything you need is there, from peanut butter and jelly to wagon wheel pasta to fresh brussels sprouts to Marmite.  (Though why anyone would willingly subject themselves to Marmite I do not understand.)

Fake co-op?  Don’t actually own your own shares?  A howling falsehood, plain and simple.  The rest of the characterizations fall squarely into the realm of what in some circles is known as “veggie libel.”  Clearly the Co-op has to act decisively to dispel the myth that its prices are out of line with the competition’s.

Here’s a 2014 review of the Lebanon Co-op Food store:

“Just FYI, the "Coop" isn't a real coop, it's just a regular chain grocery store with a club-card discount program.

“You have to buy "shares" for the club-card, but you don't really own the shares. The Coop can repossess your shares without paying you. For example, they can force you to buy more shares, or else they will repossess your current shares without any compensation. You can see this and more on their online "bylaws." It's predatory, in my opinion.

“Quality is just awful. It's declined significantly over the last several years. The meat, fish, and produce are terrible quality for the most part. Worse than chain stores. The "organic" and "natural" meats used to be ok, but now they are worse than the cheap feedlot stuff at other stores. The produce and sometimes the fish are just plain old and sick. And laughably expensive.

“Basically, the Coop is a fake Walmart version of real co-ops. Worst example of "greenwashing" I've ever seen. Clearly, the executives at the Coop chain are aware that we're all stuck up here with no other choices. The suppliers/distrubuters they use are so disgusting it makes me wonder what kind of corporate racket is going on with this place. Someone is raking it in. Wonder why this "Coop" refuses to disclose their executive pay? To me, it seems like their business plan is based on taking advantage of customers, since we're evidently all country-bumpkins, helpless elderly, naive college kids, or downscale leaf-peeping tourists.

“Buyer beware! Do your due diligence. Check those "use by" dates. Check the fruits and veggies for rot as soon as you get home. Don't be scared to return rotten and spoiled items.”

Do you get the idea that this review was written by the same person who wrote the review of the Hanover store?  They both use the term “feedlot” and repeat the patently false claim that Co-op members don’t really own their shares.  The Co-op cannot “repossess your shares.”  No store, whether calling itself a co-op or not, could survive by doing the kind of stuff described in either of these reviews.

Finally, there is this review from 2015:

“I adore the Co-op.  I almost gave it 4 stars just because the prices are so high that I can't afford to do all of my grocery shopping here, but I couldn't bring myself to take a star away.  Honestly, I'm okay with paying higher prices for the items I get from the Co-op, since it's all high quality, and so much of it goes back to local farmers, businesses, and the community.  As I said, I can't afford to do all of my grocery shopping here, but when I need a high quality ingredient or two to be the stars of a meal I'm making, this is my go-to place.  I also like that it's right down the street from my office, so I don't have to drive all the way into West Leb to get a couple of ingredients.

“I waited a while to become a member, just because $50 seemed like a lot to me.  Then, I realized I only had to pay the $50 once to become a member for life, and then it didn't seem so bad.  On the 15th & 16th of every month, they give a 10% member discount, and members also receive all kinds of discounts from other local businesses and services.  My personal favorite perk is the cooking class discount for their Culinary Learning Institute.  My favorite classes are taught by Eli, who has never cooked something I didn't like... even when he uses ingredients I don't particularly love, like mushrooms.  The guy is a magician with food!  They regularly invite microbreweries in to do food and beer pairing classes, and students are able to interact and ask questions about the food and beer.

“Another couple of highlights for me:

“The cheese section!  Cheeses from near and far!  I could spend an entire paycheck and gain 50 pounds all in one shot here.  Cheeses from France, Italy, Switzerland... and honestly, some of the best cheeses (in my cheese-loving opinion) are from local farms right next door in Vermont.

“The beer section!  All kinds of great microbrews, and one of the top selections in the Upper Valley.  Matt runs this department, and he does a fantastic job with keeping the selection diverse and ever-changing.  I'm always finding fantastic new beers I've never tried!  Matt also does a great job helping Eli with the food and beer pairing classes.

“Produce!  Most of it's organic, a lot of it's local, it's all fresh, and yes, it's expensive... but when I needed some really great, fresh, and tender Vidalia onions to be the star of the French onion soup I was making, this was where I went for the onions, baguettes, and some really fantastic Gruyere cheese.  I guarantee my French onion soup came out way better than it would have if I'd just gone to Price Chopper for the ingredients.

“The rest of it is really great too, but those are my highlights.”

What’s the moral of the story?  The Co-op has to get real with its members about its prices.  I suspect that a thorough inquiry would reveal that the Co-op is sometimes more expensive than its competition, sometimes isn’t, and is overall a cost-effective source of groceries in the long run.  I will never forget being at a board meeting several years ago at which a member of the management team handed out a detailed comparison of the Co-op’s prices with those of one of the supermarket chains with a major presence in our area.  The Co-op was actually cheaper overall.  When I asked why the Co-op wasn’t publicizing this the answer I got was that the Co-op feared inciting and then losing a price war with the investor-owned chains.  I said:  Why would lower grocery prices for all, throughout the Upper Valley, be a bad thing?  He looked at me like I was crazy.