The promise of Ozark Natural Foods co-op in Fayetteville when they paid off their $1.6 million ($15,000 a month) mortgage was to save shoppers money and invest in the local community. A little over a year later, ONF Marketing Director Alexa McGriff and Outreach Coordinator Heather Artripe said they’re doing just that.
On top of the 3 percent drop in prices within the store in the last four years, McGriff said the store has been able to hire more employees, donate larger sums to nonprofits, events, schools and projects, paid for upgrades with no additional debt, and are now looking towards future growth.
Since the pay off in December 2012, McGriff said the donations budget for ONF grew by 2 to 3 percent during 2013 to 2014 alone. In 2010, when McGriff started at ONF, their donations budget was $17,000 for the year. As of 2014, that budget has more than doubled to $48,000. That means more organizations will be affected, but also some organizations will get a larger sum than they would have in the past.
Early this month, ONF donated $20,000 to Apple Seeds, Inc. for a teaching farm located next to the ONF site on College Avenue. This is the first donation of this size in ONF’s history, McGriff said.
“We definitely couldn’t do that if we had our mortgage still. So being able to support things, especially nonprofits that align with our mission and vision, or are moving towards things that we’re moving towards — like educating NWA on healthy eating or growing natural foods — that’s open to us to support those organizations in bigger ways,” McGriff said.
To a small group like Apple Seeds, a nonprofit out of Fayetteville that was started almost 20 years ago by Alyson Land, now general manager of ONF, that means their project can get a running start.
“It is a strong vote of confidence from a well-respected business. It means they believe in us. They believe in our business plan. And they believe we can successfully accomplish our goals. We have a strong partner and ally who shares our vision,” said Mary Thompson of Apple Seeds.
The money they received will be used for start up costs for a teaching farm, including garden beds, irrigation, tools, supplies and staffing.
ONF doesn’t just donate funds, however. Heather explained that some of the most rewarding parts of her job are taking donated healthy food and snacks from ONF to hospitals, marathons, health fairs, schools and children’s homes to give people a real taste of organic produce.
“At Cancer Support Home we take food for the three support groups a year. Same with the Yvonne Richardson Center, we donate healthy snacks for the kids there,” Heather explained. “A lot of the school donations we do are healthy snacks … if they’re learning about how beets or carrots grow they can actually try one. For them to try something they’re learning about is awesome.”
Heather explained that most of the time organizations reach out to them for donations, and only need to fill out a form that can be found in the store for their project or organization to be considered.
Employees and Infrastructure
One thing ONF prides itself on is its employee compensation. It’s one of the reasons Land has said prices can’t fluctuate as much as some owners have requested. With the mortgage payoff, ONF was able to take on even more workers who are paid above minimum wage and offered traditional workers benefits. Since the payoff, ONF has gone from 97 to 107 employees, both part and full time.
McGriff explained also that all infrastructure changes and growth have been paid out of pocket, with no accrued debt.
“Really from the time we’ve paid off our building in 2012 everything that we’ve purchased or done in the store has been with cash. So when we re-did Ala Carte we paid for that in cash,” McGriff explained.
Now that community involvement and infrastructure is sound, ONF board members are trying to decide where to go from here. In the past, McGriff said the board was too torn to make even basic decisions. Now that they’ve mended their differences, and turn over has caused new inputs to enter the mix, they’re on their way to making future decisions with large impacts.
“We paid off the building and we’re in a really healthy position to move forward and one of the things we’re looking at is opening a new location in NWA, or a rural food truck where we can go into rural communities and provide access to people who wouldn’t otherwise have it. We are thinking about opening other types of co-ops like a housing co-op, or a brewery co-op. We’re at the point where we can do that but we have to decide what we want to do,” McGriff said.
The ONF board is far from making any decisions, McGriff said, as they are wanting to first gather as much owner support and input as possible.
For now, ONF’s financial future is stable, with their community involvement and support growing, prices down slightly and further expansion on the horizon, all made possible by the mortgage payoff.