By Dan England
Photos by Jordan Secher
Throughout the Mountain Avenue Market, a theme emerges among the yogurt, skin care and quail eggs raised by a girl whose story is taped to the refrigerated doors.
“We prioritize local over everything,” says Dana Guber, one of three managers at the store who specializes in outreach and marketing. “Organic, ethically sourced, not GMO.”
Gruber pauses and laughs.
“You know,” she says. “All those buzzwords.”
Recognizing those buzzwords, and the triteness of them, seems awfully self-aware for a marketplace that would stand to thrive off them. Buzzwords, after all, are as plentiful as their bulk items, from the labels on the store’s very limited supply of meat (Ethically Sourced!), to its popular homemade deli items (Vegan Options!), to the jars that it will loan to customers so they can carry home bulk goods (Zero Waste!).
But Guber, and other longtime workers at the store, do not, in fact, appreciate them any longer, because they have robbed the marketplace of what makes it special.
Corporations, Guber says, have made life difficult for Mountain Avenue. When the co-op established itself in the early ‘70s, it stood out because foods that were local and organic were rare. People probably thought GMO was a German car company.
“We were the only game in town for natural foods,” says Chris Coen, a manager who’s worked at the marketplace for more than 25 years as a produce buyer, among other titles. “We were more of a hippie establishment. We did it before it was fashionable.”
But in the cutthroat grocery business, chains began to catch on to the fact that people didn’t mind paying more for kale without pesticides, and Sprouts, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and others entered the fray. Even places such as Kings Soopers began using those same buzzwords, putting up labels such as “Colorado Proud” that implied the produce it sold was local.
“Yet I challenge you to find where the Colorado products are,” Coen said. “Here, all the blue signs on our produce are local. We are very transparent about where it comes from.”
Coen deals with more than a dozen farmers, some with neat stories, such as the squash that comes from Buena Vida Farm west of Windsor. But the marketplace is not necessarily a place for a quick trip for Frosted Flakes, and if customers can get what they believe to be local, organic peaches with those Frosted Flakes, as opposed to going all the way to downtown Fort Collins, well….that’s the problem.
Mountain Avenue Market still has more than 3,000 members who value the store’s unique offerings, local products and healthy, sustainable food (even the store’s junk food, if you can call it that, follows the guidelines; yes, it has a chip aisle, but you won’t find Doritos in it). It is a nonprofit. It has employees that embrace the mission and don’t mind the lower salaries that come with it.
“It’s a totally different culture than working somewhere corporate,” Gruber says. “We don’t have a CEO making millions while the rest of us are making minimum wage. Here, pretty much all of us are making minimum wage.”
Guber laughs at her joke, but it’s really not a joke. The co-op faces serious financial problems, Guber says. Mountain Avenue is only one of three co-ops left in the state, and that’s because it’s simply too hard to compete with the big chains. She knows the location isn’t convenient for many, save for the office workers who come in during lunch to snarf its deli options. Equipment continues to break, too many customers would rather stop by the grocery store down the street, and Marketing 101 classes teach students to use the word organic more than the word fresh these days.
“We want people to know we are more than a grocery store,” Guber says. “If you want us to stay here, you gotta keep shopping here.”
Buying power in bulk
Formal co-ops have been around since the late 1800s, when people began to move to the city and could no longer grow their own produce. They banded together to change a system of overpriced food with limited selection. A group of Colorado State University students started Mountain Avenue Market with the same idea, Guber says.
This is why Mountain Avenue puts such an emphasis on local, sustainable, organic, buzzword-appropriate food. People band together in co-ops because they want an alternative to what the market is offering.
“It’s always been that way,” Guber says. “Natural Foods, Sprouts, all of them came out of co-ops. They all copied us.”
This is why Mountain Avenue still offers bulk items, as that was a big reason co-ops banded together: Buying in bulk and dividing it up saved money. Now they offer it because it is one of the few things left that separates it from the grocery chains.
“My mom was a part of that in Boulder,” Guber says. “They would split up the goods in the driveway.”
The market still offers bulk coffee, oil and cleaning supplies, spices, herbs, seeds, tea and dried mushrooms in addition to foods such as dried fruit, grains, baking supplies and stuff for backpacking.
There were moments when this paid off big time. When COVID-19 hit, customers flocked to their store, because they had toilet paper but also because everyone was baking and wanted, say, bulk yeast. But that was temporary.
Bulk, however, also keeps longtime employees because it’s more of a mission.
“I love the idea of true bulk items to reduce my footprint,” Coen says. “We are rooted in the community. It’s become my family.”
Mountain Avenue continues to deal directly with producers, although they also buy from local distributors. This offers advantages—they are the only store that can still offer local, fresh produce in the winter because farmers will set it aside for them—and it’s how they can guarantee their meat, eggs and other animal products meet their ethical standards. This allows for cute touches: The girl who sells quail eggs is named Emma, and she’s 12 and raises meat birds to save up for college. She makes sure all her quail “have plenty of sunshine and lots of fresh pasture to enjoy.” It’s also stressful: Chickens don’t lay eggs around Thanksgiving, a time when everyone wants eggs for cooking.
“My local relationships are one of my favorites parts of the job,” says Stephanie Bublitz, the third member of the management team, who’s worked at Mountain Avenue for more than a dozen years and will occasionally visit farms and ranches. “I can talk to the ranchers themselves.”
Gruber believes this is a big selling point for them. They won’t carry shrimp, for example, because they couldn’t find a place that met their standards.
“We’ve already done our research,” Guber says. “So, you can feel good about 95 percent of what you purchase in our store.”
They believe they are much fairer to their producers, and that’s also part of their mission. They pay them much more of a market share than the chains, Guber says, and offer a space for them to sell their products. The space is valuable, especially for those offering CBD, body care and supplements. They have high standards, but they do offer spots for those new to the game.
“We can focus on small things,” Guber says. “I do appreciate that our size can be limiting, but because of that, we can be really intentional in what we offer.”
Still, there are problems. The store supported the state’s minimum wage bump, because it fits them, but the fact is, that also added an expense.
“And our sales don’t reflect the new expense,” Guber says.
The store has a GoFundMe campaign to replace some equipment, which had raised $20,000 as of late November. The store seemed happy about that, even if it was, so far, $30,000 short of their goal.
The store could also use more board of directors.
They remodeled in 2018, something that “had to happen,”Guber says, and have updated their refrigerators and their products. The remodeling gave them a more robust deli as well, something that’s helped keep them afloat. The deli is yet another example of their uniqueness, as the staff makes the meals. They make cozy soups, including Guber’s matzo ball soup, a recipe from her grandmother, and they are known for their vegetarian burritos.
The deli gives a community vibe, which the store tries to emulate throughout. They have a whiteboard for product suggestions from customers, a lending library for members (though you do not have to be a member to shop there), a perennials swap and local art that hangs in the store. The store puts on classes, such as how to buy in bulk.
“We need to be invested as more than just a place to consume,” Guber says.