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Tempe staple closes after 36 years

Competition, mismanagement contribute to co-op's demise

 by Jed Dougherty
 published on Tuesday, February 27, 2007

END OF AN ERA: Tony Spaltro, president of the board of directors for the Gentle Strength Co-op, has been working with employees and volunteers at the co-op for years. After more than 36 years in Tempe, they will be closing their doors./issues/news/700021
Lee Kauftheil / THE STATE PRESS
END OF AN ERA: Tony Spaltro, president of the board of directors for the Gentle Strength Co-op, has been working with employees and volunteers at the co-op for years. After more than 36 years in Tempe, they will be closing their doors.


Tempe residents will have to find their organic produce, herbs and tofurky elsewhere now that the Gentle Strength Cooperative is closing its doors after 36 years.

The store, located at Mill and Southern avenues, will be open today and possibly Wednesday before shutting down for good, said Paul Bonanno, bulk buyer for Gentle Strength.

Financial difficulties forced the store to close, said Tony Spaltro, president of the co-op's board of directors.

"There wasn't sufficient cash to hold us over from the move," Spaltro said.

The co-op moved from its location on the northwest corner of Ash Avenue and University Drive four months ago.

A high-rise with a Whole Foods on the bottom floor is being built in its place.

According to the minutes of a Feb. 6 Board of Directors meeting, the store was thousands of dollars in debt and losing money at the new location.

The business was one of the first of its kind in the Valley when it opened in 1971, offering organic food, herbs and alternative medicines, Spalto said.

The cooperative also provided classes ranging from tantric meditation to how to build a straw bale house.

The Gentle Strength co-op started as a buying club based out of a church. People interested in organic food or alternative remedies organized to purchase products in bulk for discounted prices, Spaltro said.

After enough people joined the buying club, the members decided to open a cooperative on Fifth Street and Mill Avenue, he said.

A cooperative is organized like a corporation, where each member is a partial owner of the business.

In a cooperative, each member may vote to help make decisions about the future of the business, and all votes are counted equally.

By serving as active members or working in the store, patrons of the co-op could receive discounts on their purchases.

By 1985, the cooperative had amassed enough money to purchase a property at Ash Avenue and University Drive for $300,000, Spalto said.

Although the co-op thrived at its new location, poor management decisions were beginning to undermine the cooperative, Spaltro said.

"The co-op was doing $10 million a year, but people didn't want to expand," he said.

At one point, Gentle Strength had 150 employees working in the store, most of them in management, Spaltro said.

"There were a lot of people on the board who didn't know what it means to run a business," he added.

Beth Johannessen, a literature graduate student and longtime customer and employee, said she would miss the co-op when it's gone.

"You don't really realize what you've got until it's gone," Johanessenn said.

Johanessenn worked at the co-op from July 2004 until February 2005.

"Everybody likes to talk about the heyday of the early 1990s, and even when I got there, it was pretty bustling," Johanessenn said. "But things were already going downhill."

While the co-op was the only organic food store in town, it did well. But when health food became more mainstream in the 1990s, the co-op faced stiff competition, Spaltro said.

Several health food stores opened in the valley in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including Whole Foods in 1998, Sprouts in 2002 and Sunflower Market in 2004. Supermarkets such as Fry's and Safeway also began to stock organic food.

"The co-op was a unique place," Spaltro said. "But once people with business savvy figured out what the customers wanted, they kind of beat us at our own game."

Johannessen said that the co-op was too slow to react to the emergence of alternatives.

"The co-op lost popularity because the co-op was the only place to go and then all of a sudden there was Whole Foods and Sprouts and Sunshine Market and all these places," Johannessen said.

Customers will have to turn to corporate alternatives for health food now that the local store is gone.

"I came in here and I ran into eight people I know," Connie Engel, a justice and social inquiry graduate student, said. "From now on, [I'll shop at] a mix of whatever is closest to my house."

Engel, a member of the co-op, said she will miss the local atmosphere of the place more than anything else.

"What I think is really unique about the co-op is it's a local business," she said. "It's not working from a decentralized location."

Johannessen said she believes corporate stores are taking the place of cooperatives across the country.

"Looking around at other states, hardly any cooperatives are successful or profitable any longer," she said. "Have we shifted so much that our values have changed?

"Or maybe there's so many places to get organic that the co-op isn't special anymore."

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