TALES FROM THE COOP foody.org/coop.html
THE MOUSEKETEERS HAVE EARS AFTER ALL
Mobs of demonstrators raged on the night of the General Meeting, setting trash fires and fleeing police tear gas and rubber bullets -- but that was in Seattle, at the World Trade Organization summit. The Park Slope Food Coop GM was unusually peaceful, constructive, and even fun.
Using mystic yet apparently valid actuarial and accounting lore, coordinator Mike Eakin deflected rare, challenging questions about the monthly financial statement. In the unexpected dead time before the Renovation Committee was ready to present revised Building Next Door plans, there was a friendly parliamentary squabble over whether to hold the next GM the Tuesday after Christmas. Could the Agenda Committee cancel a GM, or did our bylaws limit that power to the board of directors? Did future GMs exist a priori and require cancellation, or could we just ignore it all? After debate, plus further debate over whether we could hold an unscheduled vote, we voted 21-6, with 8 abstentions, to allow the Agenda Committee to cancel this year's December GM (but not next year's).
"So we're back again!" brightly announced Darlene, ombudsperson of the Mouseketeer-like Renovation Committee. At the last GM, in which many worried about the Building Next Door's cramped checkout area, she had made the floor plan sound more inflexible than flexible, the distillation of endless committee brainstorming with little member feedback no matter how often the committee had begged for it. Now she said, "We went back to the drawing board. It wasn't particularly refined before." She introduced the Building Next Door's designer, Tony Bucci, adding, "How fortunate we are to have him here to describe his plan."
"This is basically my interpretation of the data given to me," stated Bucci, passing the buck back to the Renovation Committee before beginning a jokey, relaxed presentation that was the GM's best nonviolent entertainment in years. He said he had designed both small grocery stores and "Battlestar Galactica" supermarkets, "international and national -- no, that sounds tacky." He said that thanks to the limited budget, the Building Next Door project was "very challenging. I've wanted to quit a couple of times. You know the alphabet? We started with plan A. This is plan O."
He called the current coop shopping experience "an insult to the human species . . . you come into the current store and it's like a Waring blender at high speed." He said that the future, redesigned space would give a coop a "sense of unification." For instance, a matching bank of display cases will stretch across the rear walls of the three coop buildings. Soon after entering, shoppers will find an open "arena where you can catch your breath," with display islands featuring new products. The chilled-produce aisle will be "blown open" to double its existing width "because you have some unique shopping habits, like parking your cart in the aisle and abandoning it," he complained. After the redesign, "you can ping-pong back and forth; it gives you space to breathe." In the Building Next Door's shopping area, since six structural columns limit aisle structure, the plan has "sandwiched those puppies" in some refrigerated cases.
Bucci then described the checkout area. In the old plan, seven regular checkout stations, six of them tiny but with wide aisles, shared four counters. In the new plan, the seven regular checkouts share five counters, creating more space for bagging groceries but sacrificing aisle space. In the old plan, the three express checkouts and three registers jutted out from a big shovel-shaped counter. In the new plan, those six stations hug the walls, adding space for walking and for storing used carts, but eliminating the shelf of rollers that help boxes and bags move toward the exit.
Bucci, after reiterating that "it's not really my plan, it's really your plan," then answered many audience questions with strategically disarming aplomb. A member said that the shuffling of carts between checkout and entry still "sounded like a formula for congestion." Bucci agreed, but said that limited space handicapped design, and he suggested blinking lights to regulate traffic. Darlene brought up a colored transparency representing the existing checkout space, and dramatically placed it over the new plans to show the vast increase in square footage. A still dissatisfied member asked how many hours had been spent on shopping-cart logistics (Darlene said "countless"), and he asked whether the whole design could be scratched. "That's why we designed it to be flexible," said Bucci. "We need to have a transitional phase. The coop will evolve."
How many checkouts do we need? Bucci said that a checkout counter handed a volume of $25,000/week, "based on a markup far greater" than the coop's. He said that ten checkouts were very adequate for our growth, and that we couldn't do with less. The Renovation Committee was planning on using "Walker ducts" for cabling so we could "rearrange the furniture" in the future. "When you do credit cards," you'll be even more efficient," he added. (Credit/debit cards have only been discussed, not yet approved, by the GM.)
A member asked whether a new facade would "improve our current appearance of a Dumpster and corrugated metal." Bucci said yes. The first time he saw the current facade, he added, "I thought I was at a bomb shelter." The same member complained that blinking lights for checkout aisles sounded alienating, and that the new-product area sounded like "manipulative marketing," "buying into consumerism." Bucci conceded that the lights might be unnecessary. With a friendly "Oh gosh, yeah, I get what you mean," he shrugged off the corporate-conspiracy angle. He said the new-products display "is just meant to say, 'Hey, we've got a new chai soymilk.' It's a no-brainer."
A member asked for more shelving, pointing to what looked like open space on the plans. "Every space you see is not free," Bucci replied. "Every space you see in front of a case is a humanoid with a shopping cart." As he continued, several of the dozen Renovation Committee members rubbed their heads with their hands. How long had they hashed this out, only to hear random creative bursts from an audience trying to reinvent the wheel?
Finally getting a little defensive, Bucci criticized coopers' shopping habits. "Your style of packing really impacts the efficiency of the front end." He said he'd watched for hours as members boxed and bagged their own food. One man with three boxes took twenty minutes, he said. The worst thing he saw was a woman repeatedly running back for things. "What's she going back for, an apple?" He said individual coop members could do a lot to improve shopping efficiency.
At this point, the chair stopped the Building Next Door discussion for the sake of the next agenda item, board member Electromagnetic Israel's discussion of the legitimacy of GM minutes (on which he and board member Melinda Marx refuse to vote). Israel said he'd be willing to table his item, considering the enthusiastic Building Next Door talks. Board member, coop president, and parliamentary hemorrhoid Eric Schneider, who had implemented the minutes, complained that "two directors are not doing their legal duty. We should address it now." But the meeting voted 26-13, with 7 abstentions, to table the minutes discussion.
Continuing, Bucci had said since a tight budget didn't permit display cases to be fitted to every square inch of corner space, one such case would be placed diagonally. A coordinator suggested using the dead space behind the case for a water tank. That space is also behind a mop sink, and is near the bathroom for visiting truckers, and will probably be crawling with roaches in the dark, but Bucci said it was a great idea.
Doyle Warren, a board member and a member of the Project Development Team that had been axed by coordinator-in-chief Joe Holtz, asked what the Renovation Committee's position was on merging checkout and cashier stations. He noted that the checkout scanners had been on hold for ten months because they're not designed for separate checkout and payment transactions at two different locations. Mike Eakin said (as Warren protested that he wanted to hear a Renovation Committee member, and as some in the audience said that Eakin was indeed on that committee) that we'd need many more cashiers than we have now, and that we don't even have enough now. The coordinators have said in the past that coop members who work checkout don't want to handle money. I agree; I'm one of them. Adding cashier duties to checkout would obliterate the pool of members willing to do the job.
Warren asked Bucci whether we could function with one less checkout counter than the ten currently planned. Bucci admitted that a minimum of five could work. A Renovation Committee member said the design allowed future changes, such as experimenting with merging express checkout and cashier duty. "We're trying to put flexibility into this system because I don't want to be doing this for the rest of my life!" she said to applause and laughter.
With time again expiring, we voted again to extend the meeting -- but that failed 8-13, with 13 abstentions. Someone still squeezed in a question about elevator maintenance costs. Thanks to the reliability of a manufacturer apparently named "Pee Flow," they will be "essentially maintenance free," we were told. Ron Ober, the Building Next Door's engineer, said that we could have full-time cashiers just like supermarkets if we accepted a markup increase of 8 percent. That got some laughs, and Bucci was heartily applauded by all.
The Board of Directors' follow-up meeting predictably approved the previous meeting's minutes via a vote of 3-0, with Israel and Marx "not voting" since "abstention" isn't noble enough a stand for them. Schneider asked each of the board members to address whether accepting the minutes was legal. "This is not a topic for discussion," said Israel. Warren challenged Israel, who shouted that Schneider was out of order. Marx said no one should be "called out on the carpet." "If you say it's illegal, you have to substantiate that," said Schneider. Marx gave a careful speech about minutes approval being the first step in the "creation of a 15-member board," and complained that the minutes had been approved in an "underpopulated summer GM." Responding to audience groaning, she added, "Just . . . my . . . perspective."
Is the board meeting over? asked the confused chair. Holtz said that Schneider was correct, and that the coop's lawyer had approved the legality of the minutes approval, but that Israel and Marx were just reading the coop bylaws differently, and weren't trying to be "renegades."
The criticism/self-criticism wrap-up discussed the hidden "substantial history" behind the GM bickering. A member bemoaned the "lack of diversity at the GM in terms of race, religion, and family structure." She also dissed the chips and apples, suggesting instead a "light buffet." The Linewaiter's Gazette reporter complained that pesticides in the room were turning her into a giant hive. The chair, repeating a Holtz comment about how GM discussions aren't "remembered well," said that was the best argument for keeping minutes, and they should also include discussion points. If the GM was involved in the creation and approval of minutes, said Marx, choosing a phrase of diversity, "then I'm down with it."
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