Whatcom Magazine

Whatcom Profiles: Community Food Co-op spending millions to stay competitive

Five years ago, the Community Food Co-op developed a long-range plan. Goals included keeping its flagship store in downtown Bellingham, but making the store better able to weather the city’s increasingly competitive grocery scene.

They figured a natural foods chain store might move to Bellingham, and they were right. In February, Whole Foods Market, a natural foods giant, announced it would open its first Whatcom County store in the summer of 2016 in the former home of The Market at Lakeway.

The co-op is readying for the competition with its $2.5 million overhaul of a nearby building, and with plans to expand parking and meal service at the flagship store.

“It’s been great not having a direct competitor, but we’ll compete very well versus Whole Foods,” says Jim Ashby, the co-op’s general manager.

A year a half ago, the co-op bought the building at 405 E. Holly St., across the street from its downtown store. The building is being remodeled to house a retail bakery, administrative offices, classrooms, and a community meeting space, and should be open to the public in June.

Once the building is open, the co-op could soon start on a separate, $2 million or so update of its flagship store and parking lot, with about two-thirds of the money targeted for parking changes. The co-op’s one-way parking lot has 49 stalls, and shoppers’ cars often sit idle on North Forest Street waiting for spots to open up.

“It’s been our number one complaint since we moved here,” Ashby says.

To provide more parking, the classroom building at the south end of the lot will be moved or demolished, and the parking area will be reconfigured to provide two-way circulation, another 35 stalls, and two-way entrance-and-exit openings, one on North Forest and one on Chestnut Street.

In addition, the flagship store will get a new kitchen, more lunch offerings, and upstairs seating for diners on the mezzanine now filled with offices.

The two projects, combined, are comparable in cost to the co-op’s 1994 move to its flagship store from a smaller space on North State Street. Ashby, who became general manager in 1985, was there for that move, as well as for a $400,000 redesign of the store a few years later.

The co-op opened a second store in 2009, in north Bellingham at Cordata Parkway and Westerly Road. Ashby was involved in the planning, but he left the co-op for another job while the Cordata store was built. Ashby, who is 64, returned to the co-op in 2010.

He says occupying adjacent corners on the main route into downtown, along with the co-op’s ties to shoppers, farmers and the community in general, should position the co-op well for the future.

“I feel optimistic,” he says. “It’s a good investment for us.”