Last year, Durango Natural Foods was on the verge of closing its doors. Customer counts were down. The cooperative was buried in debt. A vote was scheduled to decide whether to shutter operations.
A year later, its parking lot overflows with vehicles, and a steady stream of people files through its doors. Staff ring up customers buying its product, 65% of it local or regional.
DNF is getting back on its feet.
The cooperative’s comeback is a testament to the 45-year-old store’s resilience.
“If things happened like they did here to a local business, it wouldn’t be here,” said Lucinda Berdon, interim general manager. “But the members were like, ‘We have to fix this.’ They had a very strong response.”
The co-op’s struggles came to the forefront in December, but Jules Masterjohn, volunteer and former board member for the cooperative, said they noticed significant issues in the summer of 2018. As sales dropped 18% in June, staff attributed the slide to the 416 Fire and nearby construction, but sales continued to fall.
The nonprofit opened a GoFundMe page in 2018 to raise $150,000, stating:
“We regret to inform you that DNF is dangerously close to closing its doors. After almost 45 years of serving this community, our sales are too low to pay what we owe to local small farmers and vendors. We are in debt to the very community members we exist to support. Many of them are friends and neighbors of yours: Twin Buttes Farms, Desert Sun Coffee, All Seasons Farm, Turtle Lake Refuge and many others.”
In a letter sent to members, DNF announced the nonprofit was $150,000 in debt to vendors, about half of it to local farmers and producers. Additional liabilities included $231,500 in mortgage debt and a $70,000 line of credit.
It was a dark and emotional time for members, customers and staff. Masterjohn pointed to a corner of the store where she often ran into customers in tears over the store’s precarious future.
“I was at the helm from January through March when we were in major crisis, when the board was looking at closing the co-op. So I stepped in to assess how things were inside the store,” Masterjohn said. “Something about this corner – it seemed by the time people got (to this corner) and if I was here, they would say, ‘You’re not going to close, are you?’ This was like the crying corner. ... We have that kind of connection to our shoppers.”
But in January 2019, a member loaned the co-op $75,000 to keep it going. The vote on whether to close the store was canceled.
“Literally, in the last couple days, the sentiment has flipped,” Kate Husted, president of the co-op board, told the Herald at the time. “The general sentiment of the board is much more hopeful than a week ago.”
Hope has gone up from there.
“Last month, our sales were up 8.5%, and it’s been down consistently over the years,” Berdon said. “I feel like we’re going to see something quite similar to that, if not more, for August. On a daily basis, we’ve had some record-breaking days. So we’re definitely amping up our sales.”
The cooperative stayed on its feet in large part because of Berdon’s efforts to overhaul the store, Masterjohn said.
“We’ve implemented the Co-op Basics – so we have staples at really good, everyday low prices,” Berdon said. “It’s all good quality and primarily organic products in every department, from things like paper towels and feminine hygiene products to milk and dairy. It’s all storewide. We lowered a lot of prices.”
Berdon’s last day as interim GM is Sept. 15. Joe Zwievach from the Silver City Food Co-op in New Mexico will take over full time.
In addition to new pricing, improvements include creating efficiencies at the deli and cash registers, connecting with the surrounding community, increasing awareness about memberships and starting The Double Up Food Bucks program, which allows EBT/SNAP participants to get free produce. Those who qualify must show their EBT card when they shop and receive up to $20 in Food Bucks a visit, which can be used to purchase produce at the cooperative. According to a news release from the nonprofit, DNF is the first grocery store within a 25-mile radius to offer the program, created by LiveWell Colorado.
“We’re trying to become a community market, to serve this community around the college and the residential area,” Berdon said. “We’re small but mighty. We have some really good products for sale here that are really good deals.”