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THE BULK STOPS HEREBUMMED-OUT CO-OPERS FEEL THEY'RE BEING MUSCLED OUT AS GENTLE STRENGTH GETS DOWN TO BUSINESS

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More than just a place to score organic produce or bag some mung, Gentle Strength served as a general store for the granola gang. Along with such bygone gathering places as the Casa Loma bar, underground movies at the Valley Art and the Earthen Joy restaurant, the cooperative helped define the Mill Avenue Zeitgeist of the early Seventies. Unofficial scout headquarters for many of the subculture causes that have swept the campus town over the past two decades, the co-op was genuinely community property.

But in 1985, the community turned into a virtual metropolis almost overnight. And with it came the growing pains that continue to plague the co-op into its maturity.

Forced out of their old home by downtown redevelopment (a site now occupied by the south parking lot of the Radisson Tempe Mission Palms Hotel), co-op members purchased a building at 234 West University, a 15,000-square-foot property that had formerly housed Dr. Munchie's restaurant.

"Prior to moving into the new place, we didn't even have a manager," says Lare Clark, Gentle Strength membership coordinator, whose affiliation with the co-op dates back to its inception. Recalling how membership figures soared after the move--4,100 today versus 600 in 1985--Clark reports, "We were really not ready for that kind of growth. Looking back, we were pretty lucky we made it through that time."

Describing himself as "kind of militant" during the co-op's salad days, Clark confesses, "I kind of miss those days when we were pretty casual and cozy in the way we proceeded. But this is big business now," he adds. "We got to keep our eye on the ball."

Mark Fischer, secretary and "budding gray-hair of the co-op," agrees that Gentle Strength members can't afford to live in the past--even if it means giving up some of the discount perks they currently enjoy.

"Twenty years ago, it was a strategy of ours to soak the nonmember shopper to provide benefit to the members of the market," explains Fischer, who remembers when the co-op was still "the spiritual navel of the universe. Back then, we controlled the market, we sat in the [cat]bird seat, we were the only natural foods outlet in the Valley."

"Well, `That was Zen, this is now,'" says Fischer, who warns that the co-op's unwritten marketing cornerstone--"Let the nonmembers cover our butts"--no longer makes sense in today's aggressively competitive natural foods marketplace.

Whether a lone holdout or a slow learner, Gentle Strength is just now wrestling with the sort of problems with which most co-ops came to grips years ago.

Dave Gutknecht, editor of the trade magazine Cooperative Grocer, characterizes elimination of deep discounts to member-workers as a "strong trend" in cooperative circles. And to the best of his knowledge, Gentle Strength is one of the very few co-ops of its size that still engages in the practice. The majority of co-ops, he says, now offer annual membership rebates based on purchases.

"Most co-ops have realized that professional staffing, supported by prices paid by everybody and managed by management, really provides better service than the volunteer system," reports Gutknecht, whose Athens, Ohio-based publication monitors the activities of 300-plus natural food co-ops around the country.

By continuing to offer deep discounts to member-workers at the expense of nonmembers, Gutknecht claims the Tempe co-op is not only seriously out of step with the rest of the industry, but is doing a disservice to the majority of its members, as well.

"[Co-ops] are about service to everybody, not just those that have the time to participate," explains Gutknecht. "Most people want the co-op to reach out to more people who will become members-owners. To do that, you need a rational pricing structure. From the point of view of being a co-op, it's contradictory and irrational to build in a long-term reliance on member sales." Members intent on having hands-on input can continue by doing community service work or by donating labor to off-premise projects like the co-op garden, adds Gutknecht.

Another industry observer suggests Gentle Strength co-op members should enjoy those discounts while they can because the cut-rate prices aren't going to last.

"The fact of the matter is that Gentle Strength is a business and has to operate according to 1995 business conditions," says Karen Zimbleman, an Arcata, California, cooperative consultant. "And if the members don't let managers make these changes that nobody wants to make, it will die."

Calling the co-op's current discount structure "unsustainable," Zimbleman suspects many of Gentle Strength's current problems can be traced back to bad decisions made "eons ago," mistakes that have found their way into the bylaws.

"In the '60s and '70s, it was very common for co-ops to say, `Oh, yeah! Everybody gets a 10 percent discount--no problem. Hey, let's make it 15 percent! Give us two bucks a year and you'll get these big huge discounts.'" Says Zimbleman, "When they didn't have staffs, when they didn't offer health insurance, when they didn't have homes and families to support, these discounts were easier to pull off."

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Dewey Webb