Like organic tomatoes, natural peanut butter and tofu hot dogs, controversy has always been a hot commodity around Tempe's Gentle Strength Co-op. Let someone suggest anything more substantive than "Have a nice day," and you can be sure some disgruntled faction inside the member-owned cooperative will squawk that the organization is selling out and losing its soul.

That's been the story for 23 years, a turbulent but prosperous period in which the alternative grocery store has grown from a seat-of-the-pants storefront operation to a slick natural foods boutique and vegetarian deli that currently does $6 million in annual sales. Because many of its most vocal members see the store as a lifestyle rather than just a place to restock their larders, the co-op's history is defined not by annual reports but by battles over progress.

Way back when, co-opers argued whether they were compromising their principles by carrying vitamins, now one of the store's main stocks in trade. Since then, members have waged internal war over such issues as the ecological ramifications of a patio mister, the health versus hipness dilemma of coffee and the karmic consequences of forcing customers to wear shirts and shoes.

So when management announced plans to install a computerized cash register system earlier this year, there was the predictable flap. Some members complained the computers were unnecessary. That Gentle Strength was going the way of Big Brother. And that records of their purchases of Fruitopia and Rainforest Crunch would somehow come back to haunt them.

As it turned out, their last concern was right on the mark. With its computerized cash registers, co-op management opened a Pandora's box. And some now fear that all the gentle strength in the world won't be able to slam it shut.

Rumors about big changes in the way Gentle Strength did business had been floating around the store for months. But it wasn't until a front-page story in the June issue of the co-op newspaper that members had those changes laid out for them in black and white.

In soy ink. On recycled paper.
The question at hand is a controversial proposal to drastically restructure the co-op's long-standing discount structure--a big draw for many of the co-op's 4,100 members. Under the current system, everyone who pays the $25 annual membership fee (equity that's returned should a member drop out) automatically receives a 7 percent discount on all purchases at the co-op.

In addition, members who have the time and inclination can earn even bigger discounts by bagging groceries, stocking shelves, working in the co-op's garden or performing other volunteer labor at the store. At present, members who work just two and a half hours a week receive a 12 percent discount. Highly committed members--"core workers" who're able to work either 20 hours or 32 hours a month--receive top discounts of 25 percent and 30 percent respectively. The co-op also gives discounts to its paid staff, as well as to community workers around the Valley.

But according to Gentle Strength's coordinating committee, the natural foods co-op is in serious danger of cannibalizing itself. Thanks to the new cash register system that finally made it possible to learn exactly who was buying what, the committee came to the stunned--and belated--realization that members' deeply discounted purchases were actually costing the cooperative money.

Projecting backward, the committee estimates that during the last fiscal year, the co-op took a $118,200 loss on member sales, versus a $301,800 profit on nonmember sales. While that still results in a $183,600 profit (money that the co-op plows back into the business and distributes to charitable causes), management fears that the nonmember buyers who've been keeping the co-op afloat are bound to jump ship as the already competitive natural foods market heats up even more.

Ironically, in light of its alleged altruistic goals, the co-op might have folded years ago if it was not for the store's nonmember clientele, a semicaptive market segment that once had little choice but to pay the co-op's heavy markups.

But the days when Gentle Strength had the lock on the Valley's natural food market are long gone. Jumping on the $7.5 billion annual health foods bandwagon, supermarkets routinely carry low-fat, no-preservative products that were once the co-op's meat and potatoes. In recent years, Reay's Ranch Market and the California-based Trader Joe's chain have also cut into the pie. And on the horizon is the threat of regional chains like Whole Foods, Wild Oats, Fresh Fields and Alfalfa's--large "supernaturals" with the buying power to undercut the co-op's inflated price structure.

Looking ahead to the day when Gentle Strength will go head-to-head with one of the supernaturals, the committee called a meeting last month to discuss restructuring options. For hard-core co-opers, the proposal was only slightly less inflammatory than if management had announced plans to open an in-store Kentucky Fried Chicken kiosk or install a cigarette machine next to the recycling bins.