La Montañita Co-op Natural Foods Market was incorporated on September 1, 1976, and was managed for 3 years largely as a collective, with the Board of Directors serving as staff. The original membership consisted of 300 families. By 1980, the collective management had given way to a 3 member management team. In 1984, the management of La Montañita revisited its business practices after losing $17,000 in a year, and more emphasis was placed on paid, accountable staff. Also in that year the Ocha Co-op in the North Valley closed and the following year the New Life Co-op in Santa Fe closed.
Growth & More Growth
The ten-year anniversary of the Co-op saw sales over the $1 million mark, and membership rise to 3,000. In 1987 the Co-op made the move to its present location in Nob Hill . The move was made on a shoestring loan of $284,000 from the National Co-op Bank. Membership and sales grew.
Like all Co-ops, La Montañita relied on member/ owners as volunteer help for many years. These volunteers were the backbone of the Co-op, repacking bulk items, stocking shelves, unloading trucks, bagging groceries, and in general providing the energy to keep our Co-op going. In the early 1990's the Department of Labor decreed that we could no longer utilize the help of our member volunteers in any position they deemed a "wage labor" job. Members could, however, participate in the Co-op as volunteers in areas supervised by the Board of Directors, or in what the Department of Labor called "outreach programs."
Competition Comes to Town
In 1992 the first natural foods competition, Wild Oats, arrived in Albuquerque. After a period of losses, steps were taken to control La Montañita's spiraling wage structure and a purchasing/marketing strategy developed. Sales once again are at record levels.
In 1996, the remodel of the Nob Hill store began and one possible location for a second store in the NE Heights was actively pursued. The second location couldn't be financed successfully, but the remodel continued and was successfully completed in the fall of 1997. La Montañita continued to prosper.
Second Store Opening
After years of surveying our members and several market research studies, La Montañita found a second location in a much under-served neighborhood in the North Valley. On September 30, 1999, we opened the doors to our new Valley store . 300 new memberships and member renewals were written in the first three days.
Creating a Statewide Cooperative Network
Co-op membership and organizational sales continued to grow, with over 10,000 member households and total sales exceeding $12 million by 2004. In summer of 2004 the Board of Directors of Wild Sage Co-op in Gallup, New Mexico approached La Montanita for support. Five years earlier, at the request of Wild Sage buying club members, La Montanita helped them open a storefront. The all-volunteer member/board staff was now burning out running the store.
After a series of community meetings and discussions between the two boards it was agreed that La Montanita would purchase the assets of the Wild Sage Co-op. Wild Sage would be responsible for paying off their debts. La Montanita would lease a larger location, purchase equipment and hire and train staff. Wild Sage members would become members of La Montanita Co-op. Since Wild Sage had a membership program similar to La Montanita, honoring their membership commitments and incorporating their members into our existing structure was easy.
La Montanita leased a 1,500 square foot downtown location near the existing storefront, bought recycled equipment, and invested in both inventory and staff for a total of $100,000, including the purchase amount. Staff from both of the Albuquerque locations pitched in to stock shelves, train staff and get the store up and running. Board, staff and membership agree it was a relatively small price to pay for the opportunity to maintain a co-op presence in the region and keep shoppers from having to drive two or more hours for comparable natural and local food choices. La Montanita Co-op was now serving Gallup .
Independent to Co-op Transformation
At almost the exact same time that Gallup’s Wild Sage Board was approaching La Montanita, the owner of the Marketplace Grocery, Santa Fe’s only independently owned natural foods grocery did the same. Over its 22 years of operation the Marketplace had grown to a 10,000 square foot location, housed in a grocery that was built in the mid 1960’s. As the “City Different” boomed during the 1990’s and the corporate chains, Wild Oats, Alfalfas, and Whole Foods, as well as Trader Joes and Vitamin Cottage all opened a mile to a mile and a half away, the Marketplace struggled to compete.
With a National Co-op Bank loan of 1.7 million in place, on Feburary 28, 2005, the Marketplace closed and opened the next day as a community owned cooperative, La Montanita Co-op . Utilizing pricing available to us as a member of the National Cooperative Grocer’s Association (which was considerably lower than available to the independent Marketplace), staff from all locations pulled an “all-nighter” to re-set prices to Co-op levels. Thanks in part to the publicity from community meetings and follow up press, Santa Feans were primed and without so much a sign saying “get your Co-op membership here” within the first 10 days we had over 1500 new member households. Within the first six months sales were 20% over projected budgets.
We are over 17,000 member households strong, with a 9 person Board of Directors elected to represent the membership. The Co-op employs over 200 full and part-time staff with an emphasis on team management within each department, pays a living wage and provides a generous employee benefit package.