By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — When retail stores or supermarkets proliferate, the concern is competition: Who will win the battle for business? But locally focused food stores of all shapes and sizes, it seems, can coexist and even be good for one another in various ways.
The Niskayuna Co-op, a town institution established in 1943, is fiercely beloved by its neighbors and customers. JoAnn Bulko has been on the store’s board of directors for just a year but has been shopping there much longer.
“The base is incredibly loyal at the Co-op,” she said. “Everybody laughs together and you feel like a member of a family when you go in.”
One might expect the opening of a Whole Foods in Colonie Center, more than three times the size of the Co-op, to tempt even such dedicated customers. Bulko, for one, is unfazed.
“I think that what the Co-op has been doing for a while, and continues to do, is so innovative that we’re gaining more customers instead of losing them,” she said.
Though the Co-op stocks traditional groceries like Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Cheerios, its mission is to support local production, including prepared foods. Sometimes, area vendors set up shop at the Co-op and offer fresh dinner to shoppers along with their groceries, too.
Though its farther from home for many of the Co-op’s patrons, the new Whole Foods store similarly focuses on local food.
Michael Sinatra, Whole Foods’ regional spokesman, said even though the grocery store is a chain, each location’s management works to develop a local flavor. “We actually mandate that stores carry a minimum of 10 [percent] to 15 percent of products sourced locally to their store,” he said.
Unlike the Co-op, Whole Foods foregoes classic brands in favor of natural products, giving its selection more of a specialty feel.
Sinatra said in Albany and the surrounding Hudson Valley region, locally produced fare is easy to come by; in fact, the store already carried several brands. “We had a lot of local products from stores here, but also found new ones,” he said.
Rit Gabree, interim general manager at the Niskayuna Co-op, said he’s pretty sure Whole Foods buyers look to the local pros when they seek out products near a new location.
“I think, judging by their selection of local products, somebody came by and took a look at us, and in the interest of fair play I’m sure we’re going to go and take a look at them,” he said. “What we see working for them that we think our customers would want, I’m sure we’ll do it here.”
Gabree views this idea-borrowing less as competitive play than typical business. In fact, he invites the kind of publicity that a chain like Whole Foods can bring to the Co-op’s longtime mission.
“They’re a national company and they’re going to put a lot of exposure on specialty and local products, and highlighting what we’ve been doing all along,” he said. “I think it’ll be a nice fit and make us look a little more mainstream.”
Small stores like the Niskayuna Co-op also enjoy the security that comes with a hyper-local, niche clientele. For small, community-owned food stores, it’s often within walking distance from homes and offices that provide a customer base, rather than driving distance.
That’s why, just three miles from the Niskayuna Co-op, another co-op could soon spring up: Members of the Electric City Food Co-op have their eyes on 1410 Erie Blvd. in Schenectady.
The empty, bright-yellow building could begin to fill with local food and produce within the year, if founder Kat Wolfram has her way.
“The cooperative business model is different,” she said. “It’s really about the fact that there’s no natural food store in Schenectady, and every place needs a neighborhood store. Every community needs a walkable option for access to food.”
Wolfram, a passionate advocate for equal access to food in underserved areas, underscored the belief at the heart of the movement advocated in different ways by the nascent Electric City Co-op, the Niskayuna Co-op, and even Whole foods.
“Local is the freshest, and freshest is the healthiest,” she said.