BriarPatch turns 40: “We own it, let’s grow it”

NATURAL FOOD COOPERATIVES are booming across America. The 150 food co-ops of the National Co-op Grocers operate more than 200 stores in 38 states with combined annual sales of $2 billion. Food co-ops have led to a boom in organic foods, now the fastest growing sector of the grocery business.

One of the food co-op stalwarts is right in our backyard—the BriarPatch Co-op Community Market in Grass Valley. This year “The Patch” is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and it’s thriving. BriarPatch’s sales were $29 million last year, up from $6 million in 2006. The store has more than 12,000 owner households and is one of the largest private employers in Nevada County.

Co-ops such as BriarPatch also benefit the community. At BriarPatch, 60.5 cents of every dollar is reinvested in the local economy. “We’re proud to be a business that has a proven, positive impact on the community,” says Chris Maher, BriarPatch’s general manager.

The Patch’s Founding
The story of the founding and early years of BriarPatch is one of a strong core of determined leaders backed by a dedicated community, BriarPatch marketing manager Stephanie Mandel wrote in the BriarPatch News in 1999.

“The store began in 1976 when a ‘grub club’ that bought food in bulk began to feel unwieldy,” the article said. “The honey was messy; too much powdered milk was being spilled. Someone suggested starting a cooperative retail store instead.”

The store’s name “BriarPatch” was a popular name for food co-ops at the time, in cities such as Mountain View and Menlo Park. One of the first directors joked that BriarPatch was a good name “because we had such a thorny beginning.”

The original BriarPatch carried staple food items in bulk, along with some meat and other perishables “as would fit in an old refrigerator” at a building near the airport in Grass Valley. The store was financed with personal loans and raised money through yard and bake sales. A $5,000 grant from Joan Baez’s Agapi Foundation “was a godsend,” according to the founders.

In 1981, BriarPatch moved into a building on the Nevada City Highway in Grass Valley. The parking was problematic, however. A year later, the co-op moved to Washington Street above downtown Grass Valley. “With cheap rent and a friendly landlord, BriarPatch began a new stage of growth,” recalled the BriarPatch News.

In 1992, BriarPatch moved into 131 Joerschke Drive in Grass Valley’s Brunswick Basin, double the size of the Washington Street store. At this location, The Patch was experiencing double-digit growth—a sign of strong local demand for organic food.

In fall 2003, BriarPatch signed a letter of intent with the Litton family to lease store space to be built near the Sierra College roundabout in Grass Valley. The new store opened in 2007. It incorporated “green” building techniques and new features included a deli with a salad, soup and hot food bar, a large eating area, an outdoor patio, and a fresh fish and meat counter.

On the cusp of its 40th year, BriarPatch purchased the building it occupies at 290 Sierra College Drive. “Owning the property puts BriarPatch in a stronger, more stable financial position for the long run,” says Maher.

BriarPatch is planning further improvements including more parking spaces, another outdoor area, and later, an amphitheater for meetings and small concerts. The co-op’s owners will celebrate the store’s 40th anniversary on October 13 with appetizers, prizes and live music. In honor of 40 years, admission is 40 cents.

New Solar Project
This summer a parking lot solar power system is being installed at BriarPatch. The co-op plans an innovative 680-panel, 469,000-kilowatt photovoltaic solar array to run along the center of an expanded parking lot. It will be the largest such solar array in Nevada County. The solar system will provide more than 55 percent of the store’s electricity needs. Construction is due to be completed by September 30.

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