Over objections from employees at Weaver Street Market, the cooperative grocery's board of directors voted July 9 to move the food production facility from Carrboro to a new Hillsborough location.
The board concluded that "the general manager had complied with the relevant board policy and that the Food House had been conceived and developed through much consideration over time to appropriately further the mission of the cooperative."
Last month, several workers collected 100 signatures on a petition calling for a moratorium on the move and submitted it to the board.
Board member and bread baker Seth Elliott opposes the move. He says Weaver Street seems to be moving toward a "bigger and faster operation."
"Bigger and faster is never better when it comes to the production of food. Good food, by definition, needs to be slow and local. Maybe that doesn't always square with a successful business model, and that makes things more complicated."
Employees who decline jobs in Hillsborough will be offered different positions in the Carrboro store. "I have a choice between staying in Carrboro and continuing to bake bread," Elliott says. "Personally, I have decided that I will not take the job in Hillsborough. I've built and have a family around this job. It's been very important to me to have this job in my community, and I'm not prepared to change that. Baking bread has also been very important to me, and I'm sad to see it go."
Yet, the dissent over the production facility is about more than the 20-to 30-minute commute for the market's Carrboro and Chapel Hill workers, many of whom currently walk or bike to work. And it is about more than the quality of the food, which workers say may suffer due to shipping and mass production.
The disagreement shoots to the heart of Weaver Street's mission as a community-owned market; its sense of community is threatened. To some owners, the decision to move the production facilities feels like a corporate move, one that stokes concerns that Weaver Street could wind up like another Wellspring Café: a successful venture purchased by a big company—in Wellspring's case, Whole Foods—at the cost of the mom-and-pop vibe that initially made it so desirable.
Bread baker Bruno Sorrentio has opposed the move from the get-go. "Expansion just rubs me the wrong way," he says. "At Weaver Street, we pride ourselves on the personal touch, and I think that touch is lost the more you expand."
The board contends the Carrboro kitchen and bakery can barely keep up with the demands of its Southern Village store in Chapel Hill. Add the market's further expansion into Hillsborough, where a store on Churton Street is slated to open early next year, and board members say the cramped Carrboro production facility would be overwhelmed.
Customers are driving the market's expansion, says Weaver Street General Manager Ruffin Slater. "The impetus for opening the Southern Village store was that the residents came and asked us to, and raised most of the capital cost. It was to help meet the needs of people who wanted to have a co-op in their neighborhood. The same goes for the Hillsborough store."
The board consists of the general manager, four elected positions—evenly divided between worker-owners and consumer-owners—and two seats appointed by the board. The group determines the market's strategy and receives regular updates from market managers, who are responsible for relaying employee concerns.
"One of the seven cooperative principles is democratic member control," says pastry baker Laurel Goldstein. "This is exactly the problem. Weaver Street Market will say that they're democratic because they have elected members on the board of directors. Yeah, they get elected, but that's it. There's a meeting once a year of the consumer-owners, but I don't think that's a very effective way of involving them."
Slater says there has been ample time to air and explore other ideas. The lease on the food production site has been signed. "We've considered this from every angle, and there just isn't any other option," Slater says. "It's much different to sign a petition than to go through a six-month process where you consider all the options."
Goldstein maintains there are other, albeit more expensive, options, such as housing a bakery within the new Hillsborough store, rather than at a large off-site facility.
"Weaver Street will make more than enough money to keep going, even if they have to purchase more property to have room for a bakery in Hillsborough," Goldstein says.
"We certainly looked at that option," counters Slater. "But the trade off of putting the store right in the community where people live is that the store's going to be smaller, and it's not economical to have all the kitchen and the staff in a smaller location. If you look at the size of our stores put together, they're smaller than a single Whole Foods."
Slater's comparison to Whole Foods, arguably a Weaver Street competitor, underscores the tension between envisioning Weaver Street as a vibrant, profitable, yet populist venture or a sprawling business that has lost its intimacy.
"It might be easy to frame what's happening now as growing pains for the organization," says Elliott, a board member and employee-owner. "But I really feel that it's bigger than that. It's about honest disagreements between people on what is the right way to grow."