A couple weeks ago, contributing writer Jennifer shared with us her experience with food-buying clubs. And actually, I happen to run one! So, she shared her perspective as a member of one (you should read her piece if you haven’t) and today I’m going to share my experience in starting one.
How it Started
I hadn’t intended to ever start any sort of co-op (as I casually refer to it) or food buying club. But a little over a year ago, the opportunity fell into my lap. We’d been searching for a farm to buy raw milk from (as well as eggs, pork, etc.) and happened to find the perfect farm. It had all the products we wanted — raw milk, eggs, pork, beef, chicken, turkey, lamb…and all 100% pastured! The only (small) problem was that the farm is two hours away (very close to my in-laws). We knew that others in our area were searching for food of this quality, so we spread the word.
And then…we began organizing trips to pick up food for a few families. First it was pretty informal — someone would go every 2 or 3 weeks, whenever they were available. Then we went regularly every 2 weeks. Now we go every week. And so, our food-buying club was born. We have even done a couple of group buys for Green Pastures products and right now, bulk nuts.
I’ve learned quite a bit about running a co-op or buying club over the last year. Being the leader does mean a lot of sacrifice at times. Hopefully, though, if you’re interested in starting a club, you can learn from my mistakes!
Starting a Club
There are some important things to keep in mind when choosing to start a club. First, it really is a lot of work, so you need to be really committed to the idea. Second, your goal is — hopefully — to allow everyone access to high-quality food at good prices (that’s my primary goal). Third, people will be people, which means the system will never work perfectly smoothly!
Here are some things to do:
- Find your source(s) from the start: know how you will provide high-quality food to your participants. Is it from a local farm, an established co-op (like Azure Standard), or from another source? It can be from multiple sources, too, depending on what you will offer.
- What will you offer?: What’s your main goal? Mine was raw milk, and the other animal products just fit in perfectly. We’re slowly branching out now, but “pastured animal products” remains our main offering.
- Set up rules from the start: I’ve struggled with this one, because I don’t want “rules” to get in the way of people having access to high-quality food. But sometimes, in order for access to be available without one family (the leaders) bearing the majority of the burden, rules need to be in place.
- Make sure people joining know the rules: Most are more than happy to comply because they, too, strongly believe in access to good food (and recognize it takes a little more effort than ‘regular’ shopping), but those who aren’t, just won’t join.
- Think about a webpage or Facebook group to unify: Is there one, central place where your members can get information about upcoming buys, see when driving trips are needed (if applicable), discuss what products they’d like to have, etc.? It is really helpful if there is. We’re still working on this.
Setting the Rules
I do hate discussing this, but the reality is, there has to be some sense of order in a buying club. Depending on what the situation is, it’s necessary to explain to people what the expectations are when they join, so they can accurately decide if this situation is for them. Families who, for example, have more money than time might rather pay a little more and not have to do the work. Others simply may decide that, for whatever reason, the expectations of the club don’t work with their situation at this time. But they should all know upfront what the deal is.
- Fees: is there any fee to join? If so, what does it cover? Consider if you’ll be storing food, driving around a lot for pick-ups, etc. We initially offered families the option to join the co-op and not ever drive, if they paid 5% of their order total as “pick up fee.” Do you need a monthly membership fee for any reason?
- Order fees: This is just about the products families actually order. Where can they see a list of available products and costs? Are there shipping costs associated with these products (from the company itself)?
- Driving/pick-ups: Are products simply shipped to you, or does someone in the group have to go do a pick up? Are members expected to take turns doing pick ups? If so, how often, and how far is the pick up location? Is there any bonus or benefit to doing pick ups (our farm offers 25% off the family’s order when they do the pick up)? Once the food is at your home or whatever location (and specify where that is!), how quickly do people have to come to pick it up?
- Products/schedules: What products do you offer? Are there any minimum or maximum order limits? How often do you order? What is the deadline for getting orders in?
As an example, we require all families who get milk to take a turn driving. Since we have so many families in the group, people usually only have to drive once every 2 – 3 months (and since it’s close to our in-laws, we do extra trips). All orders must be in by Wednesday afternoon prior to a Friday/Saturday pick-up. Products are listed on the farm’s website. Special buys (like our nut buy) are sent via email with their own deadlines and so forth. For the GP buy, we had to meet a 12-bottle minimum. To get the farm to deliver to us, we have to meet a $750 minimum. Those are just examples of things you would want to state in your group’s rules.
One of the most frustrating parts, for me (sorry if you are a member of this group!) is when people are not really active. Knowing I have, for example, 40 families in the group, but that only 8 of them are likely to order at any given time makes it really hard to meet minimums. Some groups end up having rules about this, like “you must order at least once every 2 months or you’re out.” I really don’t want to do this because I know families have their own reasons for ordering less frequently, and I want them to still have access. But it is really hard to beg repeatedly when we’re trying to fill minimum orders! Consider that this will happen when you’re finding your sources, and see if there is a way that you can avoid having to meet minimums as much as possible.
Most people are really willing to help out if they know what is needed. That’s another reason why it’s important to be clear up front!
You must find sources if you’re planning to offer a food-buying experience! Here are some ideas to consider:
There are other coops like Azure Standard out there, but you’ll have to check in your area. If any readers specifically know any, please feel free to let us know!
Depending on how your group feels, you can also offer high-quality supplements, natural personal care or cleaning products, etc. Whatever your group wants — you can provide (if you desire). We’re hoping to look into Burt’s Bees products, as well as Klean Kanteens soon!
Are you interested in starting a food buying club, or have you already?
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