Local grocers specialize to thrive

The co-op is made up of 3,500 square feet of aisles filled with organic and sustainable groceries. Customers can buy products in bulk and are greeted by fresh produce as they walk in the doors. Cashiers address the regulars by names, and it’s rarely uncomfortably crowded.

In size, the East Lansing Food Co-op is a mere speck compared to the more than 180,000 square feet that makes up the Meijer in Okemos. But it, along with other small grocers in the area, still draws students and locals in on a daily basis.

Hayden Fennoy / The State News
Corey Damocles / The State News

To compete or not to compete

With Quality Dairy Company stores scattered throughout East Lansing and various other chains readily available, the competition for bringing in customers can be fierce.

But David Finet, the general manager of the East Lansing Food Co-Op, said he doesn’t feel the co-op competes against the chains in the first place.

“I think we don’t actually compete — I think we do something totally different,” Finet said. “We directly purchase from our producers, some for over 30 years. ... We don’t compete. What I do and (what) my staff (does) is try and make the community better.”

One of their producers is a woman from Mason, who sells household cleaning products. She, like every other producer for the co-op, sells them her products directly. Finet said he noticed chains seem to try and follow this pattern, but they rarely stick with it.

“Chains can come and chains can go,” he said. “They follow profit. What’s beautiful about co-ops is that they’re all independently run by community members. We’re not going anywhere.”

Goodrich’s Shop-Rite has been in the grocery store game since then 1930s, when co-owner Steve Scheffel’s grandparents first opened the store.

However, because their building lease has run out, they will be closing their doors tentatively on July 9. After more than eighty years, the store grew into something that reached the university, East Lansing and Okemos communities. His store held its own against larger chains with the help of its specialty products, such as fair trade coffee and spicy House of Tsang’s sauces.

“We competed by offering a huge selection of specialty, non-traditional products,” Scheffel said. “We grew to have a loyal customer base of regulars because of it.”

The student draw

Biology senior Rachel Rysdyk moved to East Lansing a few years ago. She stumbled upon the East Lansing Food Co-op by chance during an afternoon drive and said, while they have less of a selection than Meijer or Kroger, they have what she’s looking for.

She added that shopping isn’t an adventure when she walks through the doors. Instead of wandering aimlessly through multiple aisles, she’s able to walk in and walk out without much of a hassle.

“I really like the bulk section,” she said. “It’s easier to get what you need — I’m a vegetarian so they have a lot of specialty products that are usually harder to find.”

The Oriental Mart, a small grocery store that primarily sells Asian cuisine products, was first established in 2002. Rachel Nimsombun, the store’s manager, said while Meijer and Kroger have aisles dedicated to these products, the Oriental Mart has a much larger variety from more locations.

“Our variety also draws in the community,” she said. “Even though there are other Asian grocers in town, they tend to be smaller. We have more of a variety and quantity for a one-stop shopping trip.”

Rhea Van Atta, owner of the Old Town General Store, said her cozy store has started to bring in more college students than before. She believes this is partly to do with the store’s selection of sustainable products.

“College kids care about what they eat and environmental needs,” she said. “They’re studying this, and it’s important to them to know this too.”

New to the business

The Old Town General Store will celebrate its first birthday on June 14. After the initial excitement that came with its grand opening, Van Atta realized that she would have to change from her original, homey grocery store.

“You have to observe what people are looking for,” she said. “I discovered it takes an awful lot of foot traffic to generate walk-ins. People can think your store is cute, but if they don’t buy anything you can’t stay in business.”

She started selling Michigan-themed products, such as ice cube makers shaped like the state, to try and draw in an international student crowd. Along with the products, she sells organic, healthy and sustainable foods, all of which she tries to purchase from local vendors.

Van Atta has seen a number of regulars throughout her first year of business and said she can count on an appearance from her regulars at least once a week. Even a local group of children come in every day for a coffee and breakfast snack.

When it comes to larger chains, Van Atta said she doesn’t even attempt to compete.

“I really don’t even try — there’s no way to compete with them in price,” she said. “The only way to compete against big grocers is that nearly every item we sample and taste test. We know the vendors, we can tell you about the product. ... It’s homey, and in stores like this the clerks know your name.”

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