"We need this benefit, and we need it pretty bad," says Casey Bryant, general manager of the Midtown Food Co-Op, a tiny Central Avenue grocery that specializes in organic foods and bulk items. She's talking about "Feast for the Senses," an evening of dance, food, music, and art at the Buckman Performing Arts Center on Friday, July 16th. It's an event about which Bryant has mixed feelings.
"A co-op is a business. It's not a charity, and we shouldn't have to have a benefit, but we have to have a benefit," Bryant says. "I really don't want to throw all of our soup on the table here, but the co-op is struggling. We have all this debt. We've not been retail-sales-inclined. We've not been all that good at basic things like stock analysis. But we're working on all of that, and finally we're starting to move in the right direction. We have to move in that direction if we want to stay in business."
On Fridays, the Midtown Food Co-op's parking lot becomes a farmer's market where local organic growers peddle a variety of produce and dispense wisdom concerning the finer points of growing black-eyed Susans, picking out a good carrot, or cultivating the perfect eggplant. Inside, the grocery is calm, clean, and inviting. But the calm, it seems, is mostly superficial.
"We went through three managers in two years," Bryant says. And the co-op's on-again/off-again deli component has seen just as many changes. The deli space was originally leased to Memphis caterers Fascinating Foods. But that relationship didn't work out. Another restaurant opened, flirted with success, then closed quickly. A juice bar called One Love opened and evolved into a vegan soul-food café. It closed in April 2004.
"These were all losses for us," Bryant says. "We're not sharks. We're guppies. We want to be nice and swim in a school. We've had a lot of losses, but there have also been some people who have taken advantage of our trust and our sense of community.
"Of course, nobody who works at the co-op is experienced in retail management," Bryant says, shrugging off the notion that the co-op is in any way the victim of "evil-doers" and taking much of the blame for the grocery's woes onto her own shoulders. "Everybody who comes in has a huge love for the co-op, but they can't turn their love into a managerial miracle."
To stay competitive, the co-op is in the process of reassessing stock, cutting back on slow-moving items, and adding more customer-requested and bulk items.
"Seaweed!" exclaims Ariel Roads, the co-op's marketing director. "We have too much seaweed." Bryant reluctantly concedes the point.
"Sometimes we want to stock things that we think people should like because it's wholesome," Bryant says. "Because it's good for you. And sometimes it's hard to reconcile our ideals with reality."
To help bring reality into focus, the co-op recently took a membership survey. While much of the response was positive, more than a few members noted that the store's bread was "nasty."
"We're doing something about all of that," Bryant says. "We've got some guys who are coming in to bake fresh bread for us, and it's going to be good."
On August 1st, Cakes and Things will open in the co-op's deli space. In addition to serving coffee and fresh pastries (and supplying the grocery with bread), Cakes and Things will make baked goods to order and offer a variety of soups and sandwiches at lunchtime.
The co-op also wants to push its extensive bulk section, which includes grains, dried beans, spices, nuts, seeds, and coffee.
"Bulk just makes sense," Bryant says. "You don't pay for packaging, marketing, or advertising costs. You can get as much or as little of whatever you want. If you take it home and put it in your own canister, you save so much. I don't get why so many people are so stuck on brands. Why are they so stuck on paying more for things they can't use?"
Bryant is confident that Friday's fund-raiser will be successful. "If nothing else," Bryant says, "this benefit will show people just how much support we have in the community."
"Feast for Senses" will include a silent art auction. Voices of the South, a local theater troupe known for its adaptations of classic Southern literature, will perform. Harlan T. Bobo, the charismatic bass man for Viva L'American Death Ray Music, who recently distinguished himself as a formidable singer/songwriter with his self-released CD Too Much Love, will sing his off-kilter acoustic love songs accompanied by Matador recording artist Tim Prudhomme. n
Tickets for "Feast for the Senses" are $25 for the event starting at 8 p.m. or $50 for the catered VIP preview party at 7 p.m. For tickets or more information, call the Buckman Performing Arts Center at 537-1486 or the Midtown Food Co-op at 276-2250.