The time warp the Gentle Strength Co-op was stuck in remains so deep that its Web site didn’t let on that anything was amiss the day after it closed its doors.
It was a little sad to see, the cheery announcement of the Nov. 11 grand opening of the Tempe mainstay’s new location at Southern Road and Mill Avenue, knowing how soon this bright new future would end. But it’s amazing that an organic and health-food store born out of the peace-love-communal vibes of 1971 — when the Valley was in its infancy as an economic and residential hub — survived 36 years. For a long time, it was a unique place; one where you could find bins full of minerals not usually seen outside of an ingredient list. A place where wheatgrass was more of a staple than wheat-fed beef, and soy was the milk of choice.
But it became less special over the years as chain supermarkets woke up to Americans’ willingness to spend good money on healthy food, if only to let it rot in the refrigerator as they drove through McDonald’s on the way home.
Gentle Strength’s co-op business model, in which customers could become members of the co-op (taxpayers), vote on business decisions (elections), and get a small dividend if the store made a profit (tax refund), proved to be as conducive to political and personality conflicts as any city council or Congress.
It also held to principles that are proper for government agencies, including “limited return on investment” and “equitable distribution of surplus,” that just don’t work in a competitive, capitalist environment.
“The co-op should have been run as a business,” Gentle Strength board member and buyer Paul Bonnano told business writer David Woodfill for Thursday’s Tribune. “… Good intentions are one thing, but business is business.’’
Whole Foods Markets, another purveyor which sells a mix of organic and non-organic foods, is set to be part of the Mosaic condominium project planned for the northwest corner of University Drive and Ash Avenue, which was the co-op’s location for most of its existence. The Gentle Strength board sold this property, by far its most valuable asset, for much less than its market value last year, then tried to resurrect it in a strip mall, next to an LA Fitness and a few rpms away from an exit off the U.S. 60.
This could have been an ideal location for Gentle Strength to reinvent itself if the board had had the resources to do so, but the weight of previous bad decisions proved too much. Most of the $2.5 million it got from the land sale went to pay off old debt, and so new debt was required to set up the new shop, which folded barely four months after it opened.
Bonanno expressed the hope that the store can be reopened with an infusion of cash from an investor, and it would be nice to see this East Valley institution survive its current troubles. But it won’t be exempt from the rules of the market that everyone else plays by.
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