AMBLER — A Philadelphia area community grocery store hit a major milestone this year as Weavers Way Co-op celebrates 50 years in business.
What does that mean to General Manager Jon Roesser?
“It means (that in) 1973 a group of neighbors in Mt. Airy got together and formed a produce buying club, and that eventually became our original store on Carpenter Lane, and we’ve been at it ever since,” he said in an interview with MediaNews Group.
Two additional locations in Chestnut Hill and Ambler opened over the last five decades to serve its more than 11,000 member households. The co-op is expected to generate around $38 million in revenue by the end of the company fiscal year on June 30.
“I don’t believe that our growth was the result of any kind of deliberate thing. Our growth has really truly been organic,” he said.
Weavers Way Co-op General Manager Jon Roesser sits down inside the Ambler location’s cafe for an interview with MediaNews Group on March 9, 2023. (Rachel Ravina – MediaNews Group)
The co-op is expected to launch several initiatives to celebrate being in business for half-a-century. For example, the “73” signature sandwich for $7.30 is being sold at each location, according to a company spokesperson. It comes with grilled chicken, cheddar cheese, sweet peppers, and goddess mayo.
“As a consumer cooperative, we exist to meet the needs of our members. So we don’t expand for profits sake, which is why other businesses would expand,” Roesser said. “In our case, as our membership has grown to meet that member demand, we have felt the need to open up more outlets to serve our members better.”
Each shop has its own identity as Roesser observed throughout his 14 years working at Weavers Way. He described the market’s flagship location at the intersection of Carpenter Lane and Green Street as a “quirky” corner store with “super high volume.”
The Chestnut Hill location opened in 2010 in the space of the former Caruso’s Market on Germantown Avenue, maintaining the feel of a “smaller, community grocery store.”
While Weavers Way garnered much attention in Northwest Philadelphia, the market gained a significant local following, with more than 1,000 members in Montgomery County prior to the opening of the Ambler store in 2017.
“This is by far our biggest store,” Roesser said of the Butler Avenue location, which used to occupy a Bottom Dollar Food store that closed in 2014. A nearby Acme market had shuttered its doors in 2009.
Back in 2016, the suburban location had some attention from the Ambler Food Co-op, a startup made up of around 400 households, many of whom were former Weavers Way members, according to Roesser.
“So Ambler had all these fits and starts with chains coming in, and then leaving and so this group was determined to open up a cooperative a community owned grocery store and it just made good sense,” he said.
Stressing that “having a grocery store is an amenity to any neighborhood,” the co-op’s newest location served as an asset to Ambler and the surrounding communities with existing membership living in Flourtown, Fort Washington and Wynmoor.
Weavers Way seeks to operate a “triple bottom line” business, Roesser said, with a “cooperative model” that emphasizes the “three p’s” — people, planet and profit — with an emphasis on community.
“I think in terms of what we bring to the community, local control, local ownership, we get to make our own decisions,” he said. “We are not subject to the whims of out of state cooperations who do kind of come and go. For them stores are just lines on a spreadsheet.”
“We’re owned by our members who live in our community and so we have direct control over the business,” he continued.
Weavers Way’s 11,000 members also elect an 11-member board of directors, according to Roesser, which is run as a representative democracy.
“So we do have this particularly unique business model where we don’t operate the business for profit, anyone can join the co-op, and no one person can own any of the co-op more than anybody else,” he said. “It’s one share, one vote.”
Along with Roesser, The co-op employees around 250 employees across its three locations, administration, farms, and warehouse and warehouse facilities.
Stressing the importance of sourcing locally, the co-op amasses products from several merchants including farms, orchards, bakeries, and coffee roasters within 150 miles of Philadelphia’s City Hall.
“We support the local food economy in a way no corporate chain ever could, and that’s not even a knock on them, that’s just true,” he said. “We have over 300 local vendors that we support.”
Placing a “particular emphasis on hyperlocal” items, Roesser spotlighted local establishments including the Ambler-based Wake Coffee Roasters, and Baker Street Bread Co. Café & Bakery in Chestnut Hill.
Weavers Way Co-op’s Ambler store features several produce options pictured on March 9, 2023. (Rachel Ravina – MediaNews Group)
Price comparisons typically depend on the product, some will be marked a bit higher to account for sustainability and equitable items.
Roesser used bananas as an example that sell for $1.19 per pound, which he said amounts to about 35 cents for an individual banana.
“That’s 35 cents for a piece of food that’s grown in Ecuador or Peru because that’s where all of our bananas come from, and we only sell fair trade bananas,” he said. “And that is where the people who grew the bananas were paid a fair wage for the work that they performed, and this is in contrast to the conventional banana industry, which has a long history of worker exploitation.”
While larger markets or big box stores may charge 63 cents or 69 cents for a pound of bananas, Roesser stressed there are stark differences between organic and traditional bananas.
He added that “to me it’s a totally different piece of fruit, but to someone who doesn’t know these things, they look exactly the same.”
Weavers Way also implements several initiative to assist members who may be food insecure. The co-op’s Food For All Program is a “no questions asked” arrangement that affords members who sign up a 15% discount on their purchases. People can get an additional 5% off when they volunteer for six hours with participating organizations. Additionally, the Ambler location has a community fridge in partnership with Germantown Academy.
Philanthropy also remains top of mind to the co-op, which previously raised funds for relief efforts such as the war in Ukraine and the earthquake in Syria and Turkey.
Looking ahead, Weavers Way is expected to open its fourth shop this fall in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. The co-op has “been growing” financially, Roesser said, making about $36.5 million for fiscal year 2022.
When asked about other expansion opportunities in the suburbs, Roesser contemplated other potential Montgomery County locations.
“A consumer cooperative because we don’t exist for profit, we exist to meet member needs,” Roesser said. “So if we’re going to expand again I would look at places like Glenside where we have 600 members, Elkins Park, Lansdale, potentially.”
There are currently around 63 member households in Lansdale and 57 in North Wales shopping at the Ambler store. While no additional developments are yet expected, the co-op’s community first approach remains a fruitful venture all these years later.
“A community like Ambler or Lansdale thrives on the uniqueness of the place, and that’s partly the restaurants, and the theaters, and it’s places like Weavers Way,” he said. “So I think there’s a natural inclination to support local businesses.”