“Buying and selling local products is going to support our local economy,” explained John Bubacz, a member of the planning group. “It’s going to help environmentally, because you’re not burning diesel fuel to transport when your products are being manufactured here.”
Bubacz, who owns Signature Brew in Sylva, has long wanted a stronger market for local goods in Jackson County. In 2002, he opened Wha Cha Want Bodega at Western Carolina University, where he sold locally made products for four years before closing in favor of the coffee business. But he kept his ear to the ground for anything related to local goods, and two years ago the concept for a centralized store for local products was born.
“There was a threshold number of people two years ago that were interested in getting started,” he said.
The group began meeting regularly, cooking up a plan to create an online store for Western North Carolina manufacturers. But as the idea gathered steam and drew more people to the meetings, new members floated the idea of a brick-and-mortar retail store. Now, they have their sights set on a grocery store-size establishment selling everything from bread to produce to soap — all made within 100 miles of Sylva.
Those products may cost more than chain store generic brands, but both Bubacz and fellow planning group member Sandra Dennison believe there’s a market for them.
“I know a lot of my circle of friends travel to Asheville to do their shopping,” said Dennison, who seriously considered opening her own whole foods store before establishing Fusions Spa in 2003. “We travel outside of our county some 30 or 40 miles to get the food we want.”
More locally, several specialty organic stores dot the towns of Western North Carolina. Room Full of Nuts in Franklin, Kountry Kupboard in Sylva and Zoolies in Waynesville all have organic offerings, but there’s no one-stop shop for organic groceries west of Asheville.
“That’s what we want to be,” Bubacz said.
But that kind of business doesn’t grow overnight. Which, perhaps, is why the planners don’t even envision the store as a typical business. They want to create a nonprofit food co-op, an institution owned by members who either buy in or give their time to stock shelves, run the cash register or clean the floors. Depending on the co-op’s structure, those members then earn the right to shop at the store, to purchase goods at reduced prices or to get some products for free.
The Ramp-Berry group is far from deciding those particulars, but they do know the approach relies on people just as much as it does on pennies. They’ve enlisted the help of food co-op advocate Yvonne Scott, who lives locally and is semi-retired, to take on some of the major leadership tasks. Their Facebook page, also called Ramp-Berry Community Market Co-op, has already snagged 57 members, and they’re now distributing a survey, trying to gauge interest and schedule a March meeting for potential members. At that point, they’ll organize people into the groups that will handle real estate, vendors, by-laws, etc.
“We’re still at the beginning stages, but we are at least at the stage of starting to recruit community partnerships and getting people involved,” Dennison said.
Bubacz said they’ll need hundreds of members in order to shoulder the cost and the labor of operating a full-scale retail store. Still to be determined is a breakdown of how many paying members and how many volunteers the co-op would need.
“We have determined we need both,” Bubacz said. “We need people who pay to be members and people who work in the store.”
And as far as workers, it’s not just cashiers and shelf-stockers the co-op needs. It will also rely on its members more specialized skills: handling the legalese of by-laws and contracts, applying for grants and marketing the brand, to name a few.
While the group searches for members, it will also be looking for funding, whether from grants, loans or private donations, and searching for a suitable location. But the Ramp-Berry folks are confident that those are hurdles that they — and the members of their yet-to-be-born co-op — can jump.
“I think there has been a want for a long time,” Dennison said.