An accidental grocer reflects on a cooperative journey

An accidental grocer reflects on a cooperative journey

Alex Gyori, a teacher turned general manager of the Brattleboro Food Co-op, prepares to retire after almost 33 years

BRATTLEBORO — The Brattleboro Food Co-op will mark two milestones this weekend.

On Saturday, June 27, the customer-owned grocery will throw its 40th birthday bash starting with a community cook-out at 11 a.m., and live music until 6 p.m.

The Co-op will also mark its second milestone at 1 p.m., with a ceremony to honor its General Manager Alex Gyori, who is retiring that day.

Gyori and the store have grown in unison for almost 33 years.

While the Co-op nurtured a language teacher/volunteer into a general manager, Gyori fed and watered a mostly volunteer-run $600,000-a-year organization on Flat Street into a $20-million-a-year business with 7,000 active members located in a new, award-winning, multi-use, environmentally conscious building at the junction of Canal and Main streets.

As any farmer can tell you, producing the food necessary to feed a community is equal measure success and challenge. Under Gyori's leadership, the Co-op has experienced similar ups and downs: the highs from its rapid economic growth and stature among the regional and national community of cooperatives punctured by contentious union drives and the shooting death of its store manager in 2011.

Developing an identity

“The Co-op is today what it is because of changing needs,” said Gyori, from his office overlooking the Co-op's future roof garden.

Conventional foods like Crisco vegetable shortening sit on the store's shelves next to non-GMO, fair-trade products, he said. Members and customers have strong emotional reactions to food and widely variant definitions of what's healthy.

The democratic nature of the Co-op means that the store won't dictate what people should and should not eat, he said.

“Everything we do here is for customer service,” he added.

In the middle of a stream of thought around sales figures, square footage, and future growth trends, Gyori stops.

“Sorry, I got distracted by myself as usual,” he said.

Gyori's first profession was teaching. He taught foreign languages to students in Pennsylvania and Ohio before moving to Paris. In the City of Lights, he earned a master's degree in French literature; he remained in Paris for a few years teaching English to speakers of other languages. His next teaching adventure took him to Australia for seven years.

Gyori credits his Austrian, Hungarian, and Romanian heritage with sparking his interest in food. As an adult, he developed a commitment to whole foods and health politics.

He first heard about the Brattleboro Food Co-op while camping at Fort Dummer with his first wife and their son.

He couldn't feed his family trimming 600 baskets a day at Basketville in Putney. The area lacked teaching opportunities, and Gyori joined the Co-op as a paid employee, originally for an 11-month term to fill in for another worker's leave of absence.

Now, 33 years later, he's moving on.

Collective management to structure

In 1982, the Co-op operated with a model of collective management.

According to Gyori, the three full-time employees - he was the grocery buyer at first -kept the store running and organized with the help of a half-time employee and a legion of member-owners.

“Because we were all equal, we were all worried about everything all the time,” said Gyori.

The three full-timers experienced the stress of the whole store, despite their job descriptions, he said.

“We were running around the place like crazy,” Gyori said.

Members eventually requested extended hours, said Gyori, and those extended hours and additional services required more structure.

Co-op member Curtiss Reed Jr., now the executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, helped develop the management structure approved by the Co-op's board of directors.

When the general manager position came available, Gyori thought about it. And thought. And thought some more. For two months, he wrote lists of pros and cons.

Minutes before deadline, Gyori dropped his application into the collection box.

“It was the people who convinced me,” he said. “I love these people - why not? Why not throw my hat in the ring?”

So in January 1986, Gyori found himself as the official general manager of a $600,000-a-year grocery cooperative with 16 employees.

He learned as the business grew.

“We made mistakes,” he said. “We made them together.”

The transition to seeing himself as the manager proved rocky. “I guess I backed into the identity,” he said.

Some employees immediately stopped viewing him as a peer, Gyori said - an inevitable “structural thing.”

Gyori recited one hard-won principle he's learned during his tenure: “Just because you're good at one or two things, does not mean you're good at everything.”

When you stand in a position of authority, it's very easy to think that everything you do or think is golden, Gyori said.

To balance his authority with the Co-op's ideals of collectiveness, Gyori said he makes it a practice to sit and listen. Even when someone criticizes him, he said he will try to hear the core of what is bothering the other person.

While he holds that, as general manager, he always makes the final decision, Gyori said he's only overruled employees' requests twice.

“I respect people highly - it's my strength and weakness,” he said.

Gyori said his strength presents itself as an ability to draw out an employee's talents. The weakness, he admits, is that he tries too hard and takes too long to recognize that some employees will never make the cut.

“I have a few spectacular failures,” Gyori said, staring at his hands.

Gyori said he has learned that the slings and arrows often fired his way as the general manager are just that - slings and arrows fired at a job title. They're not personal, he said - but “it was a learning curve learning to live with that.”

Managing the store is not about emotional attachment, in Gyori's view.

It's not a question of personalization, he said. It's a question of a particular decision or action's impact on the business.

Trust that people will come around to whatever is best for the Co-op has also kept Gyori calm under pressure. The first time he suggested bringing a computer into the store, fellow employees met the suggestion with blank stares.

“This is an idea whose time had not come,” he said.

In its early years, many good business practices were sidestepped at the Co-op for fear of “selling out to the demands of capitalism,” he said. But some traditional grocery services, such as shopping carts, also happen to be good for families.

Gyori remembers in 1993, the Co-op investigated changing from cash registers to a barcode scanning system. Three members asked for a meeting. Concerned about the rays used to scan barcodes, the members recommended cashiers use abacuses instead to avoid any exposure.

He asked the members what would happen to the store's bookkeeping if someone dropped an abacus.

While the meeting ended in good-humored laughter, Gyori understood the members' concern. When the Co-op checked out the new scanners, it took radiation exposure into consideration.

New buildings, new challenges

Gyori said the new store design aligns with requests from many members over the months of gathering public input, but not all community members danced in the streets when the Co-op tore down its old store in the former Brookside Plaza to build its current building.

It's a tune Gyori has heard before.

When the Co-op moved into the former P&C supermarket in the Brookside Plaza Store more than 20 years ago, members complained, “Oh my God, it's big, it's clean,” he said. “Because the old Co-op [on Flat Street] was 2x4s and dirt.”

Members told Gyori the Co-op had sold out.

The Brookside Plaza store opened in 1988 with a kitchen designed for approximately $16,000 in weekly sales. The deli and kitchen doubled its sales in its first week, he said.

Within a year, sales outpaced the facility's capacity. The store started buying pre-made food to keep up with demand, Gyori continued.

Square-footage-wise, the Co-op could have stayed in the plaza a few more years, he added, but he said the hallway-like kitchen was dangerous.

The Co-op took on debt, including $1.7 million in loans from community members, to build the new building it shares with the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust.

Nine months of construction delays followed by economy woes, flooding from Tropical Storm Irene, and the community trauma over the store shooting meant the Co-op fell short of projected sales.

But the projections and sales have started to align, Gyori said. Within two years, the Co-op will have paid off a “huge chunk of debt,” increasing its capacity to start paying off the community member loans.

The financial delays have been “embarrassing” for Gyori, who said since 1979 the Co-op never defaulted on its member's loans.

“There's been challenges, that's for sure,” said Gyori, his eyes reddening and watering when asked if he has any regrets.

Sometimes he has kept employees on too long, he said.

Gyori is thinking of employee Richard Gagnon's 2011 killing of manager Michael Martin. Gagnon, the store's longtime wine manager, is in federal prison for shooting Martin at his desk.

“I feel sad for both sides,” Gyori said.

Gyori said that at the time, the shooting divided the community, with some charging that he was either the tragedy's cause or could have done something to avert it.

“You can't really know what's in a person's mind,” he said.

Four years later, Gyori said he feels sadness but not regret.

“Our whole community suffered from that [event],” he said.

Gyori said that after the shooting, the Co-op “tried our best to look inward, and do a better job of training, communicating, and helping people understand what a co-op is.”

Dreams and realities

The Co-op holds a special place in the hearts of many community members. For some, the store comes wrapped in the dreams, hopes, and beliefs of what they want for a socially conscious and just society.

Alex Gyori has served as the figurehead - or as the lightning rod.

For some in the community, he has been a leader with a vision sailing into abundant seas. For others, he has commanded troubled waters.

“There's no love lost,” said Laura Austan, a former employee of 10 years. “We had our differences. And some of them we got over and some we didn't.”

Austan helped spearhead the store's first, and unsuccessful, union drive in 2003.

In 2013, with the store in the throes of a second - and ultimately successful - union drive, Greg Howe, an employee of over 15 years, told The Commons, “I wanted [the union] because we had just been through a situation in our department with a manager who chased a whole lot of people - five or six people, supervisors mostly - out of employment.”

Howe told The Commons that he saw a pattern at the Co-op of not following through on things that could help employees.

“I wanted to see more follow-through on improvements we had been promised, and I wanted to ensure that we had a safe working environment for everyone, both physically safe and emotionally safe, that people were treated with the respect they deserved for the hard work they do,” he said.

Meanwhile, some employees, like the Co-op's self described greatest critic and greatest cheerleader, Education and Outreach Coordinator Vicky Senni, have great hope for the store and its future.

Senni told The Commons in a previous interview that she wants to see the bad news and tight budgets turned around.

“We're all in this together,” she said. “There are a lot of us at the Co-op who care about our work and our workplace, and who deeply want to make it a better place, a welcoming community marketplace for all.”

Mentors to other cooperatives

Erbin Crowell is the executive director of Neighboring Food Co-op Association that helps unite and build collaborations between food co-ops in New England.

According to Crowell, Gyori helped create the now five-year-old organization.

“His support has been crucial to my ability to get things done,” Corwell said.

He credits Gyori with transforming the Brattleboro Food Co-op from a small buying club into a thriving cooperative with a regional economic presence. Gyori worked to connect his local co-op with the wider global movement.

Crowell said, “He has the vision and tenacity to see what we could do if we put our minds to it.”

A leader of an organization like the Brattleboro Food Co-op must harness vision and create potential, he said - “but be modest enough to let the group lead.”

Kari Bradley, the general manager of Montpelier's Hunger Mountain Co-op, counts Gyori as a valued mentor.

Bradley met Gyori 11 years ago when he was a “newbie” general manager.

Gyori has a “well-earned reputation” as the go-to manager when newbies are dealing with tricky situations, Bradley said.

Gyori taught Bradley that “if you take care of the members, the members will take care of you.”

He also passed the lessons of patience and focusing on creating change over the long haul, he said.

Noting Gyori's retirement, Bradley said that with the changing of the guard, it's time for other general managers to step into leadership and mentoring roles.

“Gyori has helped them prepare for this moment,” he said.

Bradley laughed when he realized, after 11 years, that this meant him.

Thriving into the future

“I'm not counting, actually - I'm too busy for that,” said Gyori of the few days left before his retirement.

He joked that the number of ideas he had for retirement might paralyze him.

He also hadn't thought about his legacy.

After reflection, Gyori said he's proud of the strong community resource the Co-op has become for customers, employees, and local food producers.

In the past, the Co-op “caught hell” for establishing a meat department. Yet Gyori feels good that the store provides “a good, clean product” for people choosing to consume meat.

He also respects the work of the Co-op's satellite store, Dottie's Discount Foods, for providing good products to households with lower incomes.

Gyori wanted to help address the barriers experienced by many on lower incomes trying to access fresh local food.

In 2014, the store launched its Food For All program that offers a 10-percent discount for people receiving public assistance, he said.

Since 1975, the Co-op has provided almost 1,000 jobs, he adds. The wages the store offered, however, have not always financed a livable wage in an industry with an average job turnover rate of 50 percent. One year, the store experienced almost 80 percent turnover.

The Co-op's rate now averages 12 to 19 percent, Gyori said. A few years ago, the Co-op introduced a livable wage program. It's not perfect, he said. But it's better.

Of any hard moments, Gyori said the store “has formed me and helped me try to do the right thing the best as I can.”

It's time to move on, he said, saying that his successor, Sabine Rhyne, who has served as shareholder and community relations manager, brings new energy and ideas to the organization.

Gyori's time leading the Co-op had its share of “costs” and “heartache” for him personally, he said.

Still, his commitment has never wavered, he said, because he believed in the store's stakeholders, both champions and critics alike.

“They cared about the Co-op as much as I did; they just had a different way of expressing it,” he said.

“I'm really happy the Brattleboro Food Co-op is what it is today,” he said. “I want it to thrive and go far into the future.”

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