After nearly 30 years selling natural and organic foods in Lawrence, the Community Mercantile Co-op is receiving national recognition.
The Merc, as the store at 901 Iowa is better known, was named the National Co-op Retailer of the Year last week at the 48th annual Consumer Cooperative Management Assn. conference in Minneapolis.
"We had no idea, of course, that we had been nominated, so it was a thrill," said Jeanie Wells, The Merc's general manager.
Any consumer cooperative member of the association -- most of which are grocery stores -- could nominate a store for the award. There are about 300 members.
Letters of support for The Merc were sent from cooperatives around the country.
Though a relatively small operation, The Merc gained fame among cooperatives when it fought and won a bitter battle in 1996 with Wild Oats Markets Inc., then the No. 2 natural foods chain in the country.
For four years Wild Oats and The Merc, both struggling to survive, were located within a few blocks of each other. Members of The Merc went door-to-door begging for support, Wells said.
The plucky co-op's victory over the chain was cited as a reason for the award.
"It hardly ever happens that a national chain closes their doors because a local store won the battle," said Wells, who came on staff just before Wild Oats pulled out of Lawrence.
Though The Merc received a standing ovation from the 500 people at the awards ceremony, Wells said the applause was really for the city of Lawrence because The Merc is owned by 2,500 members.
The association's honor recognizes a co-op that has made progress meeting the needs of members through growth in net sales and earnings, initiation of new and innovative programs, and expansion of member services.
A mid-sized consumer cooperative, The Merc will net about $7.3 million in sales this year, Wells said. Ninety percent of the store's products are organic or all-natural, and about half of the summer produce is locally grown.
In 2001, the co-op moved from 901 Miss. to 901 Iowa, doubling its size to 14,000 square feet and expanding its programs. Among its offerings is a nonprofit educational outreach program.
Three nights a week, space in the store is converted to a classroom, where the Community Mercantile Education Foundation teaches the community about stress reduction and cooking with unconventional ingredients.
The foundation also provides classes for at-risk youths, senior groups and Kansas University students who take English as a second language. Wells said a class Wednesday visited a dairy farm near Lawrence.
Giving local farmers the opportunity to bring produce to The Merc can be "wildly inefficient," Wells said, but customers appreciate it.
Kelly Magerkurth drives from Topeka twice a month to shop at The Merc. Magerkurth, who lived in Colorado after finishing a degree in environmental science at Kansas University, said the abundance of natural foods stores in Colorado spoiled her.
"It's nice to come here and get away from the gross grocery stores in Topeka," she said.