By Courtney Ross, Alberta Food Cooperative

You probably know Alberta Cooperative Grocery as that corner store on Alberta Street where you can peruse colorful produce. You can stroll through our few aisles in a matter of minutes if need be, or you can talk in-depth about your ailments with our wellness buyers. Kids run around with apples trying to find where our mascot, Pickles the co-op kitten, is hiding. 

As much as we seem like your average shop from the outside, almost every day I look around in awe at how we’ve been able to collectively keep the store running since 2001. I wrongly used to think co-ops were like Costco, where you can’t shop unless you have an expensive membership.  I never grew up going to a food co-op, but now I couldn’t imagine my life without one. 

I got this job as the Marketing Coordinator the old-fashioned way: I saw a “Now Hiring” sign in the window, walked in, and asked for the manager. I quickly realized there wasn’t one! All of the hiring, buying, stocking – you name it – happens without a boss. We’re worker-managed, which means we operate without either a general manager or the hierarchical structure common to most businesses. 

We are one of only three consumer-owned co-op grocers in the country that is worker-managed. We’re owned by the community and run by the workers. We all participate in the higher-level decision making that shapes the way our store operates and what it stands for. We’re not always in agreement about how to run the store and jurisdictional quandaries are not uncommon, but our workplace is beautiful because of how we navigate these challenges. 

Workers meet once a month to discuss policies and proposals that impact the entire store. The budget doesn’t get passed unless we all approve it. Everyone had a voice in the designs for our remodel this past May. Consensus produces outcomes with meaningful buy-in and ensures that minority perspectives are given a voice. I guarantee these conversations don’t happen at your typical grocery chain. 

The magic behind the scenes occurs in a small strip of desks wedged in the back of the store or in the cramped trailer in our parking lot. Our buyers often strategize while surrounded by a line waiting for the bathroom or staff trying to get some vendor samples to munch on. Our roles are very self-directed, but we problem solve and navigate the highs and lows together.

The folks that work here have stayed, many for years, because they care so deeply about what Alberta Co-op represents. None of us are getting rich doing this work, yet I’ve never met a more generous group of people. 

It’s hard to talk about food without talking about how it directly affects people. That’s why Alberta Co-op prioritizes workers’ rights, food security, environmental stewardship, social justice, and the sharing of resources. We hope to continue conversations about how to ensure affordability and accessibility for our neighbors that are more concerned with how to feed their family than with what reusable straw to buy.

Our ends are constantly evolving to fulfill the needs of our neighborhood. And our pride is more than just rainbows in June. Workers feel welcome to be fully ourselves and we try and extend that welcome to everyone who comes through the co-op’s doors. 

So the next time you stop in for a sandwich for your lunch break or to stock up before a camping trip, know that your hard-earned money is supporting a workplace that’s both empowering and collaborative. We’re more than co-op workers: we’re artists tying knots and making magnets, writers and musicians fighting to express ourselves, activists finding time for every strike.

We’re more than a grocery store; we’re a cooperative community united by our commitment to finding new ways to meet our collective needs within capitalism. A collectively-managed, consumer-owned co-op is a big ole experiment in democracy—come on by and be a part of it!