Deep Roots Are Not Reached by Frost
On North Eugene Street, Deep Roots Market, a community owned food cooperative has seen better days. The market has (quite literally) deep roots in Greensboro as it originated from a dorm room of Guilford College in 1976. It was founded by a group of vegetarian students who did not have adequate access to vegetarian foods. Thus, a buying club was formed among the students and each member pooled their money together to buy in bulk what they would need to eat happily, healthy and ethically. Eventually, the buying club outgrew the basement of a dorm and into a storefront downtown and in 2013, the store moved to Eugene Street.
Recruited to open the kitchen at this new location, Nicole Villano, now Deep Roots’ general manager since February 2017, said she felt called to take the job. Villano swears by co-ops and believes in their potential and impact in the community. She said co-ops are really important because they put people before profits.
“We are not profit driven,” she said. “But anytime we are profitable those moneys go back into the community through nonprofit donations or reinvestment into the business to offer more services, depending on where the needs are.”
Part owners is what Deep Roots call its members, and part owners get dividends, or a check from Deep Roots back to use in the store when they are profitable. However, recently Deep Roots has not been profitable, and Villano said this has been due to a couple of reasons.
The biggest reason being that there had been multiple closures from both sides of North Eugene Street since October 2016 and in June the road was closed from both sides.
“We knew about the Greenway project but we did not know about the water line project down there in front of the baseball stadium until a week before they started it,” she said. “So at one point we were literally cut off from both sides of our street.”
The Greenway project aims to put a sidewalk that goes through downtown and right in front of the market, which Villano said is wonderful and will be good for business. Once it is completed, it will give more people access by foot or bike downtown. However, Villano said the construction is ongoing and will not be completed for months.
“Our sales have gone down between 10 to 20 percent,” Villano said. “Which is a huge drop for us because we have not really recovered from the expense of the move and paying back of the loans has not started yet. It is definitely a financial challenge to say the least.”
Villano said the biggest part that is lacking in Greensboro is the education on why co-ops are important.
“If Greensboro were to lose Deep Roots Market, it would be felt in waves for years because of all the stuff we do for people,” Villano said. “ Greensboro is lucky to have such a great co-op with deep roots, literally.”
Along with the road construction, Villano said Deep Roots’ reputation took a hit before her tenure as the general manager because of previous management’s decision to not source some items ethically. Villano said she vows to serve the community in her position by bringing back Deep Roots’ trusted reputation to source their products from good companies.
Villano said Deep Roots is the hub of Greensboro’s local economy and that the community owns and drives the store. Anyone in the community is free and welcomed to shop there because purchasing a membership is not required. Villano said the co-op is ran democratically, in the sense that there are board of trustee elections. The elected board members then guide the co-op in the direction of what the people want it to go.
Villano said Deep Roots is a platform for local producers to sell their products and services such as Zaytoons, a former well-known restaurant. Deep Roots gets local producers started with products, space and packaging.
“It is an opportunity to live out the American dream,” Villano said. “If you have this gift or product that you do better than anyone else, we help people who are just starting out getting the resources they need.”
Villano said when people shop at Deep Roots and co-ops in general, they are voting with their dollars. This keeps dollars in Greensboro and helps local families send their children to something as big as college or even something little as dance classes.
“When you shop at any other corporate grocery store, your money is funneled out of the community,” Villano said. “[Corporate grocery stores] are profit driven; the people at the top make 895 times more than the lowest paid person on average.”
Villano said Deep Roots employees make comparable wages; department managers make about the same amount of money, and all hourly employees make the same amount of money. “Which is ideally higher than other grocery stores because we want to pay people fair wages,” Villano said. “Fair trade is another things co-ops stand for, you are paying people what they ask to be paid.”
She said that the coffee, tea, sugar and coconut industry create more slavery in order for them to meet the demand of Walmart’s low prices, which it in turn, creates slave-like and indentured servitude for workers in that industry.
Villano said that there are many different types of co-ops such as credit unions and companies like Blue Ridge Electric. Deep Roots belongs to the National Cooperative Grocers. Villano said all of the combined resources are pooled together to helps the market get lower prices than Walmart on some items. Villano said the misconception that the market’s prices are too high also contributed to their slump in business and sales.
“So that is why some of our prices are cheaper than Walmart,” she said. “We have customers tell us that all the time.”
Villano said co-ops are responsible for regulating organic labeling and that Deep Roots has strong ties to local organic farms such as Reedy Fork Farms located about 20 minutes away in Elon, North Carolina.
Melissa Wilson-Blanchard the office manager of Reedy Fork Farms said the farm provides Deep Roots with livestock feed, eggs and beef. She said everything they provide for the market is certified organic and grown locally on the farm.
Wilson-Blanchard agreed with Villano and said co-ops are a great opportunity for locals to purchase locally and help keep their small farmers in business or entrepreneurs that are around the cooperative in business with locally made products. She said it is important to be a certified organic farm because it means that there are not any pesticide used on the produce or harmful antibiotics that is given to the animals that reside there.
“As far as being a certified organic farm like our 650-acre farm is, it is really important what you are putting in your body and your animal’s bodies,” she said. “Being certified organic is not only something that is life changing, but it is life altering.”
Wilson-Blanchard said the public needs to be made more aware about what organic means and what local co-ops can do for them, she said it is all about education.
Villano said Deep Roots is committed to serving the community in many more ways than just providing ethically sourced and certified organic foods available.
“We all care about each other and take care of each other and our community,” she said. “If you wanted to come here and do a fundraiser, or if you need food for homeless people in your neighborhood, Deep Roots will work with you. There are multiple ways to serve our community.”
Villano said consumers do not have to become members to shop at the market but it is highly encouraged to pay a one-time fee of $100 to become a lifetime owner in the co-op.
In the near future, Deep Roots plans to hold a grand re-opening in September. According to the press release, this event is the “biggest in Deep Roots’ history.” The event is city-sponsored and includes neighboring businesses. There will be a dedication at 4 p.m. and it is encouraged to be there and set up by 3 p.m. The event goes to 6 p.m. and neighbors will continue the celebration with live music and food. Tables will be provided upon request and the market will also look into to tent rentals. Those who have tents are encouraged to bring them and staff will help set it up.
“Please come ready to showcase your products with demos and samples,” Villano wrote in the press release. “We encourage you to tell the story of the companies you represent. It is time to celebrate the end of this difficult time and the end of this ongoing road construction. Together, let’s delight the people of Greensboro and show them why Deep Roots should be their first choice for grocery shopping and why your products should be in their bags!”
More recently, on Aug. 19 Deep Roots will host an “all Beatles evening” from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. There is no cover charge and there will be coffee, tea, wine, beer and other beverages as well as ready-to-eat food plus a hot bar and salad bar open until 7:30 p.m. Joel Landau is the performer and he said in an email “there are over 180 songs the Beatles wrote and recorded; I play and sing all but three, so all your Beatles requests are welcome! Come sing along or listen along.”
Katie Murawski is the editor of YES! Weekly. She is from Mooresville, North Carolina and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in film studies from Appalachian State University in 2017.