The first grocery store job that Gary Taylor got was at the IGA in St. Joseph, Illinois, about a 15 minute drive east of Urbana. He basically got the job because his Mom knew the owner. Taylor was 18 years old when started that job stocking and bagging groceries, and hasn’t left the grocery store life since. Now, he’s the new General Manager of Common Ground Food Co-op in Urbana. This is Taylor’s first time managing a non-traditional grocery store, let alone a food cooperative that sells organic, fair-trade, and local items.* It’s Common Ground’s first time having a general manager with a background in business management. I imagine it was a match made in a space called careful deliberation.

With the Co-op’s plans to retain a growing, vibrant staff and plans in the works to bring more local product into the store, seems likely someone with a strong background in business management would be a big draw in the search to fill this position. Gary Taylor certainly thought so. He was happy, he added, to start this new chapter of his career. When I sat down with Gary in his office upstairs of the Co-op, he was absolutely jazzed to learn more about managing within a food cooperative model. As Gary was telling me the national and regional food co-op conferences that he was planning to attend over the next couple of weeks, I was excited to learn about the scope and the scale of work that Common Ground has with other food cooperatives.

For example, I had a proud community moment when I learned about the Co-op’s Food For All program, which is a food economic access program that was started by Jacqueline Hannah, a former general manager. The program, which is income-based and available by process of application, provides people with access to staple items in the store that are always at low cost. The program also provides free access to all of the community education classes taught in the Co-op’s Flatlander Classroom. That proud community moment I felt just got prouder when I learned that the program has since been picked up by other food cooperatives on a national scale through the National Co+op Grocers collaborative, to which our dear co-op belongs. Yet, I did admittedly have a burning question in the back of my mind:

Is the Co-op planning to reopen the project to establish a second store location in Champaign?

A few years ago, the Co-op had plans to expand to a second store location in Champaign and had to tuck those plans away after the Co-op's board of directors determined that it was not financially feasible at time to move the project forward. I was one of those Champaign residents who was crestfallen upon getting the news that the Champaign store wasn’t going to open up in the spring of 2016 as the Co-op had announced. Taylor tells me that they may not be looking to reopen the project at the moment, but it’s certainly not out of the question. Right now, he says, they are looking for other ways to strengthen their operations in Urbana and their support of the local community at large.

"Right on," I said, and subsequently albeit momentarily put out this tiny brain fire of possibility in having the Co-op in Champign too. For the rest of the afternoon in the not-so-distant city of Urbana, I spent time getting to know Taylor a little better, learning about his plans as the new GM, and taking the “insider’s tour” (what I kept calling it, half-jokingly) of their kitchen upstairs. I took pictures of people making salads and pie dough, which led me to fulfilling my impulse to buy several frozen packs of their made-from-scratch pizza dough after the interview. Taylor learned that this is one of my favorite things to buy from the Co-op. I learned so many things about this fantastic little gem nestled in Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana.

Smile Politely: Thanks so much for taking time to talk with SP today about your new role as the Co-op’s General Manager. More broadly speaking, how do you view Common Ground’s role in the community?

Gary Taylor: We want to be the center of a vibrant community. We want to be the catalysts of getting things done. Right now, we are talking with the Mayor [Diane Marlin]’s office about their initiative to revitalize downtown Urbana. We are probably the biggest retail tenant in Lincoln Square Mall. We have a vested interest in revitalizing downtown. We have got meetings set up to talk to the Mayor with ideas that are coming from the Co-op, to go along with the ideas that the Mayor’s office is soliciting from the broader community to revitalize the area. We want to be the center of all of helping make Urbana an even more vibrant place to visit and to live, not just because we are a business here [but also] because that is what a community should be.

SP: Now, with your new role as the new GM, you mention in your letter of introduction that you released to the public a several months ago the importance of aggressively supporting the community. How do you see that happening?

Taylor: We need to go out and find more local farmers. We need to find more local people out there who are looking for a venue to sell their product. We are aggressively searching for avenues to get more local vendors into this store.

SP: Sounds like you’ve got some quite a few plans in the works. What are some short term plans that you may have for the Co-op?

Taylor: I want to make a lot of contacts. I want to get to know all of the farmers and other local vendors, so I know exactly who I am doing business with. We have recruited a team that is planning to head out with me over the summer to visit local farms and to make sure the product that we want to bring to the store is ethically, sustainably, cultivated and sourced.

SP: What are some plans you have for the long term?

Taylor: Honestly, our long term plans include getting the word out about what we do and help people support local food systems and the local economy. I’ve talked to people who don’t know that we exist. Some people I’ve talked to have heard of us, but the model of a food cooperative eludes them or they don’t think it is for them, like a member’s only food store. Anyone can come and shop here. You can even decide to become an owner of the food cooperative for 60 dollars, and that’s it.* And you know that your 60 dollars is supporting the work of the food cooperative and strengthening the influence of the greater community over the work that Common Ground does for the community. 

SP: How would you explain to our readership what it means to be an owner of a food cooperative?

Taylor: You can vote to see new members elected to our board of directors who are here to help facilitate the community’s input and help drive our decision-making. We have 9 board members and have elections every year, with three seats being up every year. As an owner, you also get special days and special deals on products that are discounted at a lower price than other people who are not owners. But also, you know, like anyone else who frequents the store, that the vast majority of your money that you spend at the Co-op is staying here, it is supporting our local farmers and our employees, many who are long-time residents.

SP: What’s else might people might not know about Common Ground Food Cooperative?

Taylor: We have a full kitchen upstairs. We make all of our deli and ready made food from scratch — the pies, the salads, pizza, soups. The pizza here is great. My wife and I, our schedules don’t really match up; so, we’ll opt for some quick meals to make, or pick up some ready-made meals here from the Co-op if we are not going out to eat that night. We’ve also just started Co-op Catering, which now caters a menu of appetizers, cheese trays, salads sandwiches, quiches as well as pies, cookies and scones. It’s a soft launch with pick-up service only right now, but we are excited to see how it goes.

SP: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Taylor: My goal is to help strengthen Common Ground and make sure it stays healthy. One of the biggest tasks we need to take on is getting the word out and increasing regular traffic in our store. Research shows that most people tend to shop regularly within a 2-3 mile radius, whatever is most convenient and close to home. Despite convenience, we hope people will come out, shop at Common Ground and support the cause.

To learn more about Common Ground Food Co-op including their programs, schedule of classes, other community education events, and what else is in store, please visit store's website.

Common Ground Food Co-operative
Lincoln Square Mall
300 S. Broadway Ave
8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Photos by Megan Flowers

* Editor's note: A previous version of this article failed to indicate that Common Ground sells organic and conventional items. Membership at Common Ground is a one-time, $60 share that can be paid $5 per month for 12 months. There are no additional annual fees or due. Members may sell their share back to Common Ground at any time. Additional details are available here