Skip to main content

Just another day at the worker-owned supermarket

Employees at the Big Carrot in Toronto are owners in their store.

James Munro, store manager of the Big Carrot, in Toronto, isn’t your typical grocer running your average supermarket. Hint No 1: We photographed Munro (right) amid the lush rooftop garden of his store. Hint No 2: When Munro speaks to his staff, he sometimes finds himself addressing the store’s owners, too. That’s because the Big Carrot is a worker-owned co-operative.

Founded in 1983, the 10,000-sq.-ft. store has grown into one of Canada’s most renowned natural grocery stores. It helped to launch the non-GMO Verified label and offers a wide selection of grocery items and body care.

READ: An interview with CFIG's new chair, Scott Mitchell

Service areas include a holistic dispensary, vegetarian cafe serving more than 40 certified organic dishes, and organic juice bar. Shoppers can take cooking classes, get free nutritional store tours and attend weekly lectures on health and the environment. Canadian Grocer recently spoke with Munro.

How does a worker-owned grocery store function?

Our co-op is a little different in that it is employee-owned, not like most grocery co-ops or multi-stakeholder co-ops. Staff is eligible to join after one year of employment before being voted into membership. There is an initial investment of $5,000 that gives one voting share, and if a member decides to leave, the investment is returned.

Seventy per cent of the annual profits are shared by the members, based on the amount of hours worked. The rest goes back into the business with a percentage donated to other worker co-ops, sustainable agriculture and the community.

What are the upsides and downsides of owner-employees?

The upside is that there is far more accountability amongst staff and a greater sense of accomplishment. Your direct decisions are shaping the store. It’s challenging on the business side, though. It’s like having 70 CEOs. Everyone has an opinion; everyone has an idea.

How does your staff keep up to date on natural and organic food trends?

Our full-time standards co-ordinator presents to the membership regularly, and all new hires go through non- GMO training as well as a nutritional store tour with our head nutritionist. Our department managers love CHFA West and going to Anaheim for Natural Products Expo West.

VIEW: Check out these finds from CHFA East

Who is your store’s typical customer?

Our customers are quite diverse. We’ve got the locals, lots of vegetarians and vegans; the green-movement people come here, as do people with health concerns. In the five years I’ve been here the food-allergy crowd is much higher; I think food-allergy testing is much more common now.

We also have a lot more shoppers with young families. Overall, I’d say more people are conscious of what they’re putting into their bodies.

You have a lot of stock but not much storage space in the store. How do you cope?

We almost keep it all on the shelves. We have a larger staff <175 people> because of our lack of storage space. We don’t do night crews here; we get our deliveries in the middle of the day.

The produce guys probably do 15 to 18 skids of produce a day. It’s our biggest selling department. Those guys are in and out all day; they definitely have a challenging job but they like it. Receiving is like magic.

What issues most concern your customers?

When I started here I rarely got any questions about GMOs. Now, there is growing concern about GMOs in our food supply. As soon as the customer starts asking, we have to start asking.

READ: Is that product ethical? Ask the app

It’s hard enough to make sure GMOs are below 1% in our packaged foods, let alone the animals eating naturally raised meats or antibiotic-free meats. We’ve had success going all-organic in our bulk, deli and produce departments.

Describe the Big Carrot’s charity work?

A percentage of the profit from Carrot Common supports organic agriculture and co-operative businesses. Also, we donate 10% of all profits to charities.

This store donates a large chunk of money to charities. We have a donation committee that administers cash donations to local non-profits. If we found a group doing something helpful, the membership would vote on it.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds