A place to sprout?

Posted by: | February 23, 2008 | 8 Comments

About 20 students crowd sociably around tables cradling bowls of vegetable soup and mugs of coffee in mismatched dishes. Others wander in empty handed and leave munching apples or organic chocolate. Two people behind the counter cut thick slices of bread and open jars full of brownies and muffins which they hand over on plates, taking coins in return. Some music plays in the background and people read campus newspapers or talk to their table-mate (who they probably just met) while they eat. This is Sprouts, the cafe/grocery which is run by the Natural Food Coop, an AMS club, at a typical lunch-time. Sprouts, located in the corner of the SUB basement (across from the health and dental plan office and AMS food bank) is bustling with volunteers, great local and organic food, customers, and community this term. Just look in any noon-hour of the week to see for yourself. But it hasn’t always been this way, and it has been a challenging and sometimes turbulent road to get to the yummy, warm and fun space I’ve described. The store, which opened in 2004, at one point lost nearly all of its student involvement, is in 30 000 dollars of debt with the AMS, and came within inches of collapsing, and the club being de-constituted. But as the Natural Food Co-op’s president, Caroline Walker says, this was a project that just was not allowed to fail.

Yesterday I sat down with Caroline, and Martin, the store coordinator (and baker of amazing bread), to learn about the road Sprouts and the Natural Food Co-op club have traversed, and what the outlook is for Sprouts and the club. First, a little history: The Natural Food Co-op started as a group of students that got together to buy organic and local food straight from distributors, to avoid paying boutique prices in ’97. The space they had, in a random nook in the McMillan building (near where the bike coop used to have a space) was slated for renovation in 2003, and they got kicked out. So, the club had to re-envision itself. The idea of having a store came to fruition with the new space the AMS offered them in the SUB. As an AMS club, the space was free, though of course money was spent initially to renovate and prepare the space as a full-service grocery store. Several grants supplied the capital to do this. But, the renovations were over-budget, and so Sprouts started out about 15000 dollars in the red. Nonetheless, the store was launched, selling a wide variety of products from packaged goods and bulk grains to produce. Initially it was run by volunteers who were members of the club, but eventually the club hired staff to run Sprouts most of the time. The store never really made any money, and in fact, continued to go further into debt, as staff costs increased. As this was happening, many of the original natural food coop members graduated, and the club became less and less active. The buying collective stopped, and Sprouts, which was by this time mostly run by staff (and some volunteers), was the only manifestation of the club’s existence. This being the case, maintaining an accountable relationship between the natural food coop board (ie. the club executive), and their hired staff became problematic. By the end of last year things got a bit out of hand. The financial situation was not getting better, with the debt mounting in order to pay staff wages. To compound this, Sprouts was broken into and had a thousand dollars stolen. By last spring, involvement had plummeted, and only two people showed up to the AGM. So, with the board of two, no membership, and a few store staff, an mounting debt, something obviously had to change. Katerina, the store manager at the time, came up with a new business plan that would see Sprouts turning from a grocery store into more of a cafe-style space with lunch items as well as fruits, vegetables, and bulk food. Unfortunately, there was no real plan to implement this, and so few people involved that come September, the store feebly re-opened and then closed again within the first few weeks of the term.

The story takes various more twists and turns (including a deportation, crazy personality conflicts, a change in vision, and a change in leadership), until things started looking up. Over the fall term, the AMS executive and staff helped Caroline and the few involved people put together weekly implementation plans, start understanding the finances of the situation, apply for grants to re-organize the space again, figure out a new menu, and learn all the mechanistic details of running a cafe from foodsafe certification to accounting. A club board was scraped together, and over the winter break, they re-wrote and updated the club constitution to contain concrete position descriptions, learned about volunteer coordination from the sustainability office, and completely overhauled the space to put in seating, new paint, different kitchen equipment, and a new flow. During the process of restructuring and rebuilding, it became obvious that it was financially impossible to have paid staff. Sprouts is now a 100% volunteer-run initiative.

When they opened up again this term, things started looking up. First, Sprouts is busy again. The buying co-op is up and running again for club members. Volunteers started materializing out of the ether to help with the daily baking and soup-cooking. The AMS executive and staff continued to be unrelentingly supportive. Community Eats partnered with Sprouts to bring students a free vegan lunch bi-weekly. The club has a functional executive board, and their new constitution recently passed through SAC. Also, without the cost of staff, and the higher turnover in sales, Sprouts is making money now. They’re working on a memorandum of understanding with the AMS containing a re-payment plan which will see it get out of debt over the course of several years. There’s even music jam sessions at Sprouts once in a while, coordinated with the club’s new social coordinator and the indefatigable JAM superstar Rodrigo Ferrari Nunes. And most importantly, it’s just an awesome spot to hang out and feel at home. The tastiness, affordability (1.50 for a perfect breakfast of coffee and thick slice of home-baked bread and butter?? amazing!) and social aspect of Sprouts are all things that only come about from the connectedness and ownership that comes along with a group of dedicated students creating a place they themselves really like and really believe in.

Caroline: “we’ve been really sensitive to how people use the space – the space is now more engaging. You usually have to sit with someone, since there’s only a few tables, and no to-go containers… the outreach isn’t as explicit now, but it’s more effective. Being volunteer run, we also feel like we can be more idealistic with what we’re doing, and fulfill our mandate better, with minimally packaged, locally sourced food.”

To me the story of Sprouts (it’s fall and rise) shows that student-run business is possible and incredibly valuable, when done right. Few other things can be so exciting and fulfilling and trully meet the needs of students so well. This example also proves how the AMS can be incredibly supportive to actually make such initiatives work – this project would have been impossible without the almost ridiculous support the AMS has given – financially, with its leadership, with its staff, space, and expertise. All for a good idea – which is of course, how it should be. The AMS sould look at incorporating more space for student-run business into the SUB renew program. The kind of support shown for Sprouts is a one-off in a way, due to the extreme screw-uppedness the place had gone through, but it can also serve as a model for many more businesses. Student businesses, supported by the AMS, could end up being an incredible service for students. So anyway, go take a peek, if you haven
‘t already. Slip into the yellow diner nook with a brownie, strike up a conversation, and life is good.

Sprouts web page


8 Comments so far

  1. Gina Eom on February 23, 2008 9:03 am

    this was written by maayan; pas moi

  2. Caroline on February 23, 2008 10:17 pm

    I just want to be sure that credit is given where credit is due: Heather Russell, now the Kitchen Coordinator on the board, has been absolutely instrumental in Sprouts coming to life. Without each other being totally committed and present, I don’t think that we would’ve had the motivation to get through last semester or come in almost everyday over the Christmas break to renovate the space. Other notable individuals deserving of 5 gold stars: Luisa Muenter, Nicole Ondre (without whom the space would not look nearly as lovely), Bob Uppal, Karen Ko, Ann-Scarlett Cooper, Natalie Forssman, Alex Dadzis, Dawn Brinkman, Peter Carbonetto, Martin Gunst, Tristan Banwell, Caitlin Dorward, Elana Cossever, Terra Kaethler, Alice Miro, Brenda Sawada and of course all of our great volunteers.

  3. Anonymous on February 23, 2008 10:20 pm

    Thanks for this article! Would you guys provide us some info on how to join the AMS Sprouts club?

  4. maayan on February 24, 2008 1:01 am

    Take a look at the linked website, or just drop by.

  5. Anonymous on February 24, 2008 2:11 am

    This article was good, but it failed to convince me why the AMS should have a club like Sprouts. I just fail to see its importance, especially when it is in the SUB taking space away from other clubs who are well deserving of office space/storage areas. I think it was an absolute travesty that the space was allowed to languish unused for so long.

    I appreciate what they’re trying to do, but I’m just not sure that it’s appropriate for the SUB. I would rather have more spaces for clubs and other student projects. I would also axe the “interfaculty publishing office” (NOBODY ever uses it!) as well as the massive copier room that is barely used as well.

  6. Anonymous on February 24, 2008 2:12 am

    Thanks for doing a story on Sprouts!

    It’s been such a pleasure and inspiration to work with this unbelievably dedicated team over the past year. Sprouts has gone through an incredible transfomation and it’s important that we recognize the unfailing work and contributions of Caroline, Heather, and the entire gang.

    Keep up the good work!

    Britt (VP Finance)

  7. ainge on February 27, 2008 4:58 pm

    i was wondering how you got to sprouts for lunch this week, gina.

  8. Marina on April 1, 2008 6:57 pm

    I appreciate a lot to see this article on Sprouts. Let’s spread the word about it.
    I’m glad to be able to do a little part volunteering and look forward to be back next fall.

    It’s all Full of Life and Peace.


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