#39. Sheila Conboy
Sheila Conboy is the General Manager/Project Manager at the brand new East Aurora Cooperative Market. Sheila grew up the youngest of eight in the Kenmore area. She moved away for a while and returned from Washington state with her husband and settled into the southtowns. They soon discovered that they really loved East Aurora and as their family began to grow, they ended up building a house in the village. Sheila, a former nurse practitioner and her husband have three daughters.
How did the idea of the Co-op come about?
“When #3 came along, we put the brakes on my career as a nurse practitioner and I stayed home to take care of them full time. As they began to grow, I started to think about some things I thought would be neat to get involved in. I was always a food lover and had met a friend of mine at a kid’s activity in East Aurora. At the time, we didn’t know each other well, and we’d always start talking about food. We both recognized that we had a big interest in that and we both wanted to have something a little closer to us, where we enjoyed the atmosphere. We thought that it would be great if we could capitalize on the local agriculture around East Aurora. We’re surrounded by it. I don’t think that we are tapping into it’s potential. There are all of these large farms putting smaller farms out of business. We thought that having a local grocery store would be a great thing, so we started looking into it. There were times when we had to take a step back because of family or other things, but one day I googled “how to start a coop”. I wanted to see how hard it would be. We were at the really successful Lexington Coop, and we wanted to look into what it would take to bring that to East Aurora. At that time, Main Street in East Aurora was under a major reconstruction. A lot of businesses unfortunately didn’t survive that. I was talking with a group of friends about what would be good to have in East Aurora, and I said, “what about a coop?”. One person in particular really felt strongly about it, because she had shopped at one her whole life. She tipped the scale and we really started to explore this. We went to the Lexington Coop and talked to Tim Bartlett, who grew up here in East Aurora. I knew that he could gauge both the feasibility and the area. He fanned our flame from the get-go, and he’s my mentor now. He always has been my mentor, but even moreso now, because I’m the General Manager, and I didn’t expect to be doing this.”
How did you get started with opening the Co-op?
“It took us six and a half years. It’s been a long haul. It takes a co-op 3 to 5 years to open and it takes an enormous amount of community commitment and interest. If we were an independently owned grocery store, I don’t think this would have happened. I don’t think that we would have the community buy-in that we needed – both for their passion for food, and their passion for wanting to be a part of a bigger thing. My friend and I likened it to a pregnancy. You can’t get pregnant and have the baby the next day. It takes time. And during that time we built our capacity, our systems, our financial capacity and our talent from the community. We had some loans from local banks and also from co-op oriented lenders, but it was really the community’s commitment when we ran our campaign. Once we announced our site for the coop in 2014, we had $884k come from 800 members of the community. We had the biggest success of a campaign that the co-op community has ever seen as a startup. That was great, and we’re still continuing to solicit funds. We have until the end of June with New York State to gather funds. That’s going to be really important to us. While we have this great store, and everyone loves it, and are super happy and crazy about it, we also have a challenge ahead of us. Margins in grocery are very slim, and everything is so expensive – our construction, the delays in construction, the cost of our equipment went up during those delays. I worked as a project manager for six and a half years, not being paid. A lot of people have helped us on their own time. For example, the woman who started this with me, Mary is in marketing and she put together our website. She did a lot of design things for us before moving to California. She’s back in town right now and we have her chained to her desk upstairs.”
What were some of the keys to your success so far?
“It’s this community. Buffalo truly is a city of good neighbors. It’s not every man for himself. You see people walking around and engaging with other people, even when they don’t know them that well. Western New York in general is like that. I think that’s why Lexington is so successful. It’s that kind of lifestyle that allowed us to have the resources to be able to do this. That comes largely from our members who made member loans and bought preferred shares, in addition to their member equity. That made all the difference to us. We wouldn’t have gotten bank loans without that. We don’t have collateral, we don’t own this building.”
“This whole thing has been built on a vision that we had to paint for every person that was willing to invest in this. Then they had to buy in to such an extent that they painted that picture to their friends and family, the people they talked to. We had to reinforce that, and re-reinforce it over a number of years. We had such great talent in this community with our marketing to be able to do that. I have a true respect for that. As a nurse practitioner, I had no exposure to that. You need a community that is willing to do things, not necessarily for monetary compensation, but because they believe in it.”
“I’ve met a lot of people since this began. It’s one of my favorite things about this is that it took this long. We had all of these volunteers helping throughout the project, who met each other, and you saw all of these relationships form. You see them talking to one another and becoming great friends. There are so many instances of that happening over the past 6 and a half years – that’s the foundation of this whole thing.”
What is the vision of the co-op?
“It’s this whole building. It’s walking in and seeing a really robust produce department, and you know that a lot of that is coming from local farmers, and they’re our friends. It’s going into the deli and having homemade soups, salads and sandwiches and knowing that is going to grow and be even greater. This is the place where people are meeting their friends. We were told that we could maximize our local farmers’ growing potential if we could just create the demand. That’s what we are doing now. We’re creating that demand. We’re getting calls from farmers who put their food in Lexington who want to put their food in ours. To me, that’s what makes a community strong. When you have that, everything else grows from there. The way your kids are. The kind of health your family has. But, not just from a physical standpoint, but also from a mental standpoint. That’s where you build standards that people will want to see, kids will want to grow up with, and want that for their own families. Co-ops have seven principles, one of which is community education. We’re excited because we’re going to have cooking and dietary classes. It’s things like that, but there is going to be a ripple effect that we will never even be able to quantify. I was surprised to see over the past couple of days, kids coming in here. I love it! I see them come in and leaving with healthy stuff, and I am so happy about that.”
What is your greatest area of need?
“We’re a small business, and we have spent a lot of money on a building that is 100 years old. We encountered a lot of things that needed to be fixed during the construction. You always go into projects with a budget, but right now, what we are experiencing, and what a lot of other small businesses come up against is cash flow. We have an opportunity to build our cash flow and our ability to restock our shelves. We are trying to raise $200,000 by the end of June in order to build that capital that we need for day-to-day operations.”
“For example, I had a chef come to me and tell me that they have their employees doing dishes for five hours a day. If they could just have someone to do dishes, it would make their time more efficient and they could be making food instead of washing dishes. When I look at things from that perspective, I think that I really need to make that happen. We are seeing inventory go off of our shelves, and we need to be able to build that back up again. When people walk in here, we want them to see full shelves, see happy people and be psyched to shop. We are looking for member loans right now. We are offering a loan opportunity, with an interest rate that is better than a lot of banks. It’s an opportunity that can really help your community thrive. We are also offering preferred shares. You can buy 100 shares for $1000 and you would get that paid back over time as well. It’s a really necessary thing. When bigger lenders see commitment from the community, it allows them to make a decision to give us a loan.”
What would you tell a younger version of yourself?
“Have a lot of patience. Keep believing. This is going to be great.”
How Can You Support the East Aurora Cooperative Market?
- Alix Martin from Red Fish Gallery
- Jill Chiacchia from the Be Healthy Institute
- Shelby Deck from Stitch Buffalo