Grocery Co-op Manager's meet up for store tours.

By Guy Gregory
MCDC Communications Specialist

Last year, the Montana Cooperative Development Center established a training support network for general managers of start-up and fledgling grocery cooperatives across north central Montana. Called the “Rural Grocery Co-op Managers’ Network”, the group is supported by a generous, $16,500 grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), based in Washington, D.C. 

In March, members of the Rural Grocery Co-op Managers Network and MCDC staff toured Big Flat Grocery in the small Northern Montana community of Turner.

Pictured from left to right are Big Flat Grocery Manager Linda Hutton, Fresh Start Cooperative General Manager Beth Lewis, and MCDC Program Director Marilyn Besich.

Managers from Montana’s Rural Grocery Co-op Managers’ Network hosted their second small grocery co-op tour.  Fresh Start Cooperative General Manager Beth Lewis made the 464-mile round-trip from her store in Geraldine to be part of the event.  She traveled with staff from the Montana Cooperative Development Center to two other small towns remotely located along Montana’s “High-Line”. 

Managers first visited Big Flat Grocery in Turner, an unincorporated community of 61 people in Blaine County, not far from the Canadian border.  Lewis and staff discussed the operations of the small grocery co-op that has successfully served the people of Turner for over 5 years.  Big Flat Grocery General Manager Linda Hutton explained how distribution is one of the major challenges in keeping her co-op’s shelves fully stocked with a diverse range of products.

Red Paint Creek Trading Post & Pantry (Lodge Pole) is one of four small cooperatives that belong to Montana’s Rural Grocery Co-op Managers Network.

The network of managers all seem to agree that living in small towns across the frontier severely limit their options of distributors.

After comparing notes on store layouts, the managers got back on the highway and took over an hour and half drive south to Lodge Pole, a town of 265 people living on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.  They visited Red Paint Creek Trading Post & Pantry, one of Montana’s newest rural grocery co-ops.  The co-op first opened its doors for business in June 2018.  The store has managed to keep its shelves regularly well stocked with a variety of products despite the challenges of working with a limited number of distributors.

Members of Montana’s Rural Grocery Co-op Managers Network drove hundreds of miles to tour two different stores. One leg of the trip included over an hour and half drive from Turner to Lodge Pole, a town of 265 people living on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

In addition to the co-op tours, managers have met three times for training and to compare notes on the challenges of operating their small stores.  “If one of us is having an issue, we can learn from the other managers on how to solve the issue,” says Fresh Start Co-op General Manager Beth Lewis.  Fresh Start first opened for business in 2017.  She explained that belonging to the network enables her to “learn how the others manage their stores” and added, “So far, our meetings have generated many new ideas.  These training sessions have helped me better understand the financial part of running the co-op business”. 

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