Although Jeff Bessmer has been working on the West Coast prior to taking the helm at GreenStar, he’s not a stranger to the Ithaca institution. In fact, it was love at first sight. “I visited GreenStar for the first time eight or ten years ago. I had a good friend from college who lives here. I went out and visited him and went to his wedding, and that’s the first time I shopped at GreenStar. I was blown away at how beautiful it is, and all the fresh and amazing food, and then also, especially since I’ve moved here, at how much the Ithaca community loves GreenStar and cares about it and its values. It really impresses me. And fresh and delicious food is fun. I really believe we’re in the golden age of food,” Bessmer said.
Bessmer wants to use the co-op as a way to further that golden age by nurturing local artisans and small businesses who want to locate their first store to sell their products. “There’s this glass ceiling for small businesses and producers. So what co-ops do as a medium-sized organization is that someone can walk up to our service desk and say ‘Hey, I’m starting a business making bagels.’ ‘Hey, I’m starting a business making chocolate bars.’ ‘I’m starting a business doing this-or-that.’ And if they meet our product standards, or we’ll help them get to a place to meet our product standards, we’ll stock up their product on our shelves. A lot of these suppliers will use our place as the first spot where they can retail. And what’s really cool about that is that after they’ve sold here for a while, and their product becomes popular, then they can go to larger businesses and say ‘Hey, I sell my stuff at GreenStar, and folks really love it, can I start selling here? So it’s an important step for a lot of small businesses to be successful,” Bessmer said.
Ironically this renewed sense of community involvement means going back to what it means to be a food co-op: a democratically run model that ultimately empowers its consumers. “I’ve worked for 15 years in co-ops. I really believe in the model and I believe in democratically-owned businesses. I believe in returning the profits to our customer members in our community,” Bessmer said.
Anyone can shop at GreenStar, not just its 12,000 members. Members get perks like discounts, but they also get equity in the co-op. GreenStar’s profits are both invested back into the store and given as cash-back in the form of patronage refunds annually. To become a member, you just have to pay a $90 equity share. This can be done in one payment, or in $10 or $5 installments. If you ever change your mind, you can even withdraw your membership from the Co-op, and choose to have your equity refunded to you or donated back into GreenStar. This model allows money to circulate within the Ithaca community, as opposed to funds going to larger entities outside of the city.
This return to GreenStar’s core mission comes after the extraordinary growth that took place under the prior general manager, Brandon Kane. Kane had served as GreenStar’s GM for over a decade. He had more than doubled GreenStar’s sales, from $10M to $26M. Part of this financial boom resulted from rebranding GreenStar as a local food store that tends to the needs of everyone in a community, as opposed to being a specialty organic health produce and product shop. Kane also expanded the store and created The Space, GreenStar’s event space that hosts GreenStar meetings and community events. He had also created food accessibility programs, such as BASICS and Fresh, Local & Organic Within Everyone’s Reach (FLOWER). Kane’s decision to leave GreenStar was the result of wanting to focus on personal pursuits.
GreenStar had a grand opening of their Cascadilla Street store in May 2020. It was a heavy investment, both in the construction and supplying of the store. Many employees were also hired. But the pandemic hit GreenStar’s economy hard, resulting in heavy losses and the elimination of many of the store’s community programs. Currently, the co-op is catching-up on these losses.
“We’ve spent the last two years working through the pandemic. Unfortunately, we’ve had to be focused on the present, rather than future planning. We’re still trying to figure out what things are going to look like for the next couple of years and we’re going back to reframing our priorities,” Pat Sewell, Chair of the Governance Committee, said.
For Bessmer, the most challenging part of being a General Manager is triaging his tasks. “I would say prioritizing is the most challenging thing just because this is such a great organization that has so much impact on the community. It’s tough to prioritize what to focus energy on first, and I think anyone who’s a manager knows that throughout your day you’re saying ‘okay, I could spend the next ten minutes doing this, or the next ten minutes doing that,’ and you have to make a decision,” Bessmer said.
On the other hand, his favorite aspect of the job is the community he works with. “Things I enjoy the most are working with the amazing staff we have here, working with the amazing members of our household, our members we meet on the sales part every day are so committed and passionate about this community and being successful. It’s really rejuvenating every day, and just working with these folks is a real privilege,” Bessmer said.
Overall, Bessmer is enthusiastic to continue to grow GreenStar’s influence on the Ithaca community and encourages buyers to check out all three stores: The large Cascadilla Street store and the more intimate Collegetown and downtown Dewitt locations. Each GreenStar features products exclusive to the store, and they also have their own distinctive vibe.