An Interview with Gordon Edgar
[Editor's note: Gordon Edgar is a long time worker-owner at San Francisco's Rainbow Grocery. He is also the author of two books, Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese and Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge. He occasionally blogs on his website, gordonzola.net]
Josh Davis: So if you could start out, maybe just introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you got involved with Rainbow Grocery Co-op to start out with. What what led you to the co-op lifestyle?
Gordon Edgar: Sure. My name is Gordon Edgar. I've actually been at Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco for 26 years now. And it's hard to remember how I started originally. I had shopped at Rainbow Grocery for years before I worked there. And I just really wanted to be part of that kind of large scale experiment in workplace democracy. And the the opening just happened to be the cheese department. And I've been in the cheese department ever since.
Josh Davis: So you weren't you weren't a cheese-head before you got involved with the with the co-op?
Gordon Edgar: Cheese-heads didn't really exist, except for maybe in Wisconsin. And that may be a whole other topic of conversation. But yeah, I took to cheese. Cheese has really changed in my 26 years.
Josh Davis: So I guess the the obvious question at this point is how the co-op has been responding to the pandemic, and how it's affected life at the co-op?
Gordon Edgar: Well I kind of like, when people asked me about this - well, I don't like to say - but I think the most descriptive answer is really it's like someone came and sucked all the fun out of the job.
I mean, all the work is still there. All the organizing is still there. But a lot of the things that are enjoyable about it - I love my job day to day - a lot of things that are really enjoyable about it are just really not there. And we're kind of bearing down and trying to get through this time period. You know, pretty much everything has changed. It's kind of funny. I'm on a committee at Rainbow, that's the Executive Committee for COVID-19 Response, because in typical co-op fashion we needed a committee with a long name. And I was on that because I've worked with food safety. I was the former food safety manager for the store and all that kind of stuff.
The first time we met, we sat around, and I had been contacting, because of my cheese background, I've been contacting Italians, you know, because obviously they were going through stuff before we were. And I was contacting people there like, "well, what what's going on? What's going on with grocery stores? I know they're open." And so we're starting to get information. And I presented it at a meeting and we were all just like, "oh my god, that'll never happen here. People are never going to stand six feet apart. People are never going to limit the amount of people in the store. People are never going to wear masks."
And, you know, very quickly all those things we developed plans for and they all became something that was just part of everyday life, at least in San Francisco. You know, I can only speak for San Francisco here, but we were one of the first counties that really locked down. And so we did a lot of this before a lot of other people I know - who I know through grocery, or co-ops, or for cheese - did. And you know, it seems like it's been really effective, but it was a lot of work. I mean, there's a lot of details that I'm leaving out in this grand picture, but that's that's the general gist of it. And, you know, we're in the process now of talking to the city about ways we can safely reopen parts of our store. San Francisco shut down all bulk, for instance: all bulk food, all bulk herbs, even gravity bins, which in most places are legal. So some of what we're doing now is trying to talk to the city and see, like, "ok, well, what can we do to reopen these parts of the store that people miss?"
Josh Davis: And if you don't mind me asking, how has the business been affected as far as sales and stuff? Are you guys doing as much business as before or a lot less?
Gordon Edgar: There's two major changes, I would say. The first is, yeah business is down. At least at first, you know. And it's funny because everybody assumed, I mean my casual friends, not people in the food business, were like, "oh, you guys must be making bank."
You know, "there's no restaurants. You guys are the only thing open right now for the first six weeks of this." But, you know, the fact is there were a couple of reasons we weren't. One is that we had limited hours at the suggestion of the city. So we had cut three hours off of our work day. And we also had to create a bunch of new shifts. I mean, we needed by law, but also by what we wanted to do - we actually enacted this before the city - we needed somebody in the front monitoring customers. We needed a new person cleaning carts. And for a long time, we were having a third person just helping direct people into the store and explaining things to them, because it was all so new. That we've been able to relax a little bit. And then a fourth position, which instead of having everybody line up in lines, we created one line, and we have a person who kind of directs traffic to different registers so that each register could be cleaned after each customer. All that stuff. I mean, you know, if you're a co-op person, you're sitting here thinking, "wow, that's a lot of labor." And it is a lot of labor.
So those two aspects definitely are playing into the fact that our sales are down. Plus, as I mentioned before, the bulk department is not open. That was a huge part of our sales. And lastly, I'd say that the biggest other change is how many people are using third party apps to get their groceries. We have a contract with Instacart, which, you know, let's be honest - I mean, before this stuff, it was a significant part of our business, but it wasn't a big part of our business. And, you know, the numbers on that have been like 10 times more people now are using online ordering than they were before. And that costs us money. I mean, I'd be straight up but I think I'm actually forbidden to discuss the actual terms of this, at least in public. But it costs us more than if a customer comes in and buys something. You know, because if we go through Instacart, obviously there's a fee there. So all those things are affecting us.
And, you know, but we're also just happy to be working and we're happy we have our jobs. We haven't laid anybody off. We've definitely given people leaves who didn't want to work, or who couldn't work, or who needed to care for others, or it just felt unsafe in the workplace. But we haven't laid anybody off. And, you know, we're moving on. It won't be the most profitable year, but, you know, we're here. So that's all good.
Josh Davis: So, on to the second big thing that's going on all over right now, with all of the protests against police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. Has that affected your your operations in any way at the co-op or have you guys done anything to be involved with that in any way? Or is it just something that's going on around you?
Gordon Edgar: I think that there's there's two different ways to look at at it. And I think, number one, as a store and as workers we're all super excited about the movement. We're all really happy that this is happening. We obviously are not happy about why it's happening. But in terms of a political protest movement, I mean, it's a really exciting time period and we're all hoping that we're building from here.
I think that these times are always a good time to evaluate your own process, and in-store how you do things. And, we formed - you know, in typical co-op fashion - we formed a committee, that has now changed its name to the Uprising Committee, that is both looking at things externally, like how we can support the movements, and also internally about what we can do. It's actually ironic because another co-op that's called AORTA we had just hired to do kind of an internal - I don't know if audit is right word - but an internal audit of our practices, not just around race, but around other things. And that was scheduled to start in March and of course, had to be postponed. So when things get back to normal that will also happen and we're committed to doing that.
Josh Davis: So, relatively speaking anyway, there are a lot of worker co-ops in the Bay Area, has there been any discussion between worker co-ops about working together, any kind of inter-cooperation going on right now? I mean, more than normal.
Gordon Edgar: You know, in some ways I wish there would be more. But we've been working with Other Avenues Co-op out here too, with the city in order to get the bulk back.
If we're talking about grocery operations and things like that, I mean honestly we have been so exhausted and busy just trying to keep the store open. I mean, this is where we always fall down, right? You know, this is one of those things that it's kind of all hands on deck to keep the store running, to make all these new policies, to educate ourselves and our customers about these new policies, and our vendors. You know, there's so much do. The idea of also reaching out and trying to schedule meetings with people who are just as busy is really hard.
But like I said, we've been working with Other Avenues around specific issues. But in general, we haven't. I see e-mails come in on my co-op kind of feeds. And I have to say most of the time I "like" the letter and then I'll forget about it. You know, it's calmed down a little bit. I mean, at first, especially being on this committee, I was working 60 hours a week because a number of people were like, "I can't be here." And then other people had to step up and then we had to figure out all these new things. Now they've become more systematic, they're more shift based. We know what people are doing when they're doing it, how they're signing up, how long they're gonna be working the front door or whatever it is. So things have calmed down a little bit.
Now, I can kind of get out from the whole, like look around a little bit, you know, and see where can we help each other? But I have to say, you know, we've been too internally focused to do anything else.
Josh Davis: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Not surprising. I know it's maybe a silly question I maybe shouldn't be asking about, but how do you foresee this going? You know, the current situation, especially with the pandemic having long term effects on how you guys operate, or are you just kind of thinking, get through it and go back to normal at some point?
Gordon Edgar: Well, you know, on some level, this question so far out of our hands, you know. But, in terms of planning, yeah, we're thinking about it more long term and short term. We weren't at first. I mean, the first two months were like, "what do we need to do today?" The committee I was on literally met seven days a week, you know - and not every person was there every day - but every day at one o'clock, there was a meeting with at least five people to work on whatever we needed to do. So, you know, with that kind of thing, you're not thinking long term, we're just thinking "get to next week." But, yeah, on our minds I think right now is the holiday food season. With metering and customers in the store, you know, only allowing a certain number of customers in, all that kind of stuff we don't really know how we're gonna handle the food holidays. We've got to figure that out. You know, some of those days are like double what our normal days would be in a normal year.
Right now we did the same amount of business pretty much every day. We extended back to our regular hours and now we don't have lines. But for a long time it was an hour long wait to get in the store, and customers were putting up with it. I mean, they wanted to come in, honestly, at that point. They didn't have much else to do. But but it was crazy as we looked at our daily sales and everyday was pretty much exactly the same within five or ten thousand dollars. And it's just like, "yeah, this is what happens when you only allow X number of people into the store." So like I said, now that we're back to regular hours, things have - you know, there's days when actually we're, "oh, look, it's a little empty in the store," but I don't know what's gonna happen to the food holidays. That's what we've got to figure out next.
And then thinking to beyond I mean, I am very glad I live in San Francisco because of the city's response to this. But I also think that the city might be the last city to undo some of the the the public safety orders that they've put in. So, you know, I can't imagine we won't be metering customers until 2021. I mean, I just can't. I really would have a hard time seeing that. I'd love to be surprised.
Josh Davis: Well, let's hope so. I guess that's pretty much the extent of my questions for you. If there's anything that you would like to convey to the larger co-op movement or any message you want to send or any thoughts you know, go for it.
Gordon Edgar: It's funny. I felt like I had a lot of things to say in the first two months of the pandemic because I was out there working. We were out there working and a lot other people weren't, even other co-ops. And I felt like I had a lot of things say, but I feel like we all kind of know what's gone on and we've got to get through it. And I think that now is the time we start utilizing the cooperative nature among us, utilizing it ourselves for what we need. I'm not sure what we need. I'm not sure what other places need. I'm not sure how we can help each other. And I think sometimes that keeps us from talking.
You know, I don't know. Maybe you have a great idea, that's something that would really help us right now. Or maybe if you tell me about your problem, I can think of something. But I think that those are the kinds of things that we need to start developing in earnest now that we're - I don't wanna say over the crisis, because obviously there's so many things going on, and so many different places are different terms of this response. But in terms of how are we gonna get through the next year? And, you know, it's going to be a challenge for all of us.
I feel like we're in a really lucky place compared to a lot of other places that I know. So I'm not going to complain about our year. A lot of places I know, a lot of other co-ops here had to shut down for the duration. Some are opening back up, but it's really tough. We actually tried to talk to some people informally when everything was crazy about hiring and bringing on people from other co-ops into our co-op. But for a variety reasons, it didn't really happen. That would be something that would be worth, I think, exploring. A temporary loan of co-op workers in times of crises. I think that could be really interesting.
But for some people, since their kids were out of school - school's canceled, so kids were out of school - and they're like, "well, now I can't go to work." You know, it's like issues like that really came up and made that a harder thing than it seemed like it would be.
But the last thing I'll say is, you know, in the letter that I just sent to the city about about some regulation stuff, I was just begging them to tell us "what do you want?" You know, "tell us your reasoning for doing these things and we'll adapt and come up with something. We're cooperatives, we cooperate." Bottom line, our letter from us and Other Avenues, "we cooperate, just let us know what we need to do." And I think that that kind of open attitude is what we all need right now.
Josh Davis: Yeah, I really like that idea of shifting workers around between co-ops, and stuff like that. But it's a bit of a conundrum, I guess, for what it looks like in practice, and actually making it happen while everybody is kind of in crisis mode, right?
Gordon Edgar: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I think it could be interesting and that could be a good subject of discussion of like, how could this kind of thing happen for the next crisis, whatever the next crisis may be? Because, you know, in the moment it was just too many obstacles. I've got to deal with getting our store open and getting product on the shelf that we can't get. All those things like, "oh, the city banned reusable bags." All of a sudden we need four times as many grocery bags and our supplier doesn't have them. Those are the issues that we were kind of dealing with. So then going in and trying to work out details of something else is hard. But, you know, I think it's a good subject to talk about, the whole subject of how co-ops could help each other in times of crisis like this. You know, it's fresh in our minds right now. So this would be a great time to have discussion around other things, especially for a place like GEO.
Josh Davis: Yeah, well, that's what I'm thinking. Maybe we might be a good platform for people to discuss these things, or maybe we have some kind of online meeting just for people to get together and throw around ideas or try to coordinate some of this sort of stuff.
Gordon Edgar: I think it's really interesting too, these grassroots mutual aid organizations that have popped up all over our area, even sometimes neighborhood by neighborhood. And it was just these folks shopping for high risk individuals, or seniors or whatever. These are all what I think of as like co-op people. They're all trying to cooperate and help each other do mutual aid, you know, and that's the kind of example that I think is great. And while it's not part of the cooperative movement, per se, it's certainly our same goals. How could we hook up with that in better ways, more efficient ways? I’ve got a lot of ideas. We could talk for hours
This interview has been lightly edited for length and readability.
GEO Collective (2020). Cooperating Through Crisis: An Interview with Gordon Edgar. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/articles/cooperating-through-crisis