There may be a crisis at the co-op. Just beyond the organic bubble gum and free-range tofu is a schism that question’s everything from Ever’man Natural Food’s planned expansion to the company’s core values.
Employees have walked out. Board members have quit. An opposition group commandeered a recent co-op meeting for three-hours.
“This was truly historic,” said Christian Wagley.
Wagley is a soft-spoken foodie who perpetually looks as if he’s hiking a lush Oregon forest. Up until last year, he was the produce manager at Ever’man.
“I had no other job lined up, but I did not want to work there anymore,” he said. “It increasingly did not reflect my values.”
Squinting as the sun hit him through the front window of End of the Line Cafe, Wagley sipped his morning coffee and discussed Pensacola’s natural food store. He’s very passionate about the co-op.
“We look at Ever’man as the way the world should be,” Wagley explains.
Ever’man Natural Foods sprouted up in the early 1970s. Initially run out of Unity Church in Gulf Breeze, the operation moved to a 12th Avenue location in Pensacola by 1973. In 1991, Ever’man again relocated to the Quonset hut on 9th Avenue.
As a cooperative—or, co-op—the store is run by members and a board of directors, which are voted on by the members. Anyone can purchase a membership for $12 a year and any member can run for a board seat.
“It’s absolutely a more democratic model,” Wagley said.
Recently, a segment of Ever’man’s membership has attempted to exercise its democratic muscle in an effort to steer the store off a course it views as out of line with the co-op’s original mission. The group has taken the name Ever’man United and thrown up a Facebook page.
“Finally, people said ‘enough,’” Wagley said.
By Wagley’s account, things started heading south at Ever’man when the store relocated to its current Garden Street location in 1999. More prepackaged products hit the shelves and the institution began to lose some of its crunchy granola vibe.
More recently, the store has spent around $800,000 purchasing nearby properties in preparation for a planned $2.5 million expansion. It would be a reasonable tact for any commercially minded entity in light of growth in the natural food industry over the past decade—and with the larger, more corporate Fresh Market moving into the new development near the airport.
“There’s been this undercurrent that’s been growing for a while,” Wagley said, explaining that he feels the store has begun focusing more on profits and growth and less on its members.
Recently, the situation boiled over during the course of an election for new board members. At the end of a contentious campaign—the opposition camp was running two candidates—three employees quit, contending that the election process had not been conducted properly and that the work environment had become unbearable.
“It was so bad, they literally taped their keys to their desks and sent their resignations by e-mail and walked away from the jobs that they loved,” Wagley said,
Last summer, those two employees held another meeting at the End of the Line Cafe. Ellie Barnes and Sandy Gazdyszyn met with Lauren Southern-Godwin, the current president of the co-op’s board of directors at the vegan eatery beside the railroad tracks. The employees had requested to speak with the board president away from the store, apparently fearing reprisal from the general manager.
The pair expressed concern about the treatment of employees, the expansion plans and the management style of General Manager William Rolfs.
“Here we sit, the following year, after many good people have left the co-op …” Gazdyszyn writes a few pages into her 23-page manifesto detailing her views on the current state of things at the natural food store.
Gazdyszyn—who until last month worked as Ever’man’s financial manager—said that she’s been having problems with Rolfs ever since she expressed her concern to the board of directors that the general manager’s expansion ambitions might not be completely realistic from a financial standpoint—“the expansion plan really is a little too grandiose.”
“The GM wasn’t very happy with me after that,” she said.
The subject of the general manager comes up a lot in the Ever’man United camp. The group feels that Rolfs, and the last couple of GMs before him, have not embodied the co-op’s values.
Before coming to work at Ever’man, Rolfs was a longtime Winn-Dixie employee. Critics charge that he runs the natural food store like a box-store supermarket, not a neighborhood co-op—plus, he reportedly takes his lunches at Whataburger.
Wagley contends that Rolf’s corporate background doesn’t jive with the co-op’s mission—and that installing such general managers leads to an eventual transition in the store. Case in point: Wagley’s position heading up the produce department recently went to another 30-year Winn-Dixie employee.
“You tend to hire people like yourself,” Wagley said.
Calls to Rolfs were not returned. His contract is up for review soon, and the Ever’man United camp has called for his head—sort of. Among a list of requests that the group has presented to the board, is that Rolfs be reassigned from GM to store manager, with no hiring or firing capabilities.
Ever’man United’s other requests include halting the expansion plans, dropping the Carver Policy Governance model in favor of a more employee-driven model and cutting loose a consulting firm, as well as Landrum Professional, which is currently used as a third-party HR department.
Southern-Godwin said in an e-mail statement that the Ever’man Board of Directors had temporarily halted expansion plans and were “reconsidering our options.”
“Yes, we had a crowd at the last board meeting,” she said in the statement. “We as a board are working diligently to represent Ever’man as a whole.”
She invited members to the board’s next meeting March 26, and said the store is conducting a member survey. Ever’man has 10,500 members.
Southern-Godwin also addressed concerns that there had been improprieties during the recent board election. Both Barnes and Gazdyszyn contend that there was an attempt to ensure that United candidates—one of which, Frankie Cruz, eventually won—were not seated. There have also been accusations that some employees stuffed the ballot boxes via last-minute family memberships.
“There are a lot of rumors circulating about the election,” she said in the statement. “And we have not been able to substantiate that anything improper occurred.”
In Ever’man’s most recent newsletter, the board president addresses concerns over the store’s direction: “Fundamentally, the cooperative model is an economic model, and this fact is quite often forgotten. I am not supporting that our co-op only focus on the bottom line, but pointing out that we need the door to stay open so that we can achieve bigger and better things in our community and make changes based on member suggestions.”
Wagley said that he considers the halt of expansion plans—at least for now—to be a victory of sorts.
“Oh, yes, absolutely,” he said. “At least in terms of ‘let’s stop and think about it.’”