Our Table Cooperative founder says it's relationships that make the business a success
Five years after Our Table Cooperative grocery store opened, Narendra Varma, the cooperative's founder and executive director, has found that having support from the community means everything.
"I think people kind of feel a sense of pride here," Varma said of the community that has supported the rural Sherwood store over the years, a store featuring more than 80 percent of Oregon-made or -produced products.
"We're selling everything off our own farm and also 12 other food businesses in our cooperative," said Varma, a former Microsoft employee who, along with his wife Machelle, purchased the farm cooperative at 13390 S.W. Morgan Road in 2011. "We're carrying basically a little of everything."
The store features an entryway complete with a 30-foot-tall vaulted ceiling with timbers coming from an old dairy barn. That same wood was also used as part of the store's exterior siding.
While small farms have always had a rough row to hoe — so to speak — Varma has discovered over the years just how important connections and relationships with customers have been for the store.
"And the food just acts as a glue," he pointed out.
Varma gives much of the credit for the store's success to the fact it's owner-run and the decisions are made by themselves and the businesses and the customers.
Currently, there are 400 owners in the cooperative, 70 percent of whom have Sherwood or Wilsonville ZIP codes.
Just outside the store are 58 acres of land where Our Table grows its organic crops.
"We grow vegetables; we grow berries," said Varma. Those include strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, the latter being the berry the farm is best-known for producing.
The farm has 10 greenhouses, which are currently growing fresh salad mixes (including tender baby greens) and root vegetables. The produce that isn't used onsite is sold to local restaurants and grocery stores, Varma said.
Recently, the cooperative built a children's playground near those greenhouses with pieces of large trees used for equipment. (There's no plastic equipment here, Varma pointed out, noting the natural wood keeps in line with the cooperative's natural values.) Next to it is an educational garden where Varma said area school students often come as part of an academic study program.
"That's been a really cool program," Varma said. "It's fully integrated with their science curriculum."
The cooperative also features fresh farm-to-table dinners four to five times a year, attracting up to 130 people to the outside events featuring local products. There are several dinners during the winter as well; moved inside, of course.
Back inside, the grocery store includes a fresh deli — food is prepared in an on-site industrial kitchen complete with its own chief — which is currently featuring holiday side dishes as well as homemade desserts and pies.
One of the popular items at the moment is a turkey pot pie — and not those tiny frozen ones found in grocery frozen food sections — but serious, full-size affairs that will feed a family of four.
There's also a twist on traditional muffins with the deli cooking up meatloaf muffins.
"It's super nice for a kid to take to school," Varma pointed out.
Also featured is beer, wine and kombucha (a fermented tea drink), all on tap.
While there is a Friday Happy Hour year-round, Varma said it's the summertime one that have proved "insanely popular," complete with wood-fire pizza.
Meanwhile, Varma said he takes customer feedback on the food and products they sell seriously.
"We're small," he said. "We have to take it to heart."
Five years after opening, the store boasts a total of 22 full- and part-time employees.
"We're employing a great number of people," he said.
And the community responding positively to employees provides a creative energy that makes for a happy staff.
Meanwhile, Varma said he hopes that the store's small size results in relationships that a mega-corporation can't replicate.
"People know each other and it's not a faceless shopping experience," Varma said. "That has always been our thing. It's not a transaction; it's a relationship."