The Little Co-op that Could

A recent frigid morning didn’t stop shoppers from making their way into Mariposa Co-op. The cooperative grocery store fills the building at 4824 Baltimore Avenue to bursting with farm-fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables, bulk grains, nuts and pasta, high-quality meats and cheeses, and much more. The customers browsing the aisles are as diverse as the offerings: a young white woman with green hair wearing a faux fur coat; a middle-aged black man still wearing his winter cap and thick coat; a dark-skinned 20 something with a pierced septum. 

Merrie Baldus, who lives two blocks east, takes a break from shoveling her sidewalk to offer thoughts on Mariposa (the Spanish translation of the word butterfly). Merrie has been involved with Mariposa since the early 70s when the co-op was a buying club operating out of “some guy’s basement,” as she puts it. Back then it was a haven for West Philly residents looking for natural foods, decades before the movement became more mainstream.

“That was a really weird and wonderful time in West Philly,” Merrie says. “The co-op had a nice balance of people and you’d socialize together. This was in the 70s but it still wasn’t a common thing.” 

“Back then it was just some families trying to source things they couldn’t buy in the neighborhood,” says Bull Gervasi, Mariposa’s facilities manager. We spoke to Bull in Mariposa’s second floor offices. From this height you have a bird’s eye view of the shoppers moving through the building originally constructed in the 1920s to be the Belmont Trust Company bank.  

Bull’s unique nickname was given to him by his mom as a kid. “I used to run around and break things,” he says. Now Bull is responsible for the opposite: as the facilities manager, he’s tasked with fixing everything and keeping everything running as smoothly and safely as possible.

Long before Bull’s time, Mariposa first opened at 4726 Baltimore Avenue, the current home of Vientiane, in 1972. Initially, the co-op was open once a week for three hours, and operated exclusively by the owners. It wasn’t even a store at first, but more of a pick-up spot for items the members ordered. In 1976, Mariposa purchased the storefront, a decision Bull calls “the smartest thing we ever did. Without that we probably wouldn’t have survived.”

Bull has perhaps the longest memory of anyone on Mariposa’s 50-person staff: he’s worked at Mariposa for 17 years and has been a member/owner longer. When Bull, a vegan, moved to West Philly in 1997, he lived a few blocks from the co-op and joined, since it was now his local natural food store. “I felt it was my duty,” he says. He joined the staff of Mariposa in 2001, becoming their fourth employee.  

“I came in with a lot of excitement about changing things,” he says. Among the things Bull wanted to change were: the hours, the offerings, and the barriers to shopping there. According to Bull, membership “was weirdly complicated.” Only members could shop at the store during limited hours, and each member had to work mandatory shifts. 

Because co-ops are just that – cooperative – Bull and fellow employees and members had the power to push for change. If you’re not familiar with how co-ops operate, here’s a primer from Mariposa’s website: “A cooperative is a business that is democratically owned and democratically controlled by its members. Co-ops can be organized for the benefit of consumers, producers and workers.” It continues, “Unlike privately owned businesses where a small amount of investors control the profits, co-ops return surplus revenue to the store and the community, an approach to business that results in a powerful economic force that benefits the co-op, its owners and the communities it serves.”

The Mariposa community realized it could be doing more. “Once we started getting it together as an organization, we figured out that if we cleaned the store it would be more appealing to people,” Bull explains. “We realized if we were open more regular hours, more people would shop here. If there’s more people shopping here, we can have quality produce, and it’ll sell better, meaning we can source more from local farmers. It was a snowball effect as we figured out how to run a business.”

Over the next few years, the hours were extended, the offerings improved, and membership grew. All of this was accomplished without ever losing sight of the co-op’s mission, which focuses on being affordable and accessible to the neighborhood. 

As the years went on and the staff grew, it became clear that Mariposa was on the verge of outgrowing their original space. Staff began looking for alternatives. They set their eyes on 4824 Baltimore, which had been the home for a church for 20 years after housing banks for 75 years before that. The new location’s monumental exterior and light-filled, spacious interior were a perfect fit for an expanded grocery store. 

“I was in a little over my head,” admits Bull, who served as project manager for the expansion. “The good thing is, co-ops are so wonderfully sharing in their information that I had a lot of people I could tap for information. Anything from materials to contractors, timelines, all this stuff. We were a tiny, tiny store. We had seven people on staff, half of them were part time. Taking on this expansion was huge for us.” 

When Mariposa needed to find funding, University City District stepped in to help. Former UCD staff member Joe McNulty, who was a co-op member himself, helped Mariposa secure $50,000 from The Merchant’s Fund after submitting a proposal centering on how Mariposa, with its long and storied history in the community, would help provide access to fresh food in an underserved area and create jobs. 

Through grant funds, a member-loan campaign, loans from other co-ops and more traditional banks, and the sale of the original building, Mariposa was able to build out and open at its current location in 2011. 

“Taking on this expansion was huge for us,” Bull says, though it didn’t come without challenges. “We were worried that our sales wouldn’t support the number of people we had to hire. We basically had to double our staff. 

Although it’s no baseball field in Iowa, the adage “If you build it, they will come” seemed true for the new 2,500 square foot co-op, too. Mariposa adopted more accessible policies; although people are still encouraged to become members, membership is no longer required to shop. This made a huge difference and both profits and membership soared. 

“We tried to make it easier for people,” Bull explains. “If you want to just come in and buy a bag of chips every so often, that’s totally fine. You’re still supporting the co-op model. You’re still able to get whatever it is you’re looking for. Broccoli once a month, you know it’s going to be good quality and you’ll be treated respectfully when you come in.” 

The challenge for Mariposa became how to keep pace with the store’s success. They had a board, a rapidly growing staff, and member-owners who had a say in the store’s operation. They were interested in adopting a collective management system with a flattened structure, but needed guidance and someone to lead them. They found that person in Aj Hess, their current transitional general manager. 

When we speak, Aj wears a black co-op hoodie and a nametag listing “they/them” as their preferred pronouns. They joined Mariposa in 2016 after almost 20 years working in co-ops in Hillsborough, New Orleans, and Seattle. When Aj saw the posting for Mariposa, they jumped at the opportunity to be closer to their family in Pennsylvania. Mariposa’s goal in hiring a transitional GM was to bring someone on board who could help the staff move to a fully collective structure, or at least provide guidance on the future structure. The determination is still in the works. 

“The board is completely open to any possibility the staff organizes. We’re at a good flow right now,” Aj says. “Organizationally and operationally we are outperforming any year prior. Financially, owner numbers are growing more than they ever have--now we’re just trying to tighten things up operations before there’s a solid decision on how management is going to look.” 

With the finances and operations flourishing, Aj has stressed other areas of focus, including development opportunities for staff. Employees are now encouraged to attend conferences and form committees to provide input on things like employment policies and education and outreach. “That’s definitely more structure than we had seen, and creates more clear avenues for a more clear democratic process.”

In 2016, Mariposa introduced patronage dividends, a move away from the previous member benefit system. Instead of members receiving a 5% discount off groceries while shopping, the co-op’s earnings are now shared with the member-owners through a refund based on purchases made during the year as well as the co-op’s overall profits. As Aj puts it, “Giving the discount you’re essentially giving away profits before you’d even made them, whether we were profitable or not. With the patronage dividends, we’re able to give it back when we’re profitable and retain some of it to continue to grow the cooperative.”   

With 2,783 current members (a number Aj impressively recites with no hesitation), the co-op has nearly tripled its membership since moving. The success and expansion has led to a rebranding campaign that was recently rolled out including a redesigned butterfly logo and bright, welcoming colors. A goal of the campaign is to make sure the community knows about the store and its mission. "We’ve been here for 45 years and there are still folks in the community who don’t know we’re here,” Aj says.

When asked if they had a wish list for Mariposa, Aj says they would like the co-op to be local residents’ primary grocery store, for Mariposa to be a community center providing education through workshops, and to have more people taking advantage of their food access programs. They also hope for the customer base to remain diverse and inclusive.

To demonstrate their focus on inclusion, Aj points out a sign outlining what’s expected of shoppers in the store, which is defined as a welcoming and hate-free space. “You won’t shop here if you can’t uphold those values. No matter what your position, or what you’re about, we’re building a culture of empowerment.”  

Mariposa’s activism streak dates back to its foundation, according to Bull, who says the early founders and members of Mariposa were involved in the activist scene in West Philadelphia. The values appeal to Bull and have kept him connected to Mariposa for so long. “The co-op checks off a lot of boxes for things that I find important: giving people access to good quality food, human rights, animal rights, sustainability, environmentalism. That within the context of a retail establishment that really is a community-based organization and respects its workers, respects the people who shop there, was really important to me.”

We head down to the retail floor so Bull and Aj can point to some of their favorite items the store carries. Bull loves the Spring Hills Maple Syrup, particularly their dark syrup. “It’s the best. I love it. Plus it comes in a Mason jar,” he says with a laugh.

Aj loves the coffee selection and admits they just ordered ten pounds of beans for themself. “We just got this co-op blend where a dollar from each pound goes to PACA [Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance]. It’s delicious.” 

Whether you’re looking for high quality, sustainably sourced goods, you agree with their culture of empowerment, or you simply want to support a local, community-owned business, consider making Mariposa your primary grocery store and becoming a member/owner