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Inside the Boise Co-op Remodel

North End grocery store gets a modern makeover

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On a hot mid-July afternoon, choreographer Trey McIntyre hunched over the picnic table in the gazebo next to the Boise Co-op, his hair pulled up in a topknot.

"I'm pro the change they're making," McIntyre said. "I noticed murals on the wall I've never seen before."

Remodel fever has hit the Boise Co-op hard, and every corner of the store has been affected. New restrooms are taking shape where the Health and Wellness center used to be, along with an enlarged seating area. The aisles are wider and the shelves are shorter.

McIntyre has been a Co-op customer for five years and first noticed the shorter shelves and wider aisles.

"You could see the whole store at once. It was a little less claustrophobic," he said. "It has a huge effect on me."

This is a far cry from just months earlier, when employees were stacking items on shelves 9-feet high, and searching for basic spices like salt, pepper and oregano was a treasure hunt through several cramped aisles.

Guiding the changes at the Boise Co-op is the science of the marketplace. From the highly visible remodeling process in the deli to new arrangements of products on the shelves, the North End grocery store is aiming for a more modern look and feel.

For modernization, the Co-op needed some outside perspective, and consulted with the National Cooperative Grocers Association to audit the store to determine what improvements needed to be made to the floor plan and merchandising. NCGA participation in the renovation meant the Co-op had the experience of 25 co-managers from the NCGA's Western Corridor at its disposal.

Over three days in January, six NCGA auditors and two specialists--Allen Seidner of Thought for Food Consulting and Mark Mulcahy of Cooperative Development Services--assessed the strengths and weaknesses of the store's various departments. They worked with managers to balance the need for upgrades and modernization with preserving continuity for its customers.

"Because co-ops are community-owned stores, they remain fiercely independent and representative of their unique communities," said Lee Clinton, communications and outreach spokesperson for the Boise Co-op.

The remodel kicked off with a bark when the Co-Op Wine Shop consolidated its storage space, opening up a storefront for the Co-op Pet Shop in June.

"The great thing about wine is that you can keep your inventory right on the floor," said Saul Seyler, grocery and wellness manager.

Moving the pet supplies out of the main building opened up space for Seyler to make layout changes to the store. For four, 13-hour nights in June, Seyler's staff moved stock to the back rooms, widened the aisles and installed a new health and beauty island in the middle of the store.

"We wanted to reintegrate health and beauty," Seyler said.

Before the remodel, health and beauty products were strewn about. Items that complement each other, like moisturizing cream and vitamin E supplements, often weren't in the same aisle.

The strategy Seyler and the NCGA consultants agreed upon is called blocking----grouping like items thematically and by brand. While blocking has long been a common practice at many grocery stores, it was haphazardly applied at the Boise Co-op until the remodel.

Matt Fuxan, fresh foods manager, watched as Seyler and his team spent long nights moving shelves and rearranging merchandise. Then it was his turn. In a single night, the cheese and olive station in the deli disappeared. Workers hauled in new cold cases, worktables for the kitchen and new equipment for the deli. Almost all of this lifting, arranging and installing took place under the cover of night.

"I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little anxious," Fuxan said.

The Co-op deli remodel is scheduled to be complete by Friday, July 27.

The ethic behind the Co-op's renovations has been growth, and the deli is following suit by adding new options like a smoothie bar and a burrito station.

"We kicked around every way we could possibly expand," Fuxan said.

One key area of expansion has been the deli's workforce. In the past month, the staff has increased from a pre-remodel 29 employees to 48 employees who will be cycled between the full-service sections of the deli and the kitchen.

Despite this rapid growth, manager Nick Davis said that the balance between self- and full-service at the remodeled deli will sway toward self-service to improve customer traffic.

"People are tight with their time now," Davis said.

The crown jewel of the deli remodel is an 8-foot-long, self-service salad, hot food and soup bar installed July 16. Other self-service options include desserts and a refrigerated shelf for cheeses.

Full-service options have been consolidated to save space. The sandwich bar and cold cuts have been positioned closer together, and the smoothie and burrito stations will also be manned. The goals, said Davis, are speed and efficiency.

"The emphasis is on grab-and-go," he said.

The decision to remodel was made in 2011 at an uncertain time for the Boise Co-op. That January, founder and general manager Ken Kavanagh was ousted by the board of directors and eventually replaced by Ben Kuzma. Concurrently, Texas-based supermarket chain Whole Foods received approval from the city to open a Boise location. The time was ripe for giving the nearly 40-year-old Boise Co-op a face-lift.

"We wanted to find out what makes our customers happy," said Clinton.

Searching for some direction from its customer base, the Co-op sent out a survey in 2011. The results were mixed. Some customers wanted to see branches of the Co-op open in Canyon County. Others wanted the parking lot to expand. Many of the suggestions were simply untenable.

"We can't grow the parking lot," Clinton said. "We're in a historic neighborhood."

Co-op officials have refused to comment about how much the remodel will cost.

"We don't want to talk about money," Clinton said.

The store has also been mum about whether recent improvements have been partly in response to incoming competition from Whole Foods, which is slated to open in November. But at a board of directors meeting on Feb. 13, Kuzma spoke candidly to both issues:

"We initially thought that a project of $500,000-$600,000 would be sufficient to make us competitive with the competition that's coming to town, but as we delved deeper into it, there's a lot of deferred maintenance costs that you need to do," Kuzma told the board.

Later, at a March meeting, the board approved a presumably larger capital expenditure for the remodel. And by May, the process of updating the Boise Co-op began.

A re branding operation has also accompanied the remodel. The Co-op has removed its old logo from advertising in advance of the introduction of a new logo, and Clinton hopes that money will be made available to replace the awning in front of the store and a revamp of the store's color scheme. Plans are also in the works to add flowerpots along Fort Street and resurface the parking lot.

"It's an update of our look," Clinton said.

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