The Creekside Co-op will close its doors for good this Saturday, devastating a community that put its heart, soul, and cash into the neighborhood-owned grocery.
Board members voted Wednesday to shut down the store after six years during a packed and emotional meeting at the Elkins Park train station. The community grocery became unsustainable as sales kept declining, and the full-service market will close at 8 p.m. Saturday, the co-op said in a statement Thursday.
“Over the past few years, Creekside has been experiencing serious financial challenges,” the statement said. “Challenges that the board has been transparent in communicating to the member community and managing weekly to ensure the co-op continued. We have reached the point where sales at the co-op are not enough to sustain employee payroll.”
Neighbors created Creekside to fill a void left by the 2002 closure of Ashbourne Market, a local hub. They came up with the co-op idea during a 2008 meeting at a local library, and eventually secured loans and built a membership list.
They initially hoped for 1,200 households to contribute $400 each for an equity share in the co-op. But two months after opening in 2012, the co-op had nearly 1,900 households. Vantage Point Bank had put up $3 million for a loan guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“There was this opportunity to have something to draw the community together right in the center of town,” said Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein, a coop member and a 25-year resident of Elkins Park. “The hope was to create a gathering place. Something that belonged to the community.”
In that sense, Creekside has largely succeeded, Ezekiel-Fishbein and others said, as several BYOB restaurants and an independent bookstore have opened near the High School Road store. An ice cream shop is on the way. The train station across the street now hosts concerts and yoga classes, she said.
“When Ashbourne Market closed, it was horrible. Our entire business district was empty,” said Jennifer Brandabur, a Creekside member who was on the original steering committee. “When we came together to create the co-op, our biggest goal was to revitalize that area, and we have been remarkably successful about that.”
But Creekside couldn’t survive in an area peppered with major grocery chains. There’s an Acme, Aldi, Giant, Save-A-Lot, ShopRite, Target, Trader Joe’s, Walmart, and Whole Foods all within short drives of Elkins Park. While food co-ops don’t have to turn a profit, they typically aren’t the least expensive way to shop. And several members of an Elkins Park Facebook page said the store sometimes lacked basic necessities such as chicken breasts.
In addition to the inherent disadvantages in size and technology, Creekside fell into a “vicious downward spiral,” said Jeff Cohen, a Creekside board member. Declining sales made it difficult to buy enough inventory to draw customers, which in turn led to further declining sales, he said.
Average weekly sales fell from $90,000 in 2016 to $72,000 this year, Cohen said. Since Creekside incorporated, the co-op has lost $1.6 million, with almost $970,000 of that accumulating before 2016.
“We simply ran out of cash,” Cohen said.
Some members wondered why Creekside never allied itself with Weaver’s Way, the venerable co-op in Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy that has expanded to Ambler. Creekside had too much debt to be acquired, Cohen said.
Bankruptcy, which could wipe away the debt, remains an option although the process could mean a loss of local control over the property. “We are investigating and getting advice on what the right path is,” Cohen said.
Creekside also lost $60,000 due to an employee theft in June, but insurance covered almost all of it, Cohen said. And while the incident hurt morale, it wasn’t material to the store’s demise.
Cohen said it’s too early to tell what comes next. One option would be to bring in outside vendors. The community still has a mortgage on the property. Community members saw parallels between this closure and the shuttering of Ashbourne Market, which ultimately drew the community together.
For now, Creekside is focused on raising $38,000 to ensure that the store’s 45 employees receive pay checks for the last pay cycle that ends Saturday. During the Wednesday night meeting, neighbors passed around a hat to collect money, while others challenged each other to match donations of $1,000 or more, according to attendees. Creekside said it raised $1,700 during the meeting.
“We discussed members not using the funds on their EasyShop accounts and not discounting the products which will maximize revenue to meet payroll,” Creekside said in a statement. “All revenue collected over the last days of operation will be focused on achieving final payroll for the staff.”
The meeting that decided the store’s fate drew a standing-room only crowd. Some members cried, attendees said.
“It was the absolute best of our community,” Cohen said of the meeting and member donations. “It was what makes this community so wonderful.”