Co+nvergence Conference Report

A boots-on-the-ground report from the Co+nvergence Conference as told by SLO Natural Foods Sustainability Manager Carol Radike

Weclome back, Carol. Tell our Co-op Owner-members a bit about the annual Co+nvergence conference!

Co+nvergence is an annual NCG gatheringof all NCG Co-ops with the primary purpose being collaboration between the attending Co-ops. Each Co-op sends two or more representatives from their store, with all lodging, food, and conference fees paid for by NCG. Each year, there is a theme around which the conference focuses: this year it was "Delighting Customers and Growing Community."  As an added extra perk this year, the entire theme was ensconced in awareness and attention to diversity in our Co-ops, showcased by some amazing speakers on the subject.  

Who from our Co-op went?

Attendees from our Co-op were Carol Radike (Operations Manager/Promotion Liaison) and Ray Briones (Grocery Buyer). The majority (and typical for Co+nvergence) of the attendees at the conference were a combination of General Managers, Promotion Liaisons, Wellness Buyers, and Grocery Buyers.  

What exotic place were you whisked off to?

It took place in St.Paul/Minneapolis, Minnesota.  The activities took place on two different, very beautiful college campuses: St. Thomas University in Minneapolis, and Macalester College in St. Paul.  Both campuses, especially Macalester College, have extensive recycling and compost programs throughout the entire campus, the likes of which I have yet to see here in California. One is hard pressed to find a trash can on the college campuses since they have done such an incredible job of diverting all waste to appropriate bins. You will not see any plastic used in any of their cafeterias, and to aid in that effort, each year NCG requests that all attendees bring their own reusable water bottle.  It's all rather impressive and encouraging.

What made the location different or fun for you guys?

First of all, since all lodging and some activities were on St. Thomas University campus, we could walk out of our room and wander on foot as desired.  If one was so inclined (and Ray and I were), it's less than a mile to the banks of the Mississippi River. The walk there features streets canopied by trees. There is so much history in Minnesota and a walk down any street displayed houses built in the early 1900's. The city has a great sense of architecture, design, and layout.  There are bike and foot paths everywhere you go....yes, everywhere! The conference this year sported a very full schedule so we didn't have a lot of time to play, so we were happy to carve out the time to make it down to the Mississippi River.

What was your personal hope for this conference? Any particular questions you were aiming to figure out?

Besides the great agenda NCG carves out for us each day, and the enthusiasm whipped up each day, the highlight of Co+nvergence is getting the chance to chat with staff from other Co-ops across the nation.  We all share similar problems, concerns, challenges, and rewards.  Comparing notes leaves all of us with new ideas and sometimes intense clarity about how to return and tackle a waiting challenge.  Since this year's theme was about "delighting customers," we spent quite a bit of round table time discussing ways in which each of our store's could improve our customer service.  It was all very satisfying.

What were three important take-aways you got from this conference?

1.  Customer satisfaction is a reflection of staff satisfaction. When staff feels happy, content, and included and empowered, the customer can pick that up as soon as they walk through the door and enjoy their time there with us ten-fold. 
2.  Diversity awareness begins with examining our own unconscious biases. (We had some great discussions about this.)
3.  Co-ops must lead the way as examples in our communities in taking steps to Refuse/Reduce/Recycle/ReUse.  

Any interesting connections you made with other Co-op folks from around the country or world?

It's impossible to attend Con+nvergence without walking away with new friends and connections. For me, the diversity awareness emphasis throughout the daily discussions resulted in my making two new friends who made a huge impact on me becoming more aware of my unconscious biases.

What are the challenges you're still thinking about in terms of improving the Co-op?

Diversity awareness; making sure our customers are happy and that we are meeting their needs; remaining open to needed changes while keeping the aspects of our store that work really well--these are all topics on my mind. 

There are always improvements to be made, regardless of how many projects or challenges we have completed. To grow and thrive, our continued awareness of needed change or upgrade is imperative, be it our service, our customer satisfaction, how our shelves are arranged, what products we carry, how effective our sustainable measures are, the list goes on.

Hayley Cain