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Full Disclosure: I have no CLUE how to start a raw food co-op, however, the other day I was telling someone where I get my dogs’ food and was once again reminded of how lucky I am to live where I live. But what if that changed? What if the couple who manages our co-op decides to retire and move away? Well, in the real world, I’d have nothing to worry about because someone would take over the co-op; I'd even offer since I just live down the road.
However, for anyone Googling “how to start a raw food co-op,” typing the response “ask the owner of an existing co-op if you can take over,” isn't the response that's going to answer their question. So, this post goes through the initial steps I'd take if I were to set up a raw food co-op.
What is a Raw Food Co-Op?
A raw food co-op is an organization that facilities bulk orders for its members (raw feeders) in an effort to gain a discount on purchases. I belong to the raw food co-op that services parts of Oregon and Washington – Wazzuor. There is an annual membership fee which is very affordable (fees vary by co-op) and I earn my fee back with the cost savings on my January order. Belonging to a co-op has cut my costs down by more than 50%, allowing me to feed four large dogs (65 lbs to 85 lbs) for $250/month on average.
Through the co-op, I have access to more proteins, quality sourcing, and the couple who manages our co-op vets all farms and brands for us. But that's not all! They have also created a wonderful local community of raw feeders. We share orders (I don't need 50 lbs of sardines), ask questions, help each other, trade food, and more.
1 – Make a List of Sources in My Area
I'd start with a short list of people in the area to contact to see who would be willing to sell food to me in bulk.
- Local Farms
- Restaurant Meat Suppliers
- Pet Product Distributors
- Local Raw Food Brands
Make a note of their name, location, phone number, email address, and contact person.
2 – Buy a Domain Name and Create a Website
I’ve seen a lot of people run their co-ops out of a Facebook group and while having the group is great for community interaction, I’ve found that it can be a challenge to keep up with discussions and people may miss out on orders and other announcements. This may not be an issue when a co-op is new and only has a few members, however, as it grows (and don’t we all want to grow?) it might be easier to manage orders and payments through a website.
I wouldn’t choose a free service for a website because if I break the host’s rules, they can shut down my website without warning and I’ll lose all of my data. So I’ll make a small investment in a basic website and create the following pages:
- Home Page – introducing the co-op (definition, areas served, contact information)
The following pages should be password protected:
- Main Order Page – a list of all open orders with products, pricing, payment due dates, and delivery/pickup dates.
- Individual Order Page – each order on the main order page can be linked to an individual order page that lists products available, order schedule (monthly quarterly, bi-annually, etc.), pricing, and any additional details members may find useful.
- Pick Up Locations and Maps
- Payment Page – using a plugin like Woo Commerce will make it easier for people to remit payment for orders. There are several options available so it’s important to do one’s homework before choosing.
- Resources – this is a page with local pre-raw veterinarians, online resources to help raw feeders, well-reviewed books on raw feeding, and more.
- Terms of Service – these are the rules to make it clear what is expected of the members. In this area, I’ll discuss annual dues, ordering procedures, consequences for nonpayment or non-pickup, etc.
When this is complete, I think it’s a good idea to create a Facebook page and set up an email service (I use MailChimp for my blog) with the same branding.
The reason I have “create a website” before contacting sources is so that I can have something for them to check out. This will show them that I’m legit. I won’t give them the password to the protected pages.
3 – Contact the Sources Collected Above
I'll reach out to the sources collected above and introduce myself and my co-op. Find out how much I have to order to get a discount. If the source is a good fit, set up an account – but don’t place an order yet.
I'm looking for a variety of proteins, quality sources, farms that are humane and treat their animals well, and businesses with a great reputation.
4 – Determine the Accounting Side
I’ll go with a basic accounting software program (QuickBooks) that will allow me to set up pricing, bill members, and track outstanding invoices I’d also speak with a CPA about the tax consequences of the membership dues and any other charges billed to members and costs incurred by the co-op (fuel, delivery vehicle, storage, etc.).
5 – Create a Workspace and Storage
I’d take over the garage, much to J’s chagrin, and line the walls with shelving and a few freezers to start. The discussion with the sources will help me determine how much frozen and dry storage space I’ll need in the beginning and then I'll grow from there. I believe that the bigger the order, the larger the discount, however, I won’t get my hopes up about deep discounts. I’m looking for amounts that will make raw feeding more affordable.
Initial Investment for the Co-Op
When it comes to starting a business or organization, I think it's important to start with a small investment. I don't want to dump thousands of dollars into something that doesn't pan out.
- While a website can be created with a small investment, it may be easier for people not experienced in creating websites to use a service like Squarespace.
- If you want to go fancy and create a logo or other branding materials, you can create an image on Canva or PicMonkey and use VistaPrint (there are always specials) to print up flyers and more.
- Freezers and shelving are important to have on hand and these items can be picked up from a recycling outlet, on the Facebook marketplace, or on Craiglist.
- And for folks who use TurboTax for their personal taxes, QuickBooks is a free add-on.
What NOT to Do When You Start a Raw Food Co-Op
Over the years, I’ve admired the management of the local raw food co-op in my area while listening to stories of co-ops managed around the country and here are five things I’ll definitely avoid. Some of these may seem like no-brainers, however, these have happened enough to warrant mention.
- Don’t steal another brand’s raw pet food and rebrand it as your own.
- Don’t steal another co-op’s branding (logo, website design, etc.).
- Don’t charge ridiculously high membership dues; charge a reasonable amount that you can justify when asked.
- Don’t do business with brands or suppliers that have a sketchy reputation. If you wouldn’t feed it to your pets, don’t sell it to others.
- Don’t badmouth other brands, co-ops, or your members.
Managing a Co-Op May Be a FullTime Job
The list I created will give you an idea of what you'll need to do to start setting up a raw food co-op. Based on my experience as a member, I've seen first hand how much hard work goes into managing a successful co-op. I believe that it's a full-time job so be prepared to work hard. I personally don't know if I'd still be feeding raw were it not for our local co-op. I was introduced to them as I was contemplating returning to kibble because commercial raw was too expensive for four dogs.
And if you manage a co-op, please share your best advice and tips in the comments below.