Good Earth Market modestly began, like most co-ops, as a food buying club in 1987. For seven years, the members ordered food that was delivered every eight weeks. That effort organically evolved into a need for a retail storefront and, in December 1993, we purchased the assets of Billings’ oldest grocery store: Tenth Avenue Grocery. After months of hard preparation, GEM opened a cozy 1800 square foot store in July 1994 with 300 members. Within a year, membership had nearly doubled.
In October of 2001, GEM opened a little deli and debuted its now-famous hummus. By 2004, with 900 members overall, sales had increased tenfold and inventory fourfold. We had 4 full-time and 11 part-time employees and were at a major crossroads. With the support of our membership, the Board initiated a major expansion project. Students from MSU-B took us on as a class project and helped with crucial in-depth analysis of demographics, industry trends, alternative locations and financing possibilities, and a subsequent business plan.
A conscious choice was made to stay downtown, which piqued the interest of business people and developers who comprise the Downtown Billings Partnership. The Gainan family offered the former Archie Cochrane Ford building they owned on 2nd Avenue Northand were willing to negotiate a long-term lease on favorable terms, with rent rising as the GEM’s sales volume rises. Good Earth Market was also able to obtain low interest loans, grants and matching funds.
Randy Hafer of High Plains Architects and Greg Hardy of Hardy Construction didn’t shy away from our shoestring, alternative venture. Ed Gulick was project architect and former GEM board member from whom we got a labor of love on 9,000 square feet of raw warehouse. Even the Bozeman Community Food Co-op assisted with invaluable, experienced advice and a much-needed $10,000 loan.
The arts community came through with flying colors and beautifying touches that give us our signature look and feel. A volunteer force of “worker bees” rescued the mezzanine and painted the upstairs. We recycled used store equipment purchased from a former Billings grocery store and salvaged deli diner booths from a Helena restaurant. Homegrown creativity from members gave us a new identity, new logo, and upgraded the newsletter.
Since doors opened at GEM’s new location on February 19, 2006, we have only continued to grow and thrive as a community marketplace. In 2011, we joined the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), connecting us to a network of food co-ops around the U.S.and giving us access to programs that will help provide even more services to the growing membership.
Today, Good Earth Market remains Billings’ only food co-op, with more than 4,700 members and 30 employees. But, most importantly, thanks to the efforts and cooperation of our members, volunteers, staff and community, we know that our best years are still ahead of us!