Longtime co-op head decides it’s time for new challenge

Recorder/Paul Franz
Patti Waters of Shelburne Falls in the produce section.

Recorder/Paul Franz Patti Waters of Shelburne Falls in the produce section.

Twenty-seven years ago, Patti Waters, who had moved from New Jersey 10 years earlier, accepted the manager position for a small food cooperative in Turners Falls.

“I was hired as the manager of the Montague Food Co-op on Avenue A in Turners,” said Waters, who recently stepped down from her position as manager of the Franklin Community Cooperative, which grew out of the Montague Food Co-op and into Green Fields Market on Main Street in Greenfield and McCusker’s Market on State Street in Shelburne Falls.

“I think I was so successful for so many years, because I had an intuitive sense for business,” said 56-year-old Waters, who calls herself a “servant leader.”

Waters said she had no formal training in business, but had a passion for what she was doing, and that drove her to learn as she went along and worked with others to make the cooperative what it is today.

“I hope my legacy will be that I was a leader of a successful business here in the county,” said Waters. “I’ve provided a 27-year arc of professional contribution, and I feel like my work is complete.”

She said she is not retiring, but will travel and relax for a while, until she decides her next move.

It was May 1986 when she was hired to manage Montague Food Co-op, and later that year, it incorporated and became Franklin Community Cooperative.

“The Montague Food Co-op was a very small, but serious community cooperative with a goal to provide healthy and affordable food to its members,” she said. “It was only open three days a week.”

Waters said what she didn’t know then, was that natural, whole and organic foods, which are what the early co-op sold, and the markets do today, would set it apart from other grocery stores.

“We didn’t know at the time how popular this type of food and these types of products would become,” she said.

When the rent got too high in Turners Falls in 1987, Franklin Community Cooperative moved to Chapman Street in Greenfield.

“Again, we were in a very small space,” she said. “But, it was becoming a very dynamic time in the food industry.”

The co-op stayed on Chapman Street until 1993, when it bought the former J.C. Penney building on Main Street in Greenfield and transformed its small co-op into Green Fields Market. The cooperative renovated the building and in November 1993, moved into the space it still occupies today.

“We had become so robust, we had to grow,” said Waters. “We had the opportunity to become a substantial business.”

Members voted to call the store Green Fields Market, though Waters said she always believed the word “cooperative” should have stayed in the title so that people, especially visitors to town, would know it’s a cooperative.

She said Franklin Community Cooperative is still the legal name of the business.

In 2007, when Mike McCusker decided to sell McCusker’s Market, the cooperative bought it.

“It was a natural fit and just made sense for us,” said Waters.

“So today, we have two stores with welcoming, professional, clean environments,” said Waters. “I’m very proud to have been a part of all of that over the years.”

She said when Green Fields Market opened in 1993, it had 20 employees and today the two stores employ 73 local people.

“I feel really good about us creating something that made a contribution to the local economy and provided jobs,” she said. “We helped the local economy grow and it helped us do the same.”

Waters said over the years the cooperative has helped many local startups get their breaks.

“Hot Mama’s told me we were their first account back in Turners Falls,” said Waters. “We sold Tempeh Works in the Greenfield store when it was a young company, and today it is Lightlife Foods in Turners Falls.”

She said she attributes the cooperative’s financial success, in part, to a community of people who really care about local food and food issues, just like she does.

Waters estimates the cooperative made about $50,000 a year in the early days, and today the two stores combined make about $8 million a year.

“I always saw the possibilities appearing ahead and embraced them,” she said. “I never let my vision die.”

Waters said she also attributes her success to hard work.

“I always had an ability to notice what needed to be done, acknowledge a need for improvement, and then do it,” said Waters. “I always did what I had to do, whether it be stock shelves or clean or whatever.”

Waters said she never expected to stay with the cooperative for so long.

“It just happened,” she said. “There was momentum that carried me along the path of growth the organization was experiencing, and when I was satisfied with my contribution, I felt like it was time to leave.”

Waters said whatever she decides to do next, she’ll put her all into it, just as she did with the cooperative. She said she doesn’t have any plans to move from the area.

“I’m loyal and dedicated, and have the ability to lead,” she said. “Those are some of my best qualities and I’m sure they’ll lead me to success in my next endeavor.”

Waters said she loves that she and others made the cooperative more visible and important to Greenfield’s and Shelburne Falls’ downtowns.

“The stores are great community gathering places,” she said. “This is my gift to my community.”

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