Not many businesses can boast 40 years in the same building and under the same ownership, but the Maple Street Co-op can. Our HT writer, Judy Fredriksen, met with the Co-op’s business manager – Peter Pamment – to discover the secret of their success.

by Judy Fredriksen

Borne out of necessity at a time when people were becoming disenchanted with polluted city life, the Maple Street Co-op has mocked the cynics and disproven the naysayers by going from strength to strength and celebrating its 40th birthday on December 17.

But like any entrepreneurship, its modest beginnings were experimental and run entirely by volunteers. 

“People volunteered all day and then after a few months when we had cashed up reserves, people got paid for two hours and volunteered for six hours. Then they were paid for three  hours and volunteered for three, and then four hours and two, so it took a couple of years before people got full time pay,” says Peter. “That was a big moment when people got paid.”

In 1979, the year the Co-op was formed, there were limited food choices in Maleny for those who were health conscious. There was only Nagy’s (now The Source Bulk Foods and Maleny Art Direct) and Frew’s, the forerunner to the IGA which stocked hardware as well as food, explains Peter.

The hippie movement was well established and had found its way to Maleny. Among the new settlers was a former psychology student from Brisbane – Jill Jordan (deceased), who teamed up with Mathew Davies, Meg Weymark (nee Kelly), Gary Blisner, Lorna Wilson (now Huston) and John Gilpin to buy food in bulk and share.

“There was stuff that they wanted, like brown rice, lentils, wholemeal flour and things like that but couldn’t get, and so they used to drive to Nambour,” says Peter.

“Then they thought, why not just set up some kind of organisation to do that and it was actually Lorna who had great input into it because she came from California and there were a few food co-ops there. She had track experience of food co-ops.”

From relying on volunteers and selling basic foodstuffs (including cigarettes!), the Co-op has charted a unique course in organic, healthy, lifestyle products, priding itself on being an innovator and leader.

For example, they now sell cold-pressed milk which takes the raw product and improves it with new Australian technology. The process kills harmful bacteria without destroying vitamins and minerals, says Peter. 

Reducing our ‘plastic’ footprint is another area where the Co-op leads by example by selling goods in bulk – people can bring in their own jars and packaging.

“We do a lot of bulk stuff: bulk olive oils, peanut butter, detergent … you can bring your own bottles to put it in.”

The handful of volunteers has grown to include two store managers, 15 part-time staff, 50 local consignors (suppliers) and 900 members. This boutique lifestyle business now contributes $600,000 back into the Maleny community through wages and consignment every year. 

Peter is full of praise for the staff, most of whom he says are young women who are passionate and dedicated in sourcing the best products and trialling new ideas.

One of the motivating factors is the lack of knowledge or awareness of the average shopper towards harmful chemicals and gases used on fruit and veggies. 

“We try to stick to our core organic products. People just don’t realise if you go to other shops where they are mixing organic veggies and non-organic veggies, the chemicals they put on those, and the gases, can be cross-contaminating.  

“To most people it doesn’t matter, but if you are on chemotherapy and trying to eat a special diet, or if you have a nut allergy, it doesn’t take much for someone to have a reaction.

“A lot of our members have confidence in us as a business to supply them with quality products with some research behind them. We research our products; we try and find out as much as we can. We only have cosmetics we know are not tested on animals. We talk to other suppliers, we follow them up.”

Obviously the Co-op’s business practices are holding it in good stead with plans now in place to expand. 

With a catch cry, No GM, no products from firms that are exploiting the environment or people, that’s not surprising in this modern era of social consciousness. And their 40th birthday party is attestation to that. 

The celebrations began at the Maleny Christmas Street Carnival with members enjoying Kombucha champagne and birthday cake. Next comes the 40-day sale starting January 14 – the anniversary of the day the store actually opened – to be followed by a formal event in February.

As for the secret of their success, Peter puts it all down to the business being owned by the members, so all the benefits flow back into the Maleny community. Personally, I think friendly customer service has to be high on that list too.

I also have no doubt that the Maple Street Co-op will be around long enough to celebrate another 40 years, constantly leading the charge on chemical-free foods and healthy lifestyles, supporting local producers and suppliers along the way and all the while, quietly shaming the multi-nationals.

Happy 40th birthday Maple Street Co-op.