By Kirk Ross
Ever since Weaver Street Market announced plans to open a store in Hillsborough and move administrative offices and food preparation out of Carrboro, concerns have been raised about the impact on the Carrboro economy and the workers whose jobs are heading to the county seat.
In a recent interview, Ruffin Slater, general manager of Weaver Street Market, said the decision to move offices and food preparation out of Carrboro and into new facilities in Hillsborough was neither easy nor quick.
Slater said the process took almost a year and a half and included a comprehensive look at the co-opâ€™s structure and strategy. Balancing food production and store space was a key part of the decision.
â€œWhat is driving it is our idea of putting small stores in a downtown,â€ he said. Combined, he said, the new store under construction in Hillsborough, the Southern Village store and the flagship store on Weaver Street equal the size of a typical Harris Teeter.
But while that has served the co-opâ€™s philosophy of being more environmentally friendly by getting food closer to people, itâ€™s also meant dealing with the constraints of higher real estate costs and fewer options.
â€œEconomically, you canâ€™t put a full kitchen and bakery in every store,â€ Slater said.
Cramped quarters also meant the co-op was missing opportunities in food production, including expansion of its baked goods menu, sausage preparation, more varieties of pesto and the kind of fruit salad offerings you see at other groceries.
â€œWe realized we had big facility gaps,â€ Slater said.
And then there are the long-running woes of unloading trucks with no loading dock, the lack of break room space and having outdoor walk-in coolers.
So, after surveying workers and reviewing floor plans, Slater said the decision was made to move food production to a separate facility. There was no way that the current 5,000 square feet of kitchen space could fill the needs at all three stores.
â€œWe did a lot of modeling as we looked at expanding,â€ he said. An expanded kitchen in Carrboro â€œmet some needs, but not othersâ€ and so the decision was made to go offsite.
Once that bridge was crossed, the question was â€œwhereâ€?
Slater said the effort first concentrated on Carrboro, enlisting James Harris, Carrboroâ€™s economic development director, for help in finding a spot. What they found was that while thereâ€™s office and retail space available, large, flexible spaces with loading docks were hard to find.
â€œThere was very little commercial property,â€ Slater said. â€œThe retail spaces are just not set up for unloading trucks.â€
A site off Lystra Road just over the Chatham County line was considered, but after a look at the possibilities at the Hillsborough Business Center â€” a converted textile mill thatâ€™s been used as a business incubator â€” the decision was made to build there a 15,000-square-foot facility, dubbed the â€œFood House.â€
The new facility has a number of advantages, Slater said, not the least of which is a rate of $3.50 per square foot, about one-fifth of the rent at the co-opâ€™s Carrboro location.
Starting from scratch with a new facility means that some of the design flaws of retrofitting a kitchen into the Carr Mill space can be avoided. The Food House will have a much more logical production flow as well as a few environmental innovations like daylighting work areas and using waste heat from the ovens for an absorption chiller for air-conditioning.
The facility will also have a large refrigerated warehouse.
Jobs to Hillsborough
The affect on employees has been a chief concern both inside and outside the market.
Slater said about 60 of the 180 jobs at the Carrboro location will move to the Food House and the new store and administrative offices. Some of that loss will be canceled out by the creation of additional retail jobs in Carrboro once the Weaver Street location is expanded. (The co-op is in the early stages of a review with Carrboro about planned expansion to the rear of the Weaver Street store.)
Slater said that some of the savings from the lower rent for the Food House would be plowed into wages.
â€œOne of the benefits is that weâ€™ll be able to pay better,â€ he said. â€œWe hope to create fewer $10-11 an hour jobs and more $14-15 an hour jobs.â€
For now, the focus of discussion is on how to deal with transportation issues. While a handful of employees have moved or are planning to move to Hillsborough, about 20 of those whose jobs will travel 12 miles north either walk or bike to work and donâ€™t have the means to get to the new Food House.
Slater said the co-op is working on a shared-ride van or carpool.
â€œWe donâ€™t want transportation to be an issue,â€ he said.