New Location a Coup for Three Rivers Market

Now that's improvement: More than 3,000 additional total square feet, wide shopping aisles, double the employees, tall ceilings and lavish natural light, and an ample—no, make that exhaustive—number of spots to park.

The Three Rivers Market, begun in 1981 as an earnest but frankly shabby food co-op on Broadway, finally opened the doors on its dream building Aug. 26. The store comes complete with bike racks made from 96 percent recycled material, 10 times the parking space of the old place (where you'd take your life in your hands to back out of one of four spots onto Broadway), and an opportunity for almost twice as many employees.

"A lot of people, both members and non-members, have been waiting for this store to open for a long time," says TRM outreach and marketing director Katie Ries. "It feels great to be able to welcome them to such a beautiful and light-filled new space."

This couldn't have happened to a nicer group. TRM is community owned, with around 2,700 members as of early 2011, and a passion for healthy food, fair trade, and an environmental conscience. It seeks out products from independent businesses, features all-natural choices from trusted local producers, and emphasizes such ideals as meat and poultry without antibiotics or growth-promoting hormones; fair-traded grocery items packaged in an environmentally-responsible way without hydrogenated fats or added trans-fat; and eggs from hens that are raised cage-free.

With the expansion, they'll be able to offer more locavore fare like pastured eggs from JEM Organic Farm and Tickiwood, meat from River Ridge and West Wind Farms, cornmeal from Lakeview Farm, and bread from Harry's deli—joining ever-popular products such as bulk spices, organic chips, and individual PBR tall boys.

In another sweet move, TRM has a place to nosh on prepared food from the deli including a hot bar, salad bar, packaged "by the each" cupcakes from Magpies Bakery, and sushi prepared by Harry Majima, who came to TRM from Japan via a cooperatively owned grocery store in Santa Fe.

Response has been overwhelmingly favorable, says Ries, with daily customers and membership sign-ups tripling from the previous store in the first few days of business.

While the reaction is about what you'd expect from Knoxville's greenie population, the process for expansion was anything but predictable, and flouted the stereotypes of idealistic nonprofits at every turn. TRM has patiently proceeded with a systematic and deliberate business plan since 2005, when the chronically undercapitalized Knoxville Community Food Co-op became TRM, and started generating member equity through the sale of shares. In five years ending March 31 2010, TRM increased its cash holdings more than 1,000 percent, its equity by around $440,000, and its member paid-in equity from $0 to around $150,000. This, along with a city business expansion loan, helped them purchase 1100 N. Central Street in 2009 for $525,000, paying one fourth in cash from reserves. Total construction, real estate, and other costs will total almost $2.5 million, but plans are in place to cover it all.

Joining TRM management at the helm has been a crack team of experts including Ronald McFall, an attorney in Minneapolis who helped develop a member loan program that has already funded $250,000 of the expansion; C.E. Pugh, the development director of the National Cooperative Grocers Association, which will advise and assist through the first two years of operation; and Jennifer Montgomery, a local real estate agent with a special interest in the historic neighborhoods surrounding Three Rivers Market. She helped secure the site and will help re-sell their previous building, with profits going to pay down debt—some of which will return to the members who provided loans.

Says Ries: "There are few grocery stores in town where the money you spend stays so thoroughly entrenched in the local economy."

UPDATED: Changed "flaunted" to "flouted"; thanks to Mary Holbrook for the correction. SECOND UPDATE: Story has been changed to reflect the proper address: 1100 N. Central, not 100 N. Central.--rk