Introducing Lori Burge: South Philly Food Co-op’s General Manager

By Catherine Murray

This food co-op expert brings a passion for healthy food and uniting communities to South Philly. Plus: info about job openings and when their store will open!

After much anticipation, the South Philly Food Co-op recently hosted its groundbreaking celebration at 2031 S. Juniper St. We’re looking forward to welcoming the community-owned grocery store to the thriving business community near East Passyunk Avenue. We caught up with Lori Burge, the Co-op’s new General Manager, to learn more about what we can expect over the coming months. Note: this interview has been condensed.

CM: What appealed to you about taking this leadership role for the co-op?
LB: First of all, I love co-ops and I love food. This is really a homecoming for me, as my career has been almost entirely in the food co-op sector. I’m passionate about access to healthy food and bringing communities together. I’m inspired by the co-op’s motto, “using food as a force for good.” It’s incredible to see how engaged so many people already are and the different ways people want to share their talents. South Philly is a very vibrant community, and I think this is going to be a fun and interesting adventure.

CM: So what’s on tap for the next few months before the co-op opens its doors?
LB: We’re really digging in. We recently just had a long board working session focused on our internal policies and timeline for opening. Our construction is ramping up, and I’m currently working on selecting and ordering equipment including refrigeration, displays, and our point-of-sales system. I’m also going to start working with producers, distributors, growers, and food artisans to build relationships and create a diverse product selection. Finally, I’m working on job descriptions to start the hiring process.

CM: What makes the Co-op unique from other grocery stores in the area?
LB: The big difference is the co-op difference – we’re community owned and controlled, and dedicated to serving our community now, and in the long term. First, there’s financial control–anyone can shop at our store, and we’re inviting people to support us on a deeper level by becoming members. Next, we’re responsive to the community’s needs ranging from our product selection to special events.

We’re going to have local products throughout the store that support the local food economy and provide opportunities to connect to the producers and makers of our food. We want to make sure people know where their food is coming from and aim to do this through events, tastings, store displays, social media, and our website. Finally, when you shop at the store, you’re going to have a very friendly and welcoming staff that will greet and assist you. A high level of customer service and authenticity are essential to the shopping experience we are going to create.

But we’re not just a grocery store—we’re a community coming together to live, work, shop, and connect to sustainable food systems.

CM: Tell us more about what type of positions you are going to be hiring for.
LB: We want to see applicants who are committed to good food, the Co-op, and our community. First, we’ll be looking  for our department leads: 1) grocery department manager, 2) produce department manager, and 3) front end manager. We want these folks to have experience in dealing with food and food businesses and be passionate about building community. We’ll also be hiring clerks, cashiers, and stockers with a high emphasis on customer service. We want to hire as locally as possible and create jobs in South Philly. Our staff will have lots of opportunities for training and advancement. I believe that everyone has something to bring to the table.

CM: Why should people join the Co-op now instead of waiting until your doors are open?
LB: By becoming a member-owner [through a one-time equity investment of $200, which can be paid over time], you help us with our financial goals. Member equity leverages and unlocks loans, lines of credit, and other resources that are critical in this historic time in our development.

CM: What benefits do members get, versus just regular customers?
LB: When the Co-op starts making a profit, we will offer patronage refunds. This means that a portion of the profits will go back to members based on how much they shop at the store. In addition, you’ll also have access to our Shop South Philly program that offers discounts at local businesses. As for additional benefits when our store is open, please stay tuned!

CM: Will you have a delivery option?
LB: We’re in the process of looking into at-home delivery and how to build that into our point-of-sales system.

CM: You opened the New Orleans Food Co-op. What are the things you are most proud of at that store?
LB: I’m really proud of the welcoming environment we built and the broad array of shoppers, suppliers, and local producers that we got to connect to each other. During my tenure, we became a Job One site for the City of New Orleans, meaning that we had about 16 youth each summer interning with us to build their skill sets and their resumes. I’m proud of the impact we made on those interns and was pleased to hire several of them as staff members.

CM: The million dollar question…when are you going to open?
LB:  Fall is our target. We’re anticipating a soft opening followed by a grand opening celebration.

CM: Besides co-ops, what else are you passionate about?
LB: I love working with kids and teaching youth about food. I regularly host movie nights in my neighborhood where we cook together. It helps build community and allows kids to try new things and understand food on deeper level.

CM: As a West Philly resident, what’s the quirkiest thing you’ve noticed about South Philly so far?
LB: How people park…I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m afraid to park the way people do down here for fear of a ticket. If someone wants to explain the ins and outs of it, I’d appreciate it!

CM: Finally…what are you eating right now?
LB: Asparagus. It’s in season and delicious.

Learn how to become a member-owner of the South Philly Food Co-op.