Mohawk Harvest Cooperative Market is a vivid demonstration of the good that can happen when people of vision work together. To secure the downtown market’s front and center Main Street location, a group of private citizens purchased a building in a foreclosure auction and formed a corporation to act as landlord. The co-op’s rent is tied to its revenues, giving the nascent business the strength to grow, succeed and provide downtown Gloversville with a stable anchor store.
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GLOVERSVILLE — At Chris Curro’s checkout counter, conversation was almost always on the menu. Whether it was talking about a new locally made product or the hidden costs to retailers from credit card transactions — the freshness of locally grown food from the Mohawk Valley Produce Auction or the importance of going corn-syrup free or fair trade versus free trade — it was always about more than just the sale.
“So many people enjoy talking to Chris,” Mohawk Valley Cooperative Market President Bob Galinsky said. “After he announced he was leaving, I looked at all of the comments people made on Facebook, so many people talked about their conversations with Chris at the register, how much they enjoyed that. At any other store, how many people talk about their conversations with the clerk at the grocery store?”
Since the Mohawk Valley Cooperative Market was first conceived in a small meeting of about 15 people at the First Presbyterian Church on West Fulton Street in 2009, Chris Curro has been its only general manager . Co-op Vice President Vince DeSantis was there when the market was formed and was part of the decision to hire Curro.
“It was a unanimous decision and kind of a no-brainer to hire him. He wanted the job, and he said he would be the general manager and work for free for the first three months, so for the first three months, he worked for no pay at all and said we could decide what to do after that,” DeSantis said. “He put the thing together. There have been a lot of people involved in the co-op, but I don’t think the co-op would have really thrived without him, because not only did he have an understanding of the store in the beginning, the things to order, how to fill the shelves, but he also had an innate sense of business and the third thing he had was a physical toughness and an energy to put in a lot of effort and a lot of time. For all of the years that we’ve been open, he has worked way, way above and beyond what anyone would expect for an employee, for a manger like that. He put his heart and soul into it.”
Curro announced last week that Jan. 31 would be his last day as general manager for the co-op and that he was moving to another state to pursue a new opportunity. The Mohawk Valley Harvest Co-op has announced it has hired Sean Munk, an assistant manager at the store with a background that includes a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.
But Curro’s decision will affect more than just Mohawk Harvest.
He served on the Center for Regional Growth’s board of directors and over the past seven years had become one of the leading voices in the movement to revitalize downtown Gloversville.
DeSantis said it was originally Curro’s idea to move the co-op from its first location, a smaller store at 51 N. Main St., to the location of the former Open Window Gift Shop in the Schine building, which at that time had been acquired in a foreclosure auction by the Crossroads Incubator Corp. DeSantis said the relocation of Mohawk Harvest proved to the catalyst that motivated a collection of private citizens to purchase the Schine building for $70,000 and form a corporation called Schine Memorial Hall LLC, which acts as the landlord for the co-op, allowing its rent to be tied to its revenues. That has allowed it to grow and succeed, providing downtown Gloversville with a stable anchor store.
“There were several alternative places that we were considering, and Chris said ‘this is a natural place for the co-op’,” DeSantis said. “From the first week we were in that store we knew it was the perfect place. And I really believe that things have started to progress because of the co-op’s existence and the new energy that we feel in Gloversville, the new attitude has been because the store has stood the test of time — it’s been there for going on eight years — and it gives you a physical example of what a downtown can look and feel like.”
Curro said he plans to move to Arizona, where a friend lives, and that he has big plans for when he gets there, but he won’t yet say what they are.
He said he’s leaving for personal reasons and said he’s moved many times, living in places like Madison, Wisc., where he went to college, as well as California, and his decision to move to the Fulton County area in 2007 from Sioux Falls, S.D., was also due to personal reasons.
“My wife, at the time, got a job here and my brother lived in the Saratoga-area, and I knew the area from having visited here several times. I knew it was a beautiful place, and I knew it had a lot of history,” he said.
Curro said his professional and educational background before working at Mohawk Harvest was in teaching. He said he was a high school tutor working as part of grant-funded program at Centro Civico in Amsterdam when he randomly heard from a friend about a meeting in Gloversville to discuss the possibility of creating a food co-op market.
“I said, ‘I’ve got nothing to do tonight’, so I went,” he said. “During the planning process I thought, these are a lot of really good people with some really great ideas and super intentions and they wanted to make our community more livable, more walkable, the kind of place anybody would want to call home, and I said I wanted to be a part of that.”
Curro said he tried to take the principles he learned teaching advanced placement economics as a high school teacher and put them into practice in a retail store. He said the co-op started with about 100 members and a loan from a retired dairy farmer. After operating at its first location for almost two years, it moved to 30 N. Main St. in the Schine building, and the business grew tremendously.
“We doubled our sales in the new spot and the next year we grew by 50 percent and then the next year we grew by 35 percent, so we continued to grow,” he said.
Curro said he recalls many of the moments from the early years of the store, like moving all of the inventory of the former location in shopping carts, discovering 30 N. Main St. still had a hardwood floor under two layers of sub-flooring, and battling an early plumbing problem and trying to plug a leak with his finger.
“I wanted to take what I had taught, economic theories, and put them into practice, but the real revelation was how economic theory meets human relationships because this store, like any good business, is really about the customers. If you don’t know them, if you don’t listen to them, if you don’t understand what they want and get to know them personally, it won’t work,” he said. “The co-op mission for us was local, healthy food with an orientation toward the community, because its community-owned and I took that vision to heart. Before we moved [out of 51 N. Main] our membership had doubled, which showed the community was supporting it, and we’ve since more than tripled that doubling, to about 625 members and the members represent about one-third of our customers. Last year, we had more than 19,000 transactions, so people are finding something of value here.
Galinsky said the co-op recently had a membership drive over the summer and added 30 new members. He said co-op members have access to special discounts at different times of the year and if the co-op turns a profit, which he said it has a couple of times, it can issue a dividend to members. He said most of the store’s revenues have been channeled into growing its product lines with new equipment, products and employees.
Curro said there’s more than $600,000 worth of equipment at the Mohawk Valley Harvest and he believes the co-op is poised for additional growth after his departure.
“It’s very hard, to leave, because this has really become one of my creative outlets, but with that said, it’s being placed in such good hands. The new GM, Sean Munk, is more experienced in retail than I was. He’s got more experience in food than I’ve had and I think he can take it to the next level,” he said. “If this business succeeds, I think the community succeeds. I said this on the CRG board, Gloversville is just the biggest downtown that we have, if it takes off, not only do you have a region in focus, but you have the model for the next downtown, whether it’s downtown Mayfield, downtown Johnstown, whatever, Amsterdam, Northville. The goal here was to prove a concept, that you can put together a high-quality food establishment, purchasing locally, and bring people to a downtown location that a lot of people had given a bad rap to, and I think we proved the concept to be true and it’s replicable.”
Fulton County Center for Regional Growth President Ron Peters said he recruited Curro for a position on the CRG board after seeing Curro’s commitment to local products. Peters said Curro will be missed.
“Chris was a real asset to our board, and he contributed heavily to our thought process. Chris had a keen understanding of how downtowns work and what’s necessary to keep downtowns working the right way. Chris is very good at that,” he said. “We’re looking around now [for another downtown advocate for our board]; we’ve got some feelers out there. He’s not leaving until February, so we’ve got a little bit of time.”