The 8-year-old Bethesda Food Co-op, one of the area's few food cooperatives, plans to move in September from Bethesda Avenue near Arlington Road to a small shopping center next to the Cabin John Fire Station on MacArthur Boulevard.
The small food store, which has a cafe and bookstore next door, was organized in 1975 by a group of Bethesda residents who wanted to offer an alternative to supermarket shopping, in particular to lower-income consumers, co-op member Bini Reilly said.
Now the co-op does a fairly healthy business itself, grossing about $1.75 million last year and making a profit of about $30,000, most of it plowed back into the business, Reilly said.
The store depends largely on a volunteer staff, who receive discounts on purchases for hours worked. It specializes in unprocessed and organic foods and carries items ranging from pine nuts to unhomogenized milk to lecithin to The Progressive magazine. The adjoining cafe, where movies and concerts are presented on some evenings, also is used as a gathering place for discussions on topics ranging from health to world affairs.
Problems over parking, coupled with a $400-a-month rent increase, prompted co-op members to begin looking for a new location last fall, Reilly said.
The co-op had been in dispute with a nearby Giant Food store over the use of a parking lot, and in recent months customers have been forced to find parking on the streets of the busy Bethesda area or to use the handful of parking places in front, co-op members said.
"How many food stores can make it with five parking places?" asked member Joseph McKinney.
The new location at 7945 MacArthur Blvd. has a large parking lot, Reilly said. But the new space is also smaller and there are no plans to open a cafe and bookstore there, Reilly said. The co-op plans to offer more of the products it now sells, including vitamins, health-care items, kitchen wares and clothing.
Organization members estimate the move will cost $82,000. Members and volunteers began raising the money several months ago by selling $20 food certificates and asking for loans, and thus far have collected $62,000, Reilly said.
Co-op members believe the reason they have been able to raise money so quickly is that they have customers who care about the future of the store.
"There is a very big community that is concerned about this place ," Reilly said. "People really feel a part of this store."
Co-op member Elliott Whitken said that although most customers come from Bethesda and surrounding areas, about 5 percent are from as far away as Manassas and West Virginia. Reilly contended they travel that distance because the store carries "a much more diverse product line than the other co-ops."
Members are hopeful a large number of the customers will continue to shop at the Cabin John location, which is about four miles away.
"Any move is risky. . . . You're always going to lose clientele." Reilly said. But she added, "I think we'll keep a lot of customers. I think our customers are pretty excited about the move."