'Food Coop': Film Review
Paris-based American director Tom Boothe explores the nooks and crannies of Brooklyn’s highly successful collective supermarket.
Anyone living in New York, or at least in the hipper parts of Brooklyn, has probably heard of the Park Slope Food Coop, which was founded by a cadre of left-leaning gourmets in 1973 and has since grown into a 17,000 member-strong smorgasbord of curated cheeses, farm-fresh produce and participatory democracy. Yet as much as the Coop has been a neighborhood staple for several decades now, there are some New Yawkers who would argue that it represents a brand of gentrification that has ruined their city for good, while outsiders may view this foodie-fueled collective as a major breach of, gulp, socialism on American soil.
Debunking many of those myths while revealing the inner-workings of what may in fact be the most profitable supermarket in the U.S., France-based director Tom Boothe reveals why the PSFC has grown into such a successful operation after more than 40 years in existence. His approach may not necessarily be 100 percent objective — Boothe will soon be opening a co-op of his own in Paris that is fully modeled on the one in Park Slope — but he manages to capture the essence of this unique emporium with a blend of humor and pragmatism, underlining how a sustainable business needs to have more in mind than just the bottom line in order to survive.
Interviewing dozens of members as they stock, clean, bag, recycle, compost and occasionally socialize, Boothe has them explain the basics of a system that requires they work at the Coop for a total of 2.75 hours per month in exchange for the right to shop there, with prices discounted by as much as 40 percent compared to regular stores. Not only are the prices unbeatable, but the products themselves are carefully selected (often from farms in upstate New York) and constantly rotated out, with the Coop experiencing a much higher inventory turnover than your average Walmart or Whole Foods.
One interviewee claims that the Coop may be "the greatest social experiment in the country," and from the plethora of races and professions represented (although there seems to be a high concentration of psychologists), this is not one of those Brooklyn Bobo joints that everybody loves to hate, but a genuine example of the NYC melting pot — a place open to anyone willing to sacrifice a little time for good food at bargain prices. There are some rather hilarious, only-in-New York specimens on display, such as a woman who spends over two hours schlepping five bags of PSFC groceries on the subway and bus back to her place in Manhattan, or a floor manager who goes about his task with a mix of seasoned weariness and self-deprecating sarcasm.
But what’s perhaps most impressive about the Park Slope experiment is a level of efficiency that allows it to generate up to 10 times the gross revenue of other supermarkets — to the point that, as Boothe explained during a post-screening Q&A, the members are discussing the possibility of lowering prices even more in order to decrease profits. It sounds like every entrepreneur’s wet dream (minus the dividends), and the irony of the Coop is that it was created by utopist anti-capitalists but could give most capitalist businesses a run for their money, with one member hoping it will become "the norm, not the exception" of American enterprise.
If there is little to critique in Boothe's exposé, it's unfortunate he never devotes adequate screen time to an ongoing Coop controversy regarding the call by certain members to ban products from Israel, though the film does linger on a number of disciplinary problems, as well as environmental debates regarding the use of plastic bags. But even those issues seem like minor snags in a system that has been perfected by decades of trial and error, and Food Coop does a fine job delving into such details while keeping us mildly amused. It’s enough to make the movie catch on in Paris, where a recent show was nearly sold out, though whether the co-op concept can be successfully transported from Brooklyn to the City of Lights is yet to be seen.
Production company: Lardux Films
Director: Tom Boothe
Producer: Christian Pfohl
Director of photography: Gregory Harriot
Editor: Helene Attali
Sales: Lardux Films
Not rated, 97 minutes