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The opening of a new study space on the second floor of Weiss Pavilion, next to Franklin Field. Vice provost and director of the Penn libraries, Carton Rogers, was available to speak with visitors about the space. The open house event featured free food and an iPad raffle. Credit: Dan Nessenson , Zoe Gan

The Mariposa Food Co-op has taken flight as one of West Philadelphia’s only neighborhood grocery stores offering sustainable food.

Mariposa’s sales have more than tripled since it moved to a new retail space at 4824 Baltimore Ave. from 4726 Baltimore Ave. this past March. The co-op is expected to earn over $3 million in sales by March 2013, exceeding its previous projections by $1 million, financial manager and 2004 College graduate Dan Ohlemiller wrote in an email.

Marketing and Outreach Coordinator Chakka Reeves credited Mariposa’s success to its ability to corner the market for sustainable food in West Philadelphia. The co-op offers local produce and dairy products that are, when possible, chemical-free and organic.

In addition to produce, the store also stocks a unique selection of other local goods. “We are the only place in West Philly where you can get Little Baby’s Ice Cream by the pint,” Reeves explained.

Though it was difficult to remain in the black at the former 500 square-foot space that has since been taken over by Vientiane Café, the current 2,400 square-foot store has brought in profits for the past two quarters.

For the Penn community, Mariposa’s biggest draws are supporting the local economy and having access to ethically produced food.

“People care more about where their food comes from and how it’s produced,” College junior Laura MacKinnon said. MacKinnon is also a member of the Penn Haven Housing Co-op, which regularly purchases produce from Mariposa.

Shopping at the store last week, School of Medicine assistant professor Ben Voight and his wife Stacie Bumgarner noted that the co-op’s wide selection of local food made it a better option than a farmers’ market in the fall.

“If you need a locally sourced food like a lemon, they don’t have that at a market,” Bumgarner said. Voight and Bumgarner, who live in West Philadelphia, are thinking about becoming members. Reeves acknowledged that while farmers’ markets and Mariposa share similar goals of supporting local farmers and sustainable food, Mariposa has the ability to offer a wider selection and is open seven days a week.

She likewise noted that Mariposa’s success supports the local economy. “[Customers] could save a few dollars shopping conventionally, but they’d rather have it go towards long-term development of their neighborhood.”

Wharton senior Russell Trimmer, a Mariposa member and Penn Haven resident, agreed. For him, Mariposa’s community culture is also an appeal. “If someone spills something, people shopping help clean it up rather than ask an employee,” he said. “People ask, ‘Do we have such and such a product?’ rather than ‘Do you have such and such a product?’”

“I’ve really enjoyed the fact that it gets me out into West Philly. I’ve met a lot of awesome people,” Trimmer added. “I appreciate being part of a larger community rather than just Penn.”

As a cooperative business, Mariposa is owned and operated by its members.

In the past seven months, Mariposa has increased its membership by nearly 200, to 1,461, and now has 30 full-time employees.

Reeves estimated that about half of Mariposa shoppers are members and said that member-only benefits are one reason why membership has ballooned.

Membership is open to anyone over 18 years of age and requires a $200 equity payment — each member’s individual “investment” in the co-op. All members have voting rights, have the ability to request products and receive a 5-percent discount on their purchases.

In addition, members who volunteer for weekly workshifts, which help lower the store’s operating cost, receive an additional 5 percent discount on purchases.

Though Reeves predicts that people will become more conscious of their food choices, she and board member Molly Roth, a 2003 anthropology doctoral recipient, both see the higher price of local food as an obstacle to Mariposa’s growth.

“Some people would like to shop sustainably, but it is price-prohibitive,” Reeves said. But, she noted, the more members Mariposa gains, the more buying power the co-op has, and the cheaper the prices become.

Reeves and Roth also pointed to members’ $200 equity payment as an obstacle to the co-op’s growth. Mariposa is working on launching a membership fund to sponsor would-be members who cannot afford the payment.

The Board of Delegates eventually hopes to begin a second construction phase on the co-op in the next few years, which would include adding rooftop gardens and beehives. For now, though, the co-op has been concentrating their efforts on operating the store at its new, increased level.

“It’s taken all of our energies to just keep up with the business demand,” Roth said. “We just keep growing so fast, we need to catch our breath before we undertake another big project.”

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