Community Mercantile of Lawrence

By Kaitlin Driver

Community Mercantile, an independent whole foods grocery store in Lawrence, Kan., is a consumer-owned natural foods store that offers organic and locally produced foods.

"It is a local alternative that helps out local farmers and producers," said Joshua Kendall, branding manager for Community Mercantile, otherwise known as The Merc. "Half of the store's sales are from the owners themselves; they are in a sense supporting each other and interest."

In 1974, a small group of Lawrence residents came together to create a place where they would have access to whole foods in their community. They started the business by forming a volunteer-run organized buying club. They used a house in Lawrence owned by Harry and Judy Kroeger where they could distribute bulk foods. Over the next couple of decades, The Merc continued to expand by offering a wider selection of organic and whole foods and products.

"We have the number one selection of local products, soaps and grass-finished beef," Brian Phillips, operations manager, said. 

Today The Merc is known throughout its community as the "go-to" place for healthy food options at fair prices. Despite the economic decline over the past few years, The Merc continues to succeed.

"We work to maintain the lowest cost at all times," Phillips said. "We are the only natural foods grocery store in Lawrence and therefore we began seeing more of a sales growth in the recession because people no longer could afford to eat out as often, so they started cooking their own meals through the recipes and classes we offer. Along with that, the recent food movement also greatly impacted our business because more people started to care about knowing where their food comes from and The Merc provides them with all that information."

Doing well in business is one of the biggest impacts The Merc has on Lawrence. The store's annual sales increases benefit the city's economy.

"The Merc is a co-op owned store which means that half of all sales made by The Merc gives back to Lawrence and closely surrounding areas," Phillips said. "One of every $2 made goes right back into the local businesses and farmers we use."

Effie Freeland, 56, a social worker, has lived in Lawrence for more than 30 years and has shopped at the Merc for 10 of those years.

"I consider myself a very active member in my community," Freeland said. "I choose to only shop at The Merc simply for the fact it's a community-owned grocery store. By buying all of my food products I know that I am supporting local venders, producers and growers. It is a step above other grocery stores because I know I am giving back to my community with each item I buy."

What also helps make The Merc a favorite among locals is the fact that it houses hundreds of organic choices. According to its website at http://themerc.temppublish.com/index.cfm, the store works with local vendors to offer a selection of more than 800 products. Recently, a P6 label has been placed on items produced within 200 miles of the store to let customers know where their products are coming from.

Along with local goods, The Merc offers a wide selection of groceries for vegetarians, vegans and people looking for gluten-free or allergen sensitive foods, according to the website.

In order to help keep prices low, the store collaborates with vendors to offer the best products at the best prices. Throughout the store coupons are displayed alongside many groceries.

The website lists certified fair-trade products, such as coffee beans and chocolate, cleaning products with lower environmental impact than conventional brands and paper products made primarily with post-consumer recycling among the items available at the store.

Along with giving back half of its profits and carrying a wide selection of local products, The Merc continues to find ways to help strengthen its connection with the community. Lawrence local, Nancy O'Connor helped establish Community Mercantile Education Foundation, a non-profit sister organization, expanding educational outreach through grants and donations. This organization's purpose is, "to provide nutrition education that promotes personal health and well being, strengthens the community, and supports sustainable and local food systems."

The Merc also offers a wide selection of classes every month, each one focusing on a different area in order to "stimulate intellect as well as appetite," according to the website.

In addition, the store frequently holds community dinners and in-store benefit days to raise funds for community causes. The Merc has created school garden projects where people work with educating preschoolers and greek house mothers on ways to eat healthy. In the future, the store hopes to expand to multiple stores that continue to maintain the strong connection to the community and its locals.