These new cooperative supermarkets are trying to reimagine the experience of shopping for groceries in Berlin, but which has the best left-wing credentials? We put three of them to the test:
First stop was Dr. Pogo – a collective-run, vegan supermarket appropriately situated on Karl-Marx Platz in Neukölln, and a vegetable-based wonderland the likes of which are rarely seen.
The abundance of its products is perhaps due to the collective’s veteran status – it’s been running since 2013, with a strong emphasis on equality amongst the workforce from the outset. Founding member Andreas told me “We wanted to work on an equal level and to avoid formal hierarchies. We are operators, rather than owners, of the business”. (No private ownership – big tick).
“As a collective, we don’t call ourselves Marxist. But ideas from his ideology have seeped into ours, as we come from a leftist tradition. We adopt a capitalistic-critical approach, but the need to make money from our products means we can’t be completely anti-capitalist.”
Fair enough, Marx would say. The profits made at Dr. Pogo pay the rent, are reinvested in stock and support 14 salaried employees. For most of the workers, their Dr. Pogo wage constitutes their primary income. “The downside is that we all share responsibility for the shop, so we take the worries home with us and can’t switch off completely. But the plus side is that we do something which we find very meaningful ourselves: we are all vegan and we are a running a vegan shop,” Andreas explained. Equality of wages – check, meaningful labour – check.
The shop doesn’t have any plans to expand, as the day-to-day running of one branch is already taxing work for such a small group, and they don’t like the idea of having to be on a boss level for other subsidiaries. “But we want to be an example for other people, to show how it is possible to do things differently in this world. We don’t have the perfect solution, so it’s good to exchange with other groups and learn from each other.”
An upstart in the coop game, the Robin Hood on Maybachufer opened its first shop in Neukölln in 2020 and the second of its two branches opened mid-May 2021. It already has over a thousand members. They openly call themselves “anti-capitalist”, but why? “For us it is about being anti-capitalistic in a wider sense – which means going without profits, having a barrier for our wages, being selective with the suppliers we deal with and giving to charities which try to repair the damage caused by capitalist forces,” Noah, the store manager, explained.
At first glance, the shop on Maybachufer looks like an unusually wholesome Späti, but the wooden decking and leaf-sprouting shelves quickly remind you that you’re in a bio shop. By working three hours a month or donating one percent of their salary, members buy high-quality, organic goods for up to twenty percent cheaper. This is all very well, but the products still have a pretty high price point: a kilo of aubergines, for example, will set you back €4,29 and €3,39 if you’re a member.
Robin Hood deal with two large suppliers as well as 25 smaller suppliers, who all follow similar world-improving principles – either ecologically or in terms of how they run their businesses. Leftover profits are donated to charities, including “Cool Earth” which gives local communities the resources they need to protect endangered rainforest.
As for the working conditions, with the project is still in its infancy, the core team of nine are all doing at least their forty hours at the moment, but the aim is for this to change. “Having the feeling that we reach a lot of people and show them that we change something, means ultimate job satisfaction,” Noah said.
The cooperative wants to open more supermarkets, but also to “foster a sense of community with our workers, and to animate people and showing them that there is an alternative way to do things.”
Last on the list was SuperCoop in Wedding. With large premises and room enough for customers to wheel shopping trolleys up and down the aisles, SuperCoop certainly has the traditional supermarket feel about it.
Inspired by a film about the original SuperCoop– founded in New York by a taxi driver in 1973 – the Berlin branch opened in September this year, following a crowdfunding campaign in which 588 people became members. Each member pays €100 to become a cooperative shareholder and buy their transparently-priced goods. Members then meet in general assemblies at least twice a year to decide supermarket policy, such as which products to buy. On top of that, they employ a work three-hours-a-month principle, covering various fields from cashier work to website design.
As the Coop’s co-founder Johanna worked her way around the around the shop, there was a palpable sense community feeling in the air. The shop was well visited by a cross-generational clientele and Johanna seemed to know everyone by name. This is the kind of community spirit that would have given old Marx a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
But according to Johanna there was no direct Marxist or indeed political influence behind the project, instead its main focus is on transparency and fair treatment for producers.
The Coop follows ten guidelines when acquiring its products, including regionality, seasonality, little packing, carbon footprint and a strong focus human and animal welfare. Amongst its suppliers, Coop uses Tiny Farms – a network of small regional farms.
Walking around the supermarket, the striking thing is the unusual pricing format for some of the items. A 500g packet of red lentils for €1.83, bio beetroot spread for €2.18. This is because a flat rate of 23 percent is charged on top of the buying price of every single product.
As for job satisfaction, Johanna and the other board members work every day: “We do something that it’s important to us. This feeling of community and seeing how many people want to work with us makes it all worthwhile.”