The Flame Tree Community Co-op Limited opened in Thirroul on the 27th of February 2010. For the previous two years members of the Wollongong, Northern Suburbs community had worked towards providing a shop front for local, organic wholefoods and home care products. The interest and support from the broader Illawarra community was really encouraging and in under two years the co-op had over 400 members regularly shopping at, working for and supporting our cooperative shop.
The co-op is committed to its stock being local, organic and as unpackaged as possible. We have links with local organic growers and food producers and our local stock now includes seasonal fruit and vegetables, tempeh and specialty sweets including raw, sugar-free and gluten-free . By buying food grown and made locally we’re reducing food miles and supporting regional sustainable initiatives. Because Flame Tree is a cooperative, members should feel free to make suggestions and requests.
We exist to provide ourselves with the healthy foods we want to buy, in the most sustainable and ethical forms we can find, and at the cheapest prices we can manage. We stock a wide range of gluten-free and specialty foods along with many other products: nuts, teas, coffee, chocolate, milks, cheeses, flours, herbs and spices, bread, laundry powder, miso, tempeh, tamari and olive oil to name just a few.
The co-op’s first premises was a small space behind a dress shop, with access down a side lane, and it could be a bit of a squeeze at busy times but it was a great asset for the members involved at the time. In 2012, the dress shop moved out and the two-year-old Flame Tree Co-opmade the bold decision to rent the shop front as well as the back room. This expansion put us on the main street and made us accessible to a wider range of customers.
At around this time, we also made a decision to take on some paid staff. While the co-op is still completely dependent on volunteer work, we pay a volunteer coordinator to manage the staffing of the shop, and we pay a retail assistant for a certain number of staffing hours. These initiatives have meant that the shop is open 39 hours a week and has almost never closed for lack of volunteers since this time.
The financial commitment involved in the expansion was a calculated risk and in 2014 the co-op passed the danger period, with turn-over now covering the increased costs. It wasn’t without its tense moments and some cost-saving measures were necessary along the way, including reducing the paid retail assistant hours.
The co-op is run almost entirely by volunteers, so volunteering is an excellent way to be part of the co-op. While members don’t have to volunteer, volunteering at the co-op earns you an added discount. It’s also a great way to get involved in the community and experience being part of a democratically run business.