Ask Candy Bermea-Hasan to tell you about the diverse sellers program she’s building at Weavers Way, a member-owned cooperative grocery, and her words spill out like water. For two years, Bermea-Hasan has been recruiting fledgling producers and helping them find their way onto retail shelves. The work isn’t just about building a more diverse list of vendors, she said. “I don’t want to just do it on paper. I actually want to do it.”
Weavers Way has always been open to diversity, but in recent years management decided that being open to it wasn’t enough; they wanted to provide opportunities to diverse producers. So they created a vendor diversity coordinator position, provided a budget and started interviewing. Bermea-Hasan, who has worked in finance at the co-op since 2014, put in her application and found her passion.
We have to consider what will appeal to the diverse families that live in that community.”
— Candy Bermea-Hasan, Weavers Way vendor diversity coordinator
After two years of doing this work, Bermea-Hasan is determined to do more — not just for sellers, but for customers as well. She identifies as a Native American Muslim, and she pushes for diverse customers to have options. She recalled a moment at a product fair when a vendor from India introduced a sauce-like condiment called lonsa. “People were so excited to find it. They said that they hadn’t been able to find any since they left India.”
Bermea-Hasan wants that kind of connection to become the norm. While it’s one thing to get diverse products on the shelves from established sellers, like black hair-care products sold by Pattern Beauty, it’s quite another to help new sellers become retail ready. To do it, she created the incubator program and became a mentor.
Bermea-Hasan finds new sellers through a referral process, but she won’t put their products on the shelves unless they meet her standards for quality. She ensures all products have acceptable ingredients, packaging and pricing. Then she brings in the co-op’s financial and social media resources.
Weavers Way, which has locations in Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill, and Ambler, offers further services to new sellers. These include providing commercial kitchen space, funding their insurance and product packaging, and organizing vendor fairs. They bring in consultants, such as inspectors from the Department of Agriculture. Even so, the path to success isn’t guaranteed.
One of the biggest challenges, Bermea-Hasan explains, is getting a new seller to make changes to a product that they think is ready to go. They need a “wow” factor, a more competitive price and attractive packaging, she said. “Nobody has the perfect brand to start. You have to be prepared to tweak your brand.” Sometimes she will spend hours and hours after work on the telephone with a new seller to help them understand.
Beginning in November Bermea-Hasan is planning a new push to make sure new sellers get noticed. She will feature these vendors using in-store advertising, emphasize local connections and offer product demonstrations. A new retail manager will make sure sellers get noticed in all of their locations. Finally, they will give vendors more time to gain traction.
As Weavers Way prepares for its 50th anniversary next year, a new location in Germantown is also in the works, and Bermea-Hasan has customer needs on her mind. She knows the musician playing an acoustic guitar outside of the Mount Airy location might not work in Germantown. “We have to consider what will appeal to the diverse families that live in that community,” she said.
“It’s a great program,” Bermea-Hasan said. Sixty percent of our budget goes to vendors, so we know it goes into their pockets. Will it make people wealthy? No. But it’s a good way to give back to the community.”