Bob Shallit

Sacramento food co-op manager to retire after new store’s opening

Paul Cultrera, general manager of the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, has two big dates on his calendar.

The first, tentatively Aug. 24, is the day the member-owned grocery company aims to open its long-awaited new store at 28th and R streets in midtown Sacramento. The other, set for Oct. 31 with nothing tentative about it, is the day Cultrera retires after 18 years with the Sacramento organization and 36 years in the co-op business.

“One hundred and fifty-one days and counting,” he said this week as he gave a quick tour of the shell of the new store.

The market site is now a busy, messy construction zone. But a visitor gets a sense of the new store’s scope – 46,000 square feet of ground floor and mezzanine space with room for a huge in-store deli and kitchen, expanded meat, bakery and produce sections, four dining areas and classrooms.

Oh, and yes, much more parking.

The current store has just 54 spaces, all of them usually filled, generating bad tempers for one and all – even probably the panhandler who is out front nearly every day with a sign asking for “non-GMO food” only.

The new place will have about 60 spots at its front, another 60 on the first floor of an adjacent garage and, on weekends, another 180 spots on the upper three levels.

“Our No. 1 complaint is that parking is inadequate, which it is,” Cultrera said, noting that the store averages 3,000 visitors daily.

For Cultrera, the imminent completion of the new place represents a culmination of the job that brought him here in 1998. He was hired then to oversee a remodel of the existing store and plan construction of a second.

In typical co-op fashion, that second task sparked a controversy among members – a “food fight,” Cultrera calls it – that grew so intense the general manager who hired him suddenly quit.

“They turned to me,” he said of the co-op’s board, “and said, ‘How about you?’ 

Cultrera, who had plenty of co-op experience, including a 10-year stint running a member-owned store in Gloucester, Mass., agreed, and ultimately oversaw the construction of that second local store.

It opened in Elk Grove in June 2005 and closed 18 months later.

“It was a major disaster, to put it mildly,” he said of the expansion, which left the organization’s net worth “so deep into the negative … that you couldn’t measure it.”

But another grocery operator took over the lease, the co-op kept growing, and it now has a net worth of $7 million, Cultrera said, giving it a national reputation that will lure plenty of top candidates to take over when he leaves.

His retirement plans? Cultrera, who is about to turn 67, said he intends to move back to Gloucester, a historic fishing town and artist colony where he still has family, near his hometown of Salem.

He may write some poetry; he published a couple of books of verse after graduating with an English degree from Boston College. He might take another job, eventually.

But weary of all the effort he’s put into planning the new store over the past six years, he said: “Right now, I don’t want to even think about thinking about working.”

He said he’ll miss plenty about Sacramento. The co-op’s employees, the farmers he has cultivated as the business’s suppliers.

“I think they’re kind of heroes to me,” he said of the growers.

And he’ll miss the weather here and the vast variety of local produce.

“If you live here all your life, you don’t realize how good it is,” he said of the agricultural abundance.

But he’s concluded in recent years that he’s just constitutionally suited to the region where he grew up – where he raised vegetables in his backyard and worked as a furniture stripper before wandering into the local co-op one day in Gloucester in 1980, seeing a “help wanted” sign for a manager (paying $4 an hour) and getting the job “because nobody else applied.”

“It’s nice here,” Cultrera said of Sacramento and the West. “But I’m a crotchety old New Englander.

“I act that way around here and people think I’m crazy,” he continued. “Back there, they think, ‘Oh, he’s just one of us.’