Beet Street, an enterprise formed to bring tourist dollars to downtown Fort Collins, recently announced a “Homegrown Fort Collins” event for late September. It has something to do with eating local. And by that they mean eating at local restaurants, or eating from local farms, or drinking local beer. But among its partners for the event it lists a Greeley public radio station and a Texas organic grocery chain.
Why not KRFC, the Fort Collins community radio station? And why not the Fort Collins Food Co-op–our first natural foods market and now one of downtown’s oldest businesses?
I’m sure Beet Street has its reasons. KRFC and the Co-op are community-run outfits that probably can’t manage the scale of commitment or contribution that the NPR affliliate and Whole Foods can. And let me add that I applaud Beet Street for these efforts at doing more to celebrate who we are rather than who someone thinks we ought to be. To say nothing of its generous underwriting at KRFC. Cheers Beet Street.
But at the same time, I worry that “local” will soon become as meaningless as “green” as national corporations get on the bandwagon and somehow co-opt another grassroots movement. Especially the local food movement.
In this new landscape, will there even be a place anymore for the Fort Collins Food Co-op?
To answer that, you have to know where the Co-op came from, and why it ever mattered. It’s a story that starts with one of our earliest grassroots organizations, the Point.
In 1970, Bear Gebhardt started The Point in Fort Collins because he didn’t want to go to Vietnam. It was a choice the Federal judge gave him when he blew off his draft notice–2-5 years in jail or community service.
The Point, says Gebhardt, was his community service. And he stayed with it for 9 years.
It started as a nonprofit to provide drug counseling for teens. “Heroin was getting popular on the coasts, and everyone was worried about it coming to Fort Collins,” he says. Working loosely from early Dr. Andrew Weil writings, The Point encouraged kids to be more reflective. “We would say, ‘look, you’re obviously searching for something…” he says, and then trails off. “We did it all rather clumsily.”
But that didn’t stop him from trying. Over time, the Point housed several community efforts from its old brick mansion at Mulberry and Remington:
A small legal service opened, because drug use is a legal issue.
And a medical clinic, because drug use is a also health issue. The clinic offered prenatal and well-baby care as well.
It was all rather open, from what I can tell.
“I don’t recall that financial need had to be demonstrated as a condition of receiving services,” says John Gascoyne, now host of KRFC’s Imagine Action. “I had some minor medical service performed one night and swept the upper floor of The Point offices as payment. “
Ya, and it just got more and more hippie from there.
They collected newspapers and hauled them to Denver for recycling–because no recycling existed in Fort Collins. And they got the City to put up these thumb signs, along College Avenue, where you could solicit a shared ride during the first gas crisis. Hitchhiking with the City’s blessing.
Some of these programs fell flat (hitchhiking signs) and others blossomed (legal and medical services were picked up by bigger nonprofits and governments).
Begatting the Food Co-op
Activists were naturally drawn to The Point, forming what Gebhardt calls a tribe. A brown rice-loving tribe, apparently. Because they soon noticed that while weed and alcohol were abundant in Fort Collins, you couldn’t buy a sack of unmilled rice anywhere.
So, in the Winter of 1971, 30 of them each kicked in a dollar and sent a driver to Erie to buy the first bag. Within a year, an active buying club took up more and more floor space at the Point. It soon outgrew its closet. Then one room and then two. Gebhardt says they thought about moving operations into the garage behind The Point, but the Health Department thought otherwise. The tribe would need to start a proper store.
And so it did. In 1974, the club incorporated and opened a shop at the old West Side Market at 700 W. Mountain. It proved a good location and the business made money. In fact, it soon outgrew the building.
Next, the Food Co-op moved to the current building on 250 E. Mountain in 1978. But things didn’t go so well there. Honestly, the Food Co-op seems to have mostly struggled ever since.
Do we still need the Food Co-op?
Over the years, the Food Co-op tried to draw in more customers, more seniors, more students. It struggled to address its inadequate parking. Even keeping track of money proved challenging. And most recently, it’s had to compete with bigger and better organized organic commercial markets, like Whole Foods, Sunflower, Vitamin Cottage.
To make matters worse, it built a reputation as being unconcerned with shoppers. Members couldn’t agree on a management structure; staff with unwashed hair hardly looked up from their magazines as you shopped; food rotted in the produce bins. Maybe that didn’t used to matter. But with the Seattle coffee house lights, generous parking, and perky helpers of Whole Foods just down the street, the Co-op came to symbolize everything outdated and stuck about hippies.
So why not just shut it down?
Here’s why. Here’s my 5 reasons why the Food Co-op still matters:
1. The Co-op is doing its damnedest to turn around right now. It’s cleaned up nicely. With an impressive new manager, the produce, layout, and the help is now pleasant and fresh.
2. It’s focused on buying local in a way no organic supermarket can. “We can buy from a farm that’s only an acre large,” says Chad Chriestenson, Co-op outreach and education. “The bigger markets can’t.”
3. It’s flexible enough to partner with other downtown businesses. While I was in the back room, management talked about splitting a shipment of apple cider with another small store. Soon after, Co-op manager, Lynn Chriestenson, held up a pile of checks she’d written and said, “I’ll only mail about a fourth of these.” Another fourth she’ll walk around town, paying downtown businesses with whom the Co-op has established partnerships. “The rest I’ll pay out at the Farmer’s Market this weekend.”
4. It’s ours, it’s local, and we have a history.
5. Meanwhile, Whole Foods is having a Wal-Mart effect on small towns all over America, says Every Kitchen Table. Once vibrant community-supported agriculture and food co-ops are buckling everywhere, and the smallest farmers are losing out.
And maybe we’re losing out too. I’m not sure. But I think it’s time to try the Food Co-op again and see if we can make it work–before “local” in Fort Collins is little more than a loosly defined label at a just-like-the-next-town-over strip mall organo-market.
Credits and post script
The idea for this story came from Allison Fink last February. Thanks Allison!
Bear Gebhardt still lives in Fort Collins. After he left The Point, he became a stock broker. He’s author of the book Enlightened Smokers Guide to Quitting and lists his current profession as “Monk” on his Facebook page.
Fab article! I would shop at the co-op if I were there. I love small, local, organic stores.
Excellent article. I have noticed a marked improvement in the quality of products at the Co-op and in the service, so have been shopping there more frequently.
25 years ago, when I first moved here, I joined a sub-co-op of the store, which ordered bulk cheeses, flour, etc. each month then split them between members.
It was a huge money saver but, as often happens, one person ended up doing all the work and we disbanded. Still, the Co-op helped me get through a financially tough time and I’m still grateful.
We need the co-op more than ever. Since the CEO of Whole Foods expressed his contempt for the progressive politics of his store’s customers (I’m assuming you all know the unsavory details), my family has only shopped there three times. We used to go 4-5 days per week. No more.
The co-op is one alternative to Whole Foods, as are Sunflower and King Soopers, all of which — to my mind — are honest about the values (or lack thereof) that they embody.
BOYCOTT WHOLE FOODS, SHOP THE CO-OP
3D: What did the CEO of Whole Foods say? Other than that they charge outrageous prices.
Lenny and I agree you have nailed it again that Beet Street should be using truly local partners, like the Co-op and KRFC.
I didn’t know the history of The Point and the Co-op–thanks very much for a good story.
I shop there most every Wednesday (senior discount day, bless their hearts), primarily because they have nearly everything a person could want in bulk. I love filling my own containers with brown rice (of course), nuts, maple syrup, and hair conditioner. Buy shares!
I don’t want to hijack this excellent article by focusing on WF, but those who haven’t followed the WF story can use the hyperlinks below to learn more. The important thing is that the Co-Op remains a place where sustainability and business complement one another.
3D, Hijack by all means. I think it’s an important part of the story of the Food Co-op. I didn’t talk about it because I was already getting long-winded.
This is a fantastic post. You bring up a great questions about “why not the food co-op?” when thinking about local sustainability. With promoting Homegrown and partnering with the Downtown Development Authority, I wonder why the co-op was left out.
I’ve never shopped at Whole Foods and never will. My husband works in Old Town Square and everyone in his office will drop by the Food Co-op for mid-day shopping, snacks, etc. They try to help them keep going.
You mention that “be local” will soon be as meaningless as “being green”. I fear we are headed in that direction. In all of the restaurant reviews I’ve done over the last 4-5 months, being local is a selling point for many, but only few really live it. The Alley Cat Cafe and Cafe Ardour are co-op members and really strive to practice what they preach.
It would be a shame if Fort Collins lost the co-op and I’m glad they are making some changes to hang in there.
Great story, Cat, and one that I think you’ve been cooking up for some time. I remember your talking about this when you were over for dinner, way back when we still lived in FC.
Here in Columbus, we have a co-op that’s facing a similar fate: stiff competition from Kroger down the street w/ the bulk organic bins, one of the largest Whole Foods in the nation, etc.
To me, the conundrum is that food co-ops are most attractive to people who tend to make holistic and “sustainble” choices. If one has to drive to the co-op but can walk to the Kroger, it could be argued that walking is the more holistic choice (good for health, environment, meeting neighbors, etc.). So is the co-op idea sustainable only if every neighborhood has it’s own, and if everyone felt that way?
Nori, Good point. A co-op would be more sustainable if they were in walking distance. I wish there was a business model that could work where they set up little neighborhood markets all over town. When I looked at the Food Coop’s archives (a 3-ring-binder they let me browse in the backroom), it became clear that they were successful in the early days partly because they were in one of those old neighborhood markets. It was an easy walk for 1/4 of Old Town. Things got tough when the moved to the downtown storefront.
Thanks Cat, for a great article and fun interview. You’re a visionary. You ask the right questions, and keep a clear eye. Keep up the good work. In peace— Bear
When we first moved here 8 years ago I vowed that I’d shop primarily at the co-op. We moved from San Francisco where there was a great worker owned cooperative, but I also shopped at Trader Joe’s and Costco a lot. Without either TJ’s or Costco here, I thought I’d be able to focus my shopping down to one store for the first time. Instead, I soon found myself becoming a Wild Oats regular and as soon as I discovered Vitamin Cottage, I switched to shopping primarily there.
I’ve tried repeatedly to shop at the co-op more. For awhile they had mouco cheese cheaper there than anywhere and that became a huge pull for me. But they’ve since jacked the price up.
I’ve never had a problem with parking. And generally the folks there have been very pleasant to interact with. But the prices just couldn’t compete. (I used to get all our shampoo and conditioner in bulk there until I realized that I was paying twice as much to buy in bulk than I’d be paying to buy new bottles of the same stuff at Wild Oats.)
I’ve always thought that what the co-op could really excel at was providing some solid vegetarian lunch options, something that was severely lacking for a long while in FC. But we’ve had so many great new restaurants popping up that I’m not even sure they can really compete in that way any more.
I’m still planning on buying a share. But even the fact that I decided to buy a share the moment I got their latest letter and the fact that I haven’t been there yet is a sign that I just don’t go there anymore. I have a reason to go and haven’t. I think it’s really sad. I want to be there. But it doesn’t pull me. And I can only push myself there so often. (It’ll help a lot once we’ve moved back to Old Town. *crosses fingers*)
I love that the co-op is on Twitter. I love that they’re involved in the community. I love the idea that they can be uber-local. But still I feel like something’s missing.
Really a fantastic post that dives into the history and issues that makes this more than just another store. It truly is a “place” and has a great culture not found in other locales. Thanks for posting this.
The reason the co-op partnered with Greeley-based KUNC is because of the station’s strong listener base in Fort Collins. KUNC has a broader reach than KRFC. It makes good business sense to partner with both stations – but especially the one that speaks to your customer and perhaps (now here’s a concept!) potential customers.
I consider our community to be Northern Colorado. If we look upon other towns that make up our community with derision, then we are not embracing what makes this a truly great place to live.
Thanks for the great article in support of YOUR coop. The cooperative model is more important than ever as it represents a distinct alternative to the greed based business as usual that got our country into the mess we are struggling to get out of.
Thanks for the memories. I was there with Bear at the Point & buying bulk food (ordering and picking up once a week) and going to college and living cheaply but healthy. I have been a member of the Fort Collins Food Co-Op ever since–trading or bartering human labor hours for membership, paying a yearly due and now becoming a member owner (“what a long strange trip it’s been”).
You bet we need the Co-op (“to eat low on the food chain and to live high on the water shed”) with simple natural food & pure water, more locally produced food, being more sustainable, striving for better prices, competing in the market place, etc; but it’s not all about the food. The spirit of a locally owned food coop, created by local folks-sustained by local folks, attacts like minded folks-to network with, share life with, learn from, etc. It’s about learning how to live with yourself and with others (the inner world and the outer world). For me this a big part of why I am a suporter of the Food Co-Op & it would be very sad to not have it. So it is up to all of the like minded folks to not let this happen.–Bon Appetit Wayne
I am glad I stumbled upon this blog entry today (17 Oct). I have been struggling to find my identity as someone who eats, practically all my life. For a while I though I had found it at Whole Foods in Fort Collins, even helping open the store and working there a few years. Yet, I realized that I really wasn’t connecting with my food.
What is a food identity? Among other things, it’s the ability to identify your food. Not just what the vegetable or fruit or processed item is, but to know where it came from, who grew or made it, when it was made or grown. To know the person grew it. Asparagus from Argentina in January purchased from WF simply doesn’t fit in with my food identity, because I can’t identify the food fully enough.
I am beginning to have a strong food identity now. I vermicompost, buy foods from farmers markets and subscribe to a CSA. I would like to see the coop fit in with my forming identity.
The food coop’s ability to bring in truly local, not just ‘signed as local’, foods will bring me in, if the food is fresh and various. I have tried to shop the coop previously and did not stay because of some of the issues this blog claims are being addressed; I hope they are! And even though it may be a few miles out of my way, the additional bicycle time would be good for me.
Additionally, in a discussion recently with a few friends about the failing economy, we reasoned that the best thing we can do for ourselves, friends, families, and neighbors, is to embolden the local economy rather than the global. To this end, shopping the food coop is a strong action to take. It supports people who live around us, and provides opportunity for strengthening our food identity. And the more we shop the coop, the better the food quality and selection will be, the better we will know ourselves, our friends, neighbors, and farmers.