In 2018, Curious City listener Katie Hansen asked, “Why doesn’t Chicago have more co-op-style grocery stores?” Especially since smaller cities like Madison and Minneapolis have vibrant co-op scenes. When Monica Eng set out to find the answer, she discovered Chicago had only one of these options: in the Logan Square neighborhood, with another co-op in Oak Park.
Food cooperatives provide an alternative to chain grocery stores by inviting shoppers to become co-owners who take part in the store’s decision-making process. They typically support local farms, offer fresh produce, and pay staff competitive wages, among other shared values.
In his report, Eng discovered a new wave of food cooperatives on the horizon in the area in various stages of planning, fundraising and attracting owner-members. They stretched from Rogers Park on the north side to the Austin neighborhood on the west side — and into the suburbs — and were just starting to sprout. They were part of the national third wave of cooperatives that has been slowly spreading for a couple of decades. But then came the pandemic. What happened to that burgeoning movement?
Well, Curious City has an update to Hansen’s question…
The wild onion market
In the Chicago area, the pandemic has had a mixed effect on food cooperatives. Take, for example, the wild onion market in Rogers Park, which was heavily planned when the pandemic hit. They could no longer hold in-person meetings or fundraising events. But it wasn’t all bad news.
“Interestingly, during the pandemic – with many supply chain issues, grocery store shelves were empty – we have seen a huge increase in ownership. It was just the excitement about the co-op, you know, hockey stick growth, as they say,” said board chairman Jillian Jason.
Currently, the Wild Onion Market has over 1,400 members, just 400 fewer than their target. They are renovating a closed grocery store and is scheduled to open next spring, at 7007 N. Clark St.
The Chicago Market
A few miles south of Wild Onion, another cooperative is about to open in the abandoned Uptown Station, which used to be the stop for the Wilson Red Line. The nearly 100-year-old building is a historic piece of architecture in the neighborhood. The Chicago Market he bought it in hopes of renovating and preserving it.
“So we have an old building that was run down and disused. We are rehabilitating and saving that important piece of architecture for the community,” said General Manager Dan Arnett.
The Chicago market was originally scheduled to open in 2020. But due to a series of setbacks, the owners of the cooperative chose to redesign their concept to include a bar, wellness space and kitchen for the cooking courses. The heightened ambition, coupled with inflation, raised overall costs from $7 million to $11.5 million, according to Arnett.
The project will go forward because Arnett’s team was able to secure $5 million in tax increase funding, or TIF money, from the Chicago Department of Development and Planning. The Chicago market hopes to open in late 2023.
The Austin Community Food Co-op
But what about cooperatives in areas where funding is hard to find and the need for access to food and healthy options is even greater?
The Austin Community Food Co-op it was in early development when the pandemic hit. Because they had no venue, they also faced a lack of communal gathering spaces and fundraising opportunities.
The young cooperative from Austin has taken a step back. They have maintained a presence through social media and virtual outreach, and are now looking forward. They are actively recruiting members and hiring staff.
In total, there are six cooperatives under development in and around Chicago. But it is important to keep in mind that only 50-75% of cooperatives actually manage to open, according to the initiative of food cooperatives.
But when they do, co-op organizers say competition and the innovations they bring about are key. They increase options for customers and soften the blow of consolidations, such as the recent merger of the country’s two largest grocery chains.
When co-ops are added to the mix, Arnett says, customers have more choices, better quality and perhaps even lower prices. Which, finally in Chicago, seems like a real possibility.
Monica Eng is a reporter for Axios Chicago. JP Swenson is Curious City Luminary Fellow.