A grass-roots effort to open a food cooperative in Robbinsdale is gaining steam after the community’s only grocery store closed in April.

More than 150 people filled the gym at that city’s Elim Lutheran Church on June 24 to discuss the potential for a food co-op. They heard from Robbinsdale Mayor Regan Murphy, City Council Member Pat Backen and Katya Pilling from the Landon Group, a St. Paul-based development consulting firm hired by Robbinsdale.

The crowd listened to a presentation and watched two videos describing the basic principles that define food co-ops. Then attendees — who included state Sen. Ann Rest and state Rep. Mike Freiberg — offered feedback on what they would like to see from a co-op in Robbinsdale.

At the end of the meeting, about 20 people signed up to be on a citizen-run steering committee dedicated to the cause, which will be formalized at an Aug. 12 meeting.

“I woke up about 3 in the morning last night and had a heck of a time ­getting back to sleep,” Murphy said in a phone call the day after the meeting. “I couldn’t stop thinking about [the meeting], because it far exceeded our expectations on attendance and energy.”

Backen and Murphy have led the initial charge to get interested parties organized, but they both caution that the city will not be involved in any official capacity and that the effort must be driven by the public.

“In my official capacity I won’t be involved at all … but I’ve sort of grown attached to this little thing, so I’ll likely stay involved as a volunteer,” said Backen, who also serves as the president of the Robbinsdale Economic Development Authority.

Nearly 60 people attended a follow-up meeting on July 1, where groups signed up to staff booths at four summer festivals in the area to build support in surrounding communities.

Wedge expansion?

When it was announced in February that Robbinsdale’s Terrace Center Rainbow Foods would be closing, Backen and Murphy began a campaign to find a new grocery store. Traditional grocers showed little interest in Robbinsdale, citing unfavorable market research, so Backen and Murphy started thinking about a co-op.

They reached out to new Wedge Co-op CEO Josh Resnik after hearing rumors that the Wedge has been looking to open a new location. According to Murphy, Resnik was reluctant to consider Robbinsdale at first, but since has had several informal conversations with the city’s leaders and consultants.

“We’re trying to show [the Wedge] that there’s demand, that there’s people here that are really into the concept of a co-op,” said Murphy.

The success of foodie hot spot Travail Kitchen and Amusements in downtown Robbinsdale has indicated a high local demand for fresh gourmet food. Also, there is a New Hope and north Minneapolis chapter of the Natural Family Buying Club, a co­operative that pools its funds to purchase local organic products at discounted wholesale prices.

A Wedge expansion into Robbinsdale is considered “Plan A” in the Robbinsdale co-op effort because of the Wedge’s solid financial standing and decades of experience at its location in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis. But establishing an entirely new co-op is still considered a viable option.

Resnik declined a request for a phone interview and seemed to downplay the idea of a Robbinsdale expansion via e-mail.

“I know there is a lot of passion for a food co-op in Robbinsdale — both from Mayor Regan Murphy and the residents,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Also, there seems to be a strong food movement in Robbinsdale — headlined by the wildly popular Travail Restaurant. I wish Robbinsdale a lot of success in building a thriving food co-op.”

Robbinsdale’s consultants at the Landon Group seemed to echo those reservations.

“My understanding, in past conversations [with Resnik] was that they’re exploring their options. They have not made a commitment to an expansion at this point,” said Pilling. Landon Group previously consulted on the Seward Co-op expansion and the Wirth Co-op initiative.

‘A daunting process’

Backen, Murphy and other supporters will have to tackle a number of challenges before a food co-op becomes a reality in Robbinsdale.

At the June 24 meeting, Pilling said a good rule of thumb is that a new food co-op should have at least 400 members, and according to the Cooperative Grocer Network, opening a new co-op in a leased space typically costs $250 to $275 per square foot and requires a three- to five-year development timeline.

Furthermore, Robbinsdale and the surrounding communities targeted by organizers — Crystal, New Hope, Golden Valley and north Minneapolis — are less affluent than neighborhoods that typically sustain food co-ops. Five miles south of Robbinsdale, activists in the Harrison neighborhood of Minneapolis still have not realized their dream of opening the Wirth Co-op more than five years after they first organized.

“It’s a daunting process, but everyone is so optimistic and excited, we’re going to keep moving this thing forward,” said Murphy.

Organizations like the Northcountry Cooperative Development Fund and the Food Co-op Initiative offer low-interest financing and an array of advice and technical assistance for fledging co-ops. There also are grants available, and other established co-ops in the metro do their best to help.

For example, the Wirth Co-op has received free financial consulting, $2,200 in employee donations and a $5,000 grant from the Seward Co-op.

Those interested in getting involved in the Robbinsdale co-op effort can visit www.rob binsdalefoodcoop.org.