The Wirth Cooperative Grocery wants to open in north Minneapolis by Earth Day 2013.
Some Harrison residents call their north Minneapolis neighborhood a food desert. Their sole full-service grocery closed years ago; it's now the Glenwood Funeral Home. Cub Foods is more than a mile away. Many bus downtown to shop at Target.
Local food options are convenience stores with aisles of such snacks as high-fat Cheetos, super-sized bottles of sugary pop and only a few lemons or tomatoes for produce.
That's why a group of activists is pursuing a food cooperative for the Harrison neighborhood and surrounding areas with a mission "to provide healthy, local and organic food choices." That's despite two earlier efforts that fizzled decades ago.
"It's been the least favorite thing for me living this side of town," said Bryn Mawr resident Jenny Warner, president of the board organizing Wirth Cooperative Grocery. "We really need groceries."
After four years of organizing, the board has begun a public campaign to recruit the 400 members it needs for commercial viability. It's scouting sites, and hopes to open by Earth Day next year. "It's an ambitious goal, but I believe the store will open," Warner said.
If so, the group will need to attract more than a scant 100 members who've pledged the $100 membership fee. Estimates of the capital needed to open a store of several thousand square feet range upward of $1 million.
There's also competition from Cub on West Broadway and Aldi's cut-rate store at Penn and Lowry Avenues, not to mention suburban supermarkets. But Warner said the fact that there are North Side members of the Wedge, a sizable co-op in the Whittier neighborhood, proves there's demand for co-op products. Organizers envision bulk staples like beans and rice plus the greens, flours and spices sought by the area's Somali, Lao and Latino populations, or soy products for the meatless crowd. She said there's also interest from people in nearby Golden Valley or Robbinsdale.
Times have changed
The Wirth group needs only look across the Mississippi River to the Eastside Food Co-op, 2551 Central Av. NE, for proof of demand for cooperative goods outside wealthier South Side neighborhoods. But that business also offers some cautions. It took eight years of organizing to open it in 2003 with 700 members. It raised $1.95 million in startup capital but accumulated $600,000 in losses over several years before turning profitable. And it launched in the days when the city's now-defunct Neighborhood Revitalization Program allowed resident organizations to front $500,000 in loans and grants on favorable terms.
Craig Cox, who wrote the book on Twin Cities food cooperative history, said opening a co-op in an economically mixed area can be difficult. It's tough to straddle the demand for organic and specialty products from upper-middle-class shoppers and the affordable staples sought by low-income consumers. He encountered that conflict when he worked with a group that tried and failed to organize a co-op at 38th Street and 4th Avenue S. "It's tough to get people involved. It's not at the top of the list of things that are important," Cox said.
There are antecedents for food co-ops on the North Side. Cox's book, "Storefront Revolution," devotes only two sentences to the Peoples' Cooperative Union, a short-lived black-led store that in 1969 tried to foster a boycott of white groceries. Later, about a dozen households ran a North Side Food Co-op in the 1970s, first on Broadway, then at several successive sites, giving up after about a dozen years, according to Jennie Downey, one organizer. "Co-ops were not that well understood," she said.
Co-ops have potential
Other co-ops see enough promise to lend the new effort a hand. The Seward Co-op gave a $5,000 grant. Eastside has provided co-operative training and advice on business planning. The initial payroll of eight workers also is attractive in an area starved for jobs.
Eastside General Manager Amy Fields said market studies often overlook areas like the North Side and northeast Minneapolis, determining that they lack sufficient density or buying power. "They don't see what the folks who live there do see," she said.
Allan Malkis, a former researcher with Northway Community Trust, sees assumptions by outsiders. Black neighborhoods get check-cashing businesses, used-furniture stores and hair care shops, "but you don't get trendy things because it's assumed incorrectly that there's not a market," he said.
The Victory neighborhood farther north discussed a food co-op several years ago. So did people living near Plymouth and Penn Avenues. Kris Brogan, a Victory restaurant owner, said she thinks the most pragmatic approach is to ask an existing co-op like the Wedge to open a satellite storefront on the North Side.
The North Side generally has been late to attract amenities. Sit-down restaurants like Brogan's that don't serve fast food are rare there. The area didn't get its first modern coffeehouse until 1996. It was a dead zone for bike shops unti last fall.
Annie Young, a veteran of earlier co-ops, works for the Harrison neighborhood and is helping the project. She remains optimistic. "The North Side has been promised everything by everybody and gets hardly anything," she said. "I really believe once we actually open the door or have a signed lease, then I think people will believe."
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438