Anoka co-op reinvents itself -- organically, of course

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 28, 2010 - 4:25 PM

Despite changes in ownership and name, the Grass Roots Co-op remains a constant in a city without supermarket chains.

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Jennifer Delgado cooks at the Grass Roots Co-op in Anoka. The store is celebrated for its hometown feel.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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After a quarter-century, the Grass Roots Co-op has returned to its grass roots.

Along with a return to independence, after its break earlier this year with the Lakewinds group that runs food cooperatives in Minnetonka and Chanhassen, the newly named co-op has brought back old recipes from the original Anoka Co-op cookbook.

But through two major changes in operations -- in 2003, when Lakewinds took over, and this past February, when the co-op's local investment group and Lakewinds parted -- the staff and clientele remain pretty much the same.

"Can't imagine being anywhere else," said Judy Anderson, who has been fixing hot entrees for the weekday lunch crowd for 22 years.

"You rarely find new employees coming in ... because nobody leaves," said Penny McLean, who has been buying spices and working as a cashier at the co-op for six years.

It's not just the only food co-op between Anoka and St. Cloud or between Anoka and Cambridge. Amazingly, it's the only real grocery store in Anoka.

The larger chains are ever-present elsewhere in the county -- especially in Blaine and Coon Rapids. But in the county seat, the Grass Roots Co-op is the closest you'll come to a traditional grocery store.

Not that a store with a huge potted kale plant near the front door has ever tried to be considered traditional.

An all-natural base

At the start of the recession, when other stores faltered, the co-op, then called Lakewinds, went through a slight boom period, said general manager Dave Yarbrough. With clients coming from Elk River, Ramsey, Andover, Coon Rapids, Big Lake, "from all over, we haven't noticed a dropoff at all," Yarbrough said.

A natural foods store, Grass Roots has kept its client base as organic as it has the products purchased from local farms.

Attorneys and judges from the nearby county government center rub elbows at lunch tables with retirees from the nearby Walker Community center. Most members are 35 to 55 years old, and most are women. But there is no cookie-cutter mold to membership -- other than the one-time $90 initial fee.

Liz Erhart, an Anoka bookkeeper, has shopped and eaten at the co-op through its various incarnations at two locations. Teacher Tom Carlson has eaten lunch here almost every working day for 18 years.

Bob Munns, a retired lawyer, eats at the co-op five days a week. Sometimes he orders soup. Some days it's tuna melts.

"They know what I want the second I walk in the door," he said.

Cramped quarters

Falina Stammer, a massage therapist from Ramsey, strolled down the cereal aisle, looking for brown-rice crisps for her year-old son, Vincent. While some stores may be more spacious, "Here, there's a hometown feel," she said.

Cramped but comfortable in a 1,900-square-foot store that just isn't large enough to house many new products at once, the place remains unpredictable day to day.

"I love it," said Jennifer Delgado, who has been making mostly gluten-free meals professionally for 25 years, but only recently began working behind the counter at this co-op.

Between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., Delgado, Anderson and dessert-whiz Julie Tague cook for up to 120 people daily. The menu changes every day, but the same customers return.

"We're tiny," said Delgado, who was raised in Anoka. "It's nice to recognize customers, person to person."

The place where everybody knows your name may eventually move to a larger space in town, Yarbrough predicts.

"But we don't want to change things," he said. "You don't have to reinvent the wheel."

Kate Daysh grew up in Anoka and now teaches in Australia. She recently ate lunch at the co-op she says she frequented 15 years ago.

"I still come here to buy my breakfast cereal," she said. "Where else would I go?"

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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