Drive to bring food co-op to Robbinsdale heats up

  • Article by: BEN JOHNSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 9, 2013 - 4:03 PM

Support is strong, but a battle lies ahead in filling the void left when Rainbow Foods closed.

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Rainbow Foods recently closed its north Minneapolis store, where many Robbinsdale residents shopped for groceries. Now the city of Robbinsdale and many of its citizens would like to either start their own co-op, or entice one of the Twins Cities' existing co-ops to expand there. Residents gathered Monday night, June 24, 2013 at Elim Lutheran Church in Robbinsdale to explore the idea of forming their own co-op. Another exercise a consultant had the meeting attendees perform was to complete partial statements and write their response on a sticky note. Melissa Hansen posted her response to the question "What a Robinsdale coop means to me...." ] JEFF WHEELER • jeff.wheeler@startribune.com

Photo: Photos by JEFF WHEELER • jeff.wheeler@startribune.com,

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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.

  • related content

  • Residents gathered June 24 at Elim Lutheran Church in Robbinsdale to explore the idea of forming their own co-op. A consultant had the attendees complete partial statements and write their response on a sticky note. At top, Melissa Hansen posted her response to the prompt “What a Robbinsdale co-op means to me...”

  • After the June 24 meeting concluded, anyone who wanted to get involved with the establishment of a food co-op was encouraged to meet in the corner of the gym where Katya Pilling, gesturing, advised them how to proceed. Pilling said a new food co-op should generally have at least 400 members to be successful.

  • Robbinsdale residents listened at the meeting about establishing a food co-op. Birdtown is the city’s nickname.

  • Robbinsdale residents arrived for the meeting about starting a food cooperative that was held in the gym at Elim Lutheran Church June 24. The launch could take three to five years.

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