Seeds of change
Once a typical corner grocery, Edgewater's True Nature Foods is growing into the city's first natural-food cooperative
When Paula Companio started gathering information on natural and organic food cooperatives eight years ago, few residents of Edgewater, where she worked at a grocery store, were familiar with the concept. But after getting financial assistance from the city and community support, Companio's little corner store that could, True Nature Foods, is on its way to becoming Chicago's first natural-food co-op.
Companio has the City of Chicago and Edgewater's Chamber of Commerce to thank. When the city called for grant applicants to pitch ideas on alternative recycling methods in February 2004, Edgewater's Chamber of Commerce offered an idea that it had been marinating for a while: recycling corrugated cardboard, which is 90 percent of a retail business's waste.
The chamber knew that True Nature Foods (6034 N Broadway at Norwood St, 773-465-6400) had already begun recycling its own cardboard on a small scale. It was also aware that a lot adjacent to True Nature Foods, rented by an auto-repair garage, had become an eyesore to its neighbors. Companio had been eyeing the lot as a logical place to expand her business, which she said had become "too big for its britches." At the same time, the city needed space to install a baler for large-scale cardboard recycling. Joining forces would allow the chamber and Companio to achieve their respective goals.
Chamber of commerce executive director Sheli Lulkin recognized this as a win-win situation. "Here comes True Nature Foods, and they want to expand," Lulkin recalls. "They're green, they're healthy and they sell organic foods. Paula's saying she wishes she had the money to rent the space behind the garage, and we'd like to get rid of that garage."
Fifty thousand dollars and about six months later, the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce became one of the city's five grant recipients, and Companio signed a lease agreement to rent both the lot and the garage. The grant money was divvied up to purchase and maintain the baler and to pay Companio one year of rent for sharing her space.
Now that she has the financing and space to expand, Companio can finally take steps to realize her dream of turning True Nature Foods into a co-op. A South Side native, Companio became a True Nature Foods employee 13 years ago to supplement her nutrition knowledge for her full-time gig as a personal trainer. At that time, True Nature Foods sold vitamins and body-care products exclusively. A few years down the road, Companio found herself browsing the Internet every night after work researching co-ops around the world, from Park Slope in Brooklyn, to Madison, Wisconsin, to Italy. Seeing what True Nature Foods could become, she gave her boss an ultimatum: Either he could convert the shop into a natural-food co-op selling locally farmed goods that contain no pesticides or chemicals, or she was leaving. Since she was the driving force behind True Nature Food's loyal customer base, he really had no choice. "I am True Nature," she says. Seeing zero profit in becoming a co-op, her boss sold her the business in 2000.
"I tell her she's our guru," says longtime True Nature Foods shopper Helen Lambdin. "[True Nature] has this neighborhood feel that's reminiscent of a small town but in an urban setting."
On the one hand, Companio has the savvy and experience of a dedicated businesswoman, having scoured business models and data research on cooperatives for the past eight years. But the overall context in which she speaks of her relationship to True Nature Foods is predominantly spiritual, as though she has no choice in the matter other than to lead the community toward adopting the co-op lifestyle. For her, it is as much about ethics as it is health. Besides enhancing the lives of her customers, she aspires to improve the lives of the farmers producing the food; her commitment to organic foods weighs on the knowledge that organic farming entails fair wages and good working conditions.
While she retains a surprising measure of idealism, Companio's lofty aspirations are grounded in the reality that the cooperative venture must remain financially viable. Cooperatives create a reliable client base by establishing a membership, though it's not always necessary to become a member to shop at the store. Independent stores like True Nature Foods benefit from becoming a co-op because it enables them to join a buying group called Co-op America, a conglomeration of co-ops across the country. By receiving discounts for buying in bulk, the cooperatives can sell products to their members at lower prices. At the end of the year, after paying all of the store's expenses, the co-op board members have the option of refunding leftover money to all of its members.
"When I get it cheaper, you get it cheaper," Companio says. "In a co-op, you have a voice in your market, and everyone is owner-minded."
Recognizing that the concept of a publicly owned grocery sounds foreign to a capitalist society, Companio is baby-stepping the Edgewater community through True Nature Foods' transition from retail store to co-op. Companio hopes to initiate the next step in that transition in early 2006, when she'll invite shoppers to become members in a True Nature Foods buying club. Club members pay an annual fee of $25, which the store will use to buy discounted food in bulk. Once True Nature has 3,000 buying club members, Companio says she'll be able to launch a full-fledged, financially self-sustaining co-op.
After stocking shelves with natural and organic foods when the store changed hands, Companio introduced three different producer co-ops to sell directly to the customers in her store: an organic produce farm called King's Hill Farm and two pasture-fed meat and raw dairy–producing Amish farms. While True Nature Foods does not take any profit from the co-ops' sales, Companio sees a benefit in drawing people to the store.
"We make a profit by gaining community support," she explains. "Hopefully when they're here they'll pick up some food. So they'll know about the store. I'm getting closer to my goal of teaching the community what a co-op is by having three smaller ones within the retail setting."
Meanwhile, a thriving co-op in Sacramento has functioned as Companio's touchstone. She consults with the staff about business matters and receives its newspaper, gawking at the items on sale for prices lower than she pays at wholesale. "[The newspaper] is like this little golden chocolate bar," she says. "It gives me fuel that it can be done, and I'm not imagining it."
By attaching a face to the food source, she bridges the gap that many of us neglect to consider when buying packaged goods. She emphasizes education as a key component in gaining the community's support to build True Nature into a co-op.
"I hold the clean food source," she says, "and I'm trying to provide it affordably, which would make a stronger community. I see this project as holding their hands and taking the community into the future of food."