As a veteran local co-op checks out, a planned start-up asks you to buy in.
Chicago will lose a Depression-era institution this week. After 75 years of service, the financially troubled Hyde Park Co-Op Market at 1526 E 55th Street—perhaps the oldest member-owned grocer in the nation—closes up shop for the final time Sunday 20, leaving 181 employees jobless and countless residents without their longtime neighborhood food source.
The move to shutter the debt-saddled store—which stocks many locally made products—comes after a mid-December vote by its board to accept a buyout proposal from its landlord, the University of Chicago, instead of restructuring through Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The plan absolves the co-op of more than $1 million in back rent, provides cash to pay off creditors and frees the co-op of its million-dollar-per-year lease on the failed 47th Street store acquired during an ill-advised push for expansion in the late ’90s.
For Hyde Park resident and co-op shareholder Cathy Erickson, who has bought her groceries exclusively at the store since 1946, when shoppers still arrived by cable car, the closing signals the end of an era. “It’s sad,” she says, “but it has been a fiasco. I’ve lost money, too. Every member has.”
The co-op’s implosion and the U. of C.’s announcement that the store’s successor will be either Dominick’s or Treasure Island has left some questioning the viability of the food co-op concept.
“It’s a difficult form of governance in a competitive industry,” says Hank Webber, vice president of the U. of C.’s Office of Community and Government Affairs. “Grocery chains bring a marketing expertise and an established track record of high-quality groceries that co-ops don’t.”
Yet in the wake of the Hyde Park Co-Op’s closing, there is new hope for Chicago food co-ops, though on a much smaller scale. The board members of the forthcoming Dill Pickle Food Co-op plan to open a store with a locally grown focus in a 1,000-square-foot space the group purchased in Logan Square, a neighborhood arguably bereft of quality grocery options. Members pay an initial $50 fee to join and get discounts and annual rebates if the store turns a profit.
Some have come to view Dill Pickle—in the works since 2004 and without a definite ETA—as an idealistic pipe dream. But according to board member Kathleen Duffy, the group is cautiously planning at its monthly board meetings and patiently raising funds and recruiting membership (currently numbering 140) with events like the benefit concert on Saturday 19, which will feature performances by local rock bands Detholz!, Pit Er Pat and a DJ set from beloved iconoclast Bobby Conn. Taking the Hyde Park Co-Op’s expansion and subsequent destruction as a cautionary tale, Duffy says the board is happy to take its sweet time. “Seeing Hyde Park go down is scary. I’m not going to lie,” she says. “But we will be able to learn from their mistakes—and I say that with a great degree of sadness.”
The Dill Pickle Food Co-op benefit concert takes place at 8pm Saturday 19 at AV-aerie.