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Feature Thu Jan 07 2010

Store Signals New Era of Chicago Food Cooperatives

dillpicklefront.jpgSome 250 people came out to celebrate the grand opening of the Dill Pickle Co-op's Logan Square store last month, an event much longer in the making than the four months it took to transform the former printing shop on the 3000 block of Fullerton Avenue into the vibrant 1,400 square-foot retail space.

Kath Duffy, then a recent transplant to Chicago from the Northeast, had the idea for a new grocery co-op 5 years ago. Having admired different models for making available fresh, organic and affordable food both in Queens and Buffalo, New York, Duffy noticed that there were almost no grocery co-ops in Chicago. There was the now defunct Hyde Park Cooperative Society, but it was difficult to access from her Humboldt Park home.

Seeking other options, in January 2005, Duffy emailed 20 of her friends, asking who might be interested in forming a food cooperative. Her query quickly spread, and ultimately she received over 300 replies. Soon thereafter some 60 people gathered at an artists' cooperative in Humboldt Park--much like the writers, musicians and activists who met at the Jazz-Age Chicago speakeasy after which the Dill Pickle is named--to discuss what a new co-op would look like.

Billy Burdett, the current Dill Pickle Board President, described that first meeting as "kind of chaotic." The people in attendance discussed different models for a cooperative, including the possibility of forming a food-buying club, whereby members would combine purchasing power to split large grocery orders.

Sporadic meetings followed that first gathering, and almost a year later, the core group that had emerged, including Duffy, Burdett and several other current Dill Pickle members, filed the papers to become an Illinois non-profit organization and began in earnest to discuss membership structure.

In early 2007, the Dill Pickle Co-op created its by-laws, began to solidify its governing structure, including electing a board of directors, and determined that members would have equity, or equal shares in the organization. It was around the same time that the Dill Pickle, based on the advice of a lawyer known for his work with co-ops around the country, attempted to register as a cooperative in the state of Minnesota. Unlike Illinois, where the cooperative statute was originally written for agricultural co-ops, Minnesota has among the most progressive cooperative law in the country, addressing specifically grocery cooperatives, dating back to the 1970s, the height of the co-op movement in the US.

In Storefront Revolution: Food Co-ops and the Counterculture, Craig Cox writes that "The cooperative movement would be built from scratch, without an instruction book. It would be pieced together with different-sized nails and boards that didn't match." Such was the case with the Dill Pickle Co-op.

The process of incorporating in Minnesota was riddled with complications, and, as a result, the Co-op found itself filing for incorporation in Illinois. Furthermore, the organization learned that operating a store, as a co-op or not, would be essentially impossible as a non-profit entity. The Dill Pickle therefore switched its incorporation, with the unanimous approval of members, and officially became an Illinois for-profit cooperative early this year.

The organization searched for a retail space during the process of changing their incorporation status, focusing on the Logan Square neighborhood because a majority of members lived there. On a tip from one member, the Co-op secured the storefront on the 3000 block of Fullerton Avenue after learning that the building's new owners were interested in leasing the space to a progressive organization.

The available space was significantly smaller than what groups like the Food Co-op 500 and the Cooperative Grocers' Information Network, which provide resources for the start-up of food cooperatives, recommend for co-ops in urban centers such as Chicago that must compete with stores like Whole Foods. But the Dill Pickle was intent on an operation that would be fully member-financed, and the timing was right. With a start-up budget of $150,000 raised from members and friends, the Co-op began renovating the Fullerton Avenue space this past August and opened its doors to the public early this month.

Now the only food co-op in Chicago, the Dill Pickle currently has about 550 members, three full-time paid staff who manage the store and ambitious plans to reach out to the Logan Square community. It is already working with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association to partner with schools, churches and other area groups to spark conversations on topics such as fresh food, organic gardening and more sustainable lifestyles.

As Burdett explained, co-ops in the US historically have been concentrated in predominantly white, middle-class areas and college towns. The Dill Pickle wants to help change the tide and is intent on forming relationships with and serving the diverse populations of Logan Square. "We want to be everyone's co-op," Burdett said.

The Dill Pickle Co-op is located at 3039 W. Fullerton Ave. Store hours are noon to 8:00pm Monday through Saturday and Sundays 10:00am to 6:00pm.

Mama Jones / January 8, 2010 7:25 AM

High prices, low quality. I'll pass.

LS eater / January 8, 2010 11:47 AM

Prices on fresh produce and dry bulk foods -- the two biggest boons of DPFC in my opinion -- are fair and you can cook a whole, healthier meal just shopping in those two departments. Organic packaged/prepared foods are expensive anywhere, and maybe you can think of those items as occasional luxuries, a well as a way to support organic food, if that's something you believe in. As to quality, the produce is really high quality, in good condition, often local or seasonal, and unique -- lesser known varieties, etc. The dry bulk section offers endless staples, with a great bulk spice section (want to buy one teaspoon of something?) to flavor things. Just saying, don't give up so easily.

Kate / January 8, 2010 5:57 PM

I've shopped here several times already and while some items are priced a little higher than I am used to paying, the things they carry that I usually have to travel for - bulk grains & beans and good quality seitan & tofu - are reasonable and of great quality. All the produce I've gotten here has been really fresh, too.

I love the feel of this store too - it's a very warm and welcoming place, and the staff are super nice and don't mind answering questions or talking about the products. It will take some folks longer than others to get used to the Dill Pickle but I hope they are here to stay!

Dan / January 9, 2010 1:05 AM

Can't wait to check it out. Tomorrow i'll be grocin' at the Dill.

Pollyanna / January 10, 2010 12:26 PM

Do they take the Link Card?

Richard / January 10, 2010 3:39 PM

No, they don't take the Link card, and Mama Jones is right, the quality is poor and the prices are high, especially for the produce. There aren't many vegan options, and my wife eats cheese and found the cheese selection incredibly slim - no mozzarella or goat cheese! oh how I miss the Rainbow Co-op in SF!

Christy / January 11, 2010 9:46 AM

I think people make a mistake when they assume a new retail operation will be fully stocked with everything any potential consumer could want. I'm glad to see Dill Pickle handling its growth incrementally, gauging customer demand before adding new products. They're doing what their capacity allows them to do, rather than peaking early and making themselves vulnerable in the process.

I'm happy to welcome Dill Pickle into a city where the ubiquity and buying power of Whole Foods and Trader Joe's stacks the deck against small, independent co-ops. Between DP, my nearby Mexican supermercado, and the Logan Square indoor market, I'm able to buy all my groceries on foot, bicycle, or CTA without having to step into a chain store. Yay!

Jerry / January 11, 2010 11:49 AM

I really like the store, but I thought one of the advantages of a co-op would be lower prices, since they are not in business for profit. I'm happy to go there for a few items, but I can't imagine filling my fridge there. I hope they can remedy the price issue in the next year.

Kath / January 13, 2010 12:20 PM

The LINK application was submitted as soon as we were permitted to do so - immediately after we got our business license - and should be finalized shortly. We'll let you know as soon as it's ready.

Kath / January 13, 2010 12:21 PM

@Jerry - Actually, the Dill Pickle, like most consumer co-operatives, IS a for profit business.

emilyw / January 13, 2010 1:57 PM

Jerry, you're probably under the impression that it's a nonprofit because those people at the Logan square farmers market table for the coop kept telling everyone it was notforprofit, and asking for DONATIONS in a jar labeled "give change to see change.".

Jason / January 14, 2010 8:39 AM

The Pickle is an Illinois for-profit co-operative corporation; prior to July 2009, it had been a not-for-profit corporation. There were many reasons why not-for-profit status was neither feasible nor desirable: the Pickle could never have qualified for federal tax-exempt status, annual member rebates (a central co-op feature) would have been difficult, and in IL a co-op can qualify as not-for-profit if it's in the business of "providing goods, services or facilities primarily for the benefit of members" and the Pickle is not a members-only co-op -- it is open to the general public.

However, many people -- possibly including some who volunteered at the co-op's Farmers Market table and weren't informed about these legal technicalities -- are under the impression that if a business is socially-responsible and/or uses an "alternative" business model, it must be a not-for-profit (and vice versa). This is a common misunderstanding.

The fact that donations (or DONATIONS as EMILYW put it) were requested and collected is completely unrelated to any of these corporate status issues. No one ever claimed that donations to the co-op were tax-deductible.

Billy / February 1, 2010 2:05 AM

Hi Richard, Mama Jones, and others,

Thanks for coming by and checking us out! We hate to disappoint anybody, and please know that we are working very hard to address issues of affordability, product selection and product quality. We are a brand new, independent business that is owned by more than 600 community members, and we are doing our best to work out the early kinks.

I hope that you'll come back to the Dill Pickle soon; we have expanded our cheese selection (it now includes mozzarella, goat cheese, and many other cheeses, including lower priced selections), our produce section has been growing and you will be hard-pressed to find organic produce of a higher quality, and while it should be understood that there are inherent challenges for an independent grocer that is unable to purchase large volumes of items to to be able to offer organic, locally produced goods at low prices, we are constantly working to bring prices down. We are currently developing a "Basic Needs Basket" program, which identifies nutritious staple items and offers them at extremely competitive prices. We also will soon be able to take LINK cards.

Thank you for your input!

Sincerely,
Billy Burdett

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