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Feature Thu Jan 07 2010
Some 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.