Sun-filled windows and a visible store front have long marked the Crow Wing Food Coop on Washington Street, but a new manager hopes to get people to look beyond the colorful windows.
Inside is a small store, open to the public, with organically grown vegetables, brown eggs, almonds, bulk dry goods and a focus on a healthy lifestyle.
"Our specialty is organic food," said new manager Barbara "B.J." Allen. Recently, Allen took over from Don Gorham who managed the coop for 13 years. "A lot of people come here to get our organic produce and organic dairy."
"I think people really get hooked on organic foods once you start trying them you really taste the difference." B. J. Allen General Manager Crow Wing Food Coop
Established in 1979, the Crow Wing Food Coop was part of a wave of cooperatives that cropped up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Gorham said people were looking for more natural food and an alternative to supermarkets.
"Minnesota really has a tradition of coops," Gorham said, adding people of Finnish descent established a number of farmer coops. The food coops began in Minneapolis, Duluth and St. Cloud and by the late 1970s had spread to Little Falls, Crosby, Hackensack and Brainerd.
Gorham said high inflation helped create an interest in saving money.
By the late 1980s, eating natural foods started to get mainstream interest and supermarkets added natural food sections. That competition forced some small stores to close while others had to rethink their niche market, Gorham said. The Crow Wing Food Coop has about 100 members. Nine people serve on the coop's board. Coop members own at least four shares in the coop costing $15 each. They receive store discounts.
"We definitely have been one of the survivors," he said, adding the grass roots idea of members owning the food coop and creating a store open to the public still appeals. "I really think there is a role for food coops."
Working with farmer coops, the store is able to provide honey and meat among its other produce. Allen said bulk items such as oats are also popular. The produce section has organic mushrooms, oranges, grapefruit and apples. People who have food allergies can also find soy milk and wheat free items. One customer stops in for Neapolitan rice cream once a week.
Allen said people who eat in a healthy way or make items from scratch can feel isolated.
"I really want to build a sense of community," she said. "It's not like I'm constructing it, but the coop is a place that can bring them together."
Plans are to use member's expertise to offer classes in everything from yoga classes, to granola and sushi making, to creating organic remedies for poison ivy. Allen said she wants to offer a different class once a month. Allen also plans to have canvas bags and clothing from Wildrose Farms in Pequot Lakes.
The store has retained the pressed tin ceiling from the building's past. In March, work will begin to create a small seating area in the store's front section by the large windows. Customers will be able to buy their lunch and eat in the store.
"We are trying to give the place a little bit of a face lift," Allen said.
Gorham said another consideration for the future is moving the store back to downtown Brainerd where it could be part of a central food market and fill a void in an area where all the grocery stores have left.
"I think that is a role we can fulfill," he said. "I feel pretty good about it."
The store is open until 6 p.m. during the weekdays, but Allen said she would like to extend hours. The coop is looking for more volunteers from the membership.
"I think people really get hooked on organic foods once you start trying them you really taste the difference," Allen said. "... We need more support in order to survive. We are trying to reach out to the members we already have. The idea of a coop really appeals to people and a lot of people don't know we really exist."
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