EFC History

 Early NECC organizers, around 1997.

A Brief History of the Eastside Food Co-op
By Leslie Watson, Former EFC Board President

Self-christened “The Little Co-op That Could,” the Eastside Food Co-op opened its store in Northeast Minneapolis on December 4, 2003, against considerable odds. Many doubted our ability to establish a natural foods co-op in our community because of its demographic make-up, its relatively modest income levels, and the shopping patterns of its residents. We prevailed thanks to the perseverance of a core group of volunteers, enthusiastic community support, and financial investment from many sources. The cooperative community has seen a steady stream of new co-ops in recent years, but when EFC opened in 2003, we were among a small handful of successful start-ups nationwide during the previous decade, and the first new co-op in the Twin Cities in over 25 years.

EFC Board, 2000:  Back: Kevin Reich, Alison Sharkey, Stephanie Lundeen, Brian Lammers, Melanie Brunell. Front: Jeff Zeitler, Ginny Sutton, and Kathy Ahlers.

Putting Down Roots

Longtime Northeasters may recall the area's original food co-op, which closed in the 1980s. In 1996, EFC's predecessor, the Northeast Community Cooperative, rekindled an on-again, off-again effort to re-open a co-op in the neighborhood. Organizers were able to recruit 135 members before the effort faltered, due in part to the challenge of finding a suitable location. In March 1999, under the guidance of a new Board of Directors, the organization changed its name to the Eastside Food Cooperative, embracing the section of the city that lies north of downtown and east of the river (i.e., Northeast and Southeast). Under the leadership of board president Ginny Sutton, the group once again resumed the slow work of realizing the dream of a community-owned grocery in our part of town. In 2000, the Holland Neighborhood Improvement Association awarded a grant to Eastside to fund a part-time project manager. Fortunately for us, this first paid staff person, Ken Jerome-Stern, loosely interpreted "part-time," ultimately living and breathing the Co-op for the next several years. 

EFC Parade Marchers Can't Be Beet, 2002.

Volunteers and board members also logged countless hours organizing bake sales and plant sales, holding house parties and community dinners, and staffing an EFC table at almost every community event. In 2000, then-board member Stephanie Lundeen founded the Northeast Farmers Market as a Co-op project in the St. Boniface Church parking lot.

Stephanie Lundeen staffs the Co-op table at the NE Farmers Market, 2000.

The Farmers Market gave the community a place to gather and connect around issues of food, and provided a regular meeting spot for co-op enthusiasts, both old and new. (Now an independent organization, the Northeast Minneapolis Farmers Market just celebrated its 10th anniversary!)

Picking up Shovels

By late 2002, the Co-op's membership was growing and we had started to build a member loan fund, but efforts to find affordable, desirable rental space had yet to yield fruit. At that point, the Board of Directors realized that the best strategy to secure a site might be to simply buy our own building. Negotiations proceeded on a 12,000-square foot building at 26th and Central Avenue, then home to a discount bakery outlet, a dollar store, and an auto parts retailer. Originally built as a grocery store, the building was ideally suited to our needs, and included ample parking, existing tenants, and room for future expansion.

In March 2003, the Board made a leap of financial faith and approved a purchase agreement on the building. The total project price tag, including the building purchase, was just under $2 million. Our $100,000 downpayment was financed by member loans, and Northeast Bank agreed to serve as our primary lender. We received major financial backing from the neighborhood associations of Audubon Park, Holland, Sheridan, Waite Park, and Windom Park, which committed a total of $500,000 in low-interest, long-term Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) loans. Additional member loans, commercial loans, vendor credit, and loans from other Twin Cities co-ops filled in the gaps.

A patchwork of financial support and many long years of hard work and good luck had brought Eastside Food Co-op to the threshold of having its own store. The final, necessary ingredient for our success fell into place in April 2003, when we hired Amy Fields to serve as the Co-op's first general manager. Amy, who relocated her family from Kansas to the Twin Cities to join Eastside, brought years of management experience that included successfully leading Community Mercantile cooperative  in Lawrence, Kansas, through a financial crisis in the 1990s. Her practical idealism and passionate commitment to her new community soon became one of our most priceless assets.

EFC Groundbreaking, 2003.

Our project partners.

A co-op waiting to happen!


Pat Hickey, Rod Stewart, and Kathy Brewer on the EFC Precision Shopping Cart Drill Team, 2004 Northeast Parade.

Rolling Carts Down the Aisle—and the Avenue

Store construction began in August 2003, and the Eastside Food Co-op opened for business on December 4, 2003. In our first five years EFC’s member households almost quadrupled, from 750 to over 2700. We had sales of over $2 million in our first year, which grew to $3.8 million by 2008 and have continued to exceed projections ever since. A recent survey of pedestrians by the Northeast Community Development Corporation identified Eastside as the number one shopping destination on Central Avenue. Not only have we become an anchor of Central Avenue, but our Marching Grocers precision shopping cart drill team is a perennial favorite at the annual Northeast Parade!

The EFC Carrot, created by Clay Squared to Infinity artists.

The Co-op has many written policies that guide our efforts to operate a socially conscious, community-minded business. Consistent with these policies, we provide our customers with products and services that are environmentally sound and socially responsible, and that promote the health of the individual and the planet. We embrace practices and make decisions that support a healthy, sustainable environment, and recognize the connections between our neighborhood and the communities of the world. We provide and support a market for local and organic agriculture and foods. And we give preference to spending the Co-op's money so that it stays in both our geographic and cooperative community.

As of September 2009, over 2800 member households owned the Eastside Food Co-op, a number that grows every day. We are governed by a voluntary, democratically-elected Board of Directors and operated by a paid staff. We strive to maintain a safe, participatory workplace that promotes fair and respectful relationships, and that operates efficiently for the long-term benefit of our employees, our members, and our community. Members are the Co-op’s backbone, supporting it financially, participating in its governance, and shopping loyally in its friendly, neighborly aisles.
 

 

To read the story of our start-up by former Board President Ginny Sutton, from the March-April 2004 Edition of Cooperative Grocer magazine, click here.