The Return of the Co-op

January 19th, 2011 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on The Return of the Co-op

Food co-ops first appeared in the United States in the first part of the 20th century. They made a significant resurgence during the 1960’s and 70’s during the counterculture movement and are largely responsible for much of the retail evolution of organic and natural foods that we know today. Long before the modern day natural food store arrived, and certainly before the larger conventional chain stores emerged as a shopping destination for organic foods, it was pretty much the food co-ops and buying clubs that sustained the industry. Co-op members created places to purchase whole, unrefined foods and became trailblazers in the natural foods movement. During this period, cooperatives were opening at a much faster pace than the independent natural foods stores and smaller health food stores. While today’s natural foods stores reflect investments of millions of dollars simply to renovate their buildings, earlier food coops were the essence of simplicity, better known for their bulk food selection, wooden shelves, and handwritten signs.

During the 1980’s and 90’s co-ops saw very little, if any growth. As the 80’s rolled around, it seemed to be a complete disengagement from much of the 1960’s and 70’s culture, and even though organic and natural foods were thriving, the shopping vessels for these foods quickly outgrew the wooden shelves and handwritten signs, moving into the more modern, upscale look that became so popular during the 1980’s and 90’s.

But over the past few years, as the economy has taken a bit of a hit, and with locally grown foods becoming very popular, we are beginning to see a resurgence in food co-ops and buying clubs, particularly focused on selling organic and natural foods. Today, there are 300 food co-ops nationwide, but that number is expected to nearly double over the next several years, as there are currently 200 new co-ops in the works around the country.

While I appreciate as much as anyone the architecture and design that has gone into some of the retail stores in the past 20 years, it also strikes me that it really is just a place to buy food and hang out with wonderful people. My concern is that if the design and architecture of retail stores continues to evolve at the very same pace for the next 20 years, it will eventually seem like we’re buying our food from a museum rather than a store; and that’s enough to make me long for the wooden shelves and bulk foods. Amidst these challenging economic times it’s nice to see that co-ops are making a comeback, and perhaps even leading the way once again. There’s nothing like a second act!