This month marks our 40th year in business. “The co-op” as many people have referred to it over the years, started as a buying club by health-conscious individuals in 1973 and has evolved into Michigan’s largest food cooperative with over $12 million in annual sales.
As a fledging natural foods grocer that started its retail establishment on Front St., and then moved on to larger digs on Randolph Street, we are now solidly planted downtown on Tenth and Lake Streets. What is today a spacious, 9000 square foot facility selling upwards of $1 million dollars worth of organic produce a year, still remains true to its humble beginnings with a philosophy geared toward a quadruple bottom line of people, planet, purpose, and profit.
Although the concept of cooperative enterprise dates back to 1844 England when citizens were fed up with high prices and adulterated foodstuffs and opened their own store, the modern cooperative movement began in the 1970s. People started searching for anti-corporate alternatives to conventional grocery stores that sold little in the way of whole, natural, and organic foods. Food coops were viewed as political as well as economic alternatives to chain groceries. “I was interested in the politics of food,” said Joe Tiedeck, a founding member of Oryana. “Back then, so little of anything was organic. Things were heading toward factory farming, and we were interested in controlling our food sources.”
What has now become mainstream was akin back then to a cultural revolution with its share of growing pains. Founding member Jim Crockett remembered the challenge of seeking out high quality food. “I was one of the first organic farmers; I didn’t use pesticides or conventional fertilizer. They called me the “manure lover” because I didn’t use conventional fertilizer. There was a lot of ill will in those days toward people like us who sought out alternatives.” Oryana co-pioneer David Milarch had a similar memory. “If you were counterculture, the cops weren’t very friendly.” But their efforts prevailed and today the U.S. organic food industry is expected to grow over 12% by 2014.
Oryana is a member-owned business that’s open to everyone, but people still sometimes ask, “Do you have to be a member to shop here?” The notion of member-only sales may persist because, in the past, non-members paid a 15% surcharge on goods, fostering an exclusivist perception. The surcharge was eliminated in 2001. Although membership is optional, the benefits quickly offset the $20 membership fee through member day sales and community partner discounts, among other benefits. The current membership is over 5000 and growing steadily.
With the proliferation of stores such as Whole Foods and other natural foods grocers, Oryana can boast some unique features as a leader in the field of natural foods. In 2002 it was the first co-op in the country to become a certified organic retailer, which for all practical purposes means that every organic product that arrives in the store remains organic and is not subject to cross contamination with non-organic products. The business has always been a big supporter of local farmers and vendors even before the term ‘local’ became trendy; they sell more than 150 locally grown and produced items. And Oryana has the distinction of being the only co-op in the country with its own boutique tofu operation. In 2012 we sold nearly 18,000 pounds of tofu made from organic, Michigan-grown soybeans.
“Oryana has not only succeeded but thrived in these 40 years,” says Steve Nance, our general manager. “I like the term trailhead in so many ways because we’re at the trailhead of the TART trail, who we support. We’re also a trailhead for a lot of the things that go on in our region and we try to bring people doing great work in our area together.”
To celebrate the 40-year milepost, local filmmaker Aaron Dennis of Stonehut Studios created a commemorative video highlighting Oryana’s achievements. You can find the video on Oryana’s website or watch it HERE.
Oryana also commissioned local artist Glenn Wolff to design a poster in his signature, whimsical pen and ink detail. The original hangs in the store and we will have prints for sale, as well as t-shirts.