Oryana Celebrates 50 Years

Oryana Food Co-op, 123 1/2 W. Front St, Traverse City, 1973

History | Events | Co-op Timeline | 50th Newsletter articles

Our co-op, like most food co-ops, had humble beginnings. It all started when a few families got together to buy healthy food in bulk quantities because they couldn’t find the whole foods they were looking for in local grocery stores. Vegetarians had few options in those days and if you wanted to bake your own whole wheat bread or make your own hummus from scratch, good luck. The dozen or so families established the club in the community room behind the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company office and started making their list of what to buy together. On June 18, 1973, this small group officially became the Oryana Food Cooperative. Soon after, the group found a wholesaler, the People’s Food Co-op, in Ann Arbor, and began making regular trips to pick up their 50 lb bags of flour, brown rice, and 5 gallon containers of peanut butter. They built up a small stock and stored it on Tom and Nancy Lucci’s back porch.

The co-op grew and hopscotched around a few times; they borrowed the back of Third Level Crisis Center on 16th Street and another space by Ace Hardware on Front Street before settling on a permanent location.

In 1974 the co-op moved to its first formal storefront on 123 1/2 West Front Sreet in an upstairs space. It boasted 600 square feet and volunteers took charge of its operation. The late Linda Henry, who was one of Oryana’s founding members, recalled some early memories of that space. 

“It was pretty crummy when we first got there. People would just come and hang out and play guitars and stuff. Some would even sleep there all night. We bought this big, old refrigerator for all the cheese and milk. We thought it was such a great deal, maybe $20, but then we had to get a new motor and freon and that was $120, a huge expenditure. Back then if we brought in $15 or $20 a day, it was a good day. If we made $100 on a bake sale or a benefit, it was like a big windfall.”

Eventually, the People’s Co-op wholesale operation evolved into the Michigan Federation of Food Co-ops, which ran its own mill and warehouse, selling Michigan-grown organic grains, beans, and flour to co-ops nationwide. In 1975 Oryana started receiving truck deliveries rather than sending volunteers to the downstate warehouse, and sales were at $15,000. 

We love to hear stories of early Oryana volunteers, lugging heavy bags up the stairs. “It was all hands on deck when the truck arrived,” Jim Crockett recalled. “I remember the long staircase on Front Street. Someone would call me up and tell me the truck is on the way and I’d go and help if it was my turn. I carried 100-pound bags up those stairs.” 

Rob Serbin also remembered those early days. “I remember schlepping 50 pound bags of flour, cases of juice, and five gallon pails of peanut butter, fire drill-style while the truck was double parked near the curb. I’d get a call from Becky Mang or Debra Trowbridge with very little notice, typically with the plea that the truck is going to be here in 45 minutes and can I help? And when I could, I would team up with whomever else could make it, hopefully logging in the 6 hours a month that entitled a household to the working discount, 15% off the normal co-op prices.” To keep track of inventory, a giant green chalkboard listed all the prices of products. 

As the co-op became more popular and needed more space, a building was found on Randolph Street, an old print shop and photography studio. Oryana purchased the building and fully remodeled it. Mike Williams spearheaded the renovations. 

Oryana continued to blossom at this location and launched some ambitious projects. In 1981 Oryana hosted its first community banquet, which was the first introduction for many people to delicious “natural” foods. In 1985 the co-op purchased land on Cherry Bend Rd. and constructed a commercial soy and deli kitchen space. At this facility they made tofu and tempeh, as well as hummus, eggrolls, tabouleh, spinach pie, and lots of other tasty items. Oryana enjoyed great community support on Randolph Street before moving to the current location at 260 E. 10th Street in 1997. 

Today, Oryana Community Co-op continues to thrive with two locations, over 10,000 owners, 200 employees, nearly 200 local vendors, and $32 million in total sales. We couldn’t have done it without you, our owners! We THANK YOU for joining and patronizing your co-op and giving us your feedback so we can continue to improve and provide our community with the highest quality food and a place for gathering where we can mingle and enjoy convivial times together.

Oryana Through The Years

The idea for a buying club emerges. A group of families gets together and starts ordering natural foods in bulk. They travel downstate to pick the food up. The name “Oryana” is chosen for the co-op.

  • Oryana moves into a formal store space on Front St. in Traverse City.
  • The co-op starts receiving truck deliveries where volunteers must haul 50 lb bags of goods up one flight of stairs.
  • Oryana hires its first paid employees.
  • In 1977, Oryana boasts 400 member families, charges $5 a year membership fee
  • 1977 total store sales: $44,000
  • Mike Williams becomes General Manager in 1978.
  • Oleson’s makes whole wheat bread for Oryana, at a retail price of 99 cents/loaf.
  • Oryana moves to Randolph St. store location in 1980. Volunteers gut the space and build out everything from scratch including fixtures.
  • Oryana purchases tofu production equipment from Grain Train Food Co-op in Petoskey.
  • Oryana holds its first community banquet and Tim Nielsen creates the first logo in 1981.
  • The first member handbook is created.
  • Oryana starts making deli food.
  • Oryana purchases its first computer.
  • Monthly store sales in 1984 reach $6,000.
  • The co-op builds a food service facility on Cherry Bend Rd. in 1985.
  • In 1988 Oryana reaches $1,000,000 in sales.
  • Sharon Juozapavicus replaces Mike Williams as General Manager
  • Oryana publishes its first cookbook, Live Food, in 1991.
  • Oryana considers purchasing the G & J Bowling Alley for a new store but ultimately decides not to.
  • Oryana starts charging 15% to non-members.
  • Tofu production is at 240 lbs per week in 1992.
  • In 1994 a membership costs $20/single and $29/household.
  • Oryana relocates to the Brown Lumber building on 10th St. in 1997.
  • Oryana reaches $1.5 million in sales in 1998
  • Membership is at 3500 and sales climb to $2 million.
  • The non-member 15% surcharge is eliminated.
  • In 2002, Oryana becomes the first Certified Organic co-op retailer in the country.
  • First scannable member cards put into service in 2005.
  • Oryana makes 400 lbs of tofu per week.
  • Oryana gets its first website.
  • Frances Moore Lappé, hosted by Oryana, visits Traverse City.
  • Automatic doors are installed in the co-op.
  • Oryana starts the community grant program.
  • The popular “What’s For Dinner” program is underway including a cookbook.
  • Oryana installs solar panels on the roof.
  • Oryana’s famous veggie chili wins the Downtown Chili Cook-off.
  • The cafe purchases its first panini grill.
  • Oryana sponsors the Great Lakes Bioneers conference.
  • In 2011, Oryana employs 92 staff.
  • Oryana collaborates with the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa & Chippewa Indians to hold a powwow at the co-op.
  • Oryana creates a 10-year vision called “Oryana Imagined: 2022”
  • Oryana wins the Hagerty Small Business of the Year Award in 2014.
  • Oryana plans to expand with a new store in Acme in 2015, but ultimately decides to postpone expansion for the time being.
  • Lucky’s Market, a national supermarket chain boasting ‘natural foods’ opens in 2017.
  • Oryana members, which we now call ‘owners’ number at 10,700.
  • Oryana acquires a second location in early 2020 during the height of the pandemic.
  • Oryana employs 203 staff.
  • Total store sales in 2022: $33,166,630.