Illustration of a crate of produce labelled “Chicago Co-Op: Urbs in Horto” with “update” stamped over it.
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Illustration of a crate of produce labelled “Chicago Co-Op: Urbs in Horto” with “update” stamped over it.
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Back in 2018, Curious City listener Katie Hansen asked, “Why doesn’t Chicago have more co-op style grocery stores?” Especially since smaller cities like Madison and Minneapolis have lively co-op scenes. When Monica Eng set out to find the answer, she found that Chicago had only one such option – in the Logan Square neighborhood, with one additional co-op in Oak Park.

Food co-ops provide an alternative to chain grocery store shopping by inviting buyers to become co-owners who take part in the store’s decision making. They typically support local farms, offer fresh produce and pay staff competitive wages, among other shared values.

In her reporting, Eng discovered a new wave of food co-ops on the horizon in the area in various stages of planning, fundraising and attracting member-owners. They spanned from Rogers Park on the northside to the Austin neighborhood on the westside – and into the suburbs – and were just starting to sprout. They were part of the national third wave of co-ops that has been slowly spreading for a couple decades. But then the pandemic hit. Whatever happened to that burgeoning movement?

Well, Curious City has an update to Hansen’s question…

The Wild Onion Market

Signs in the windows of the Wild Onion Market.
Signs in the windows of the Wild Onion Market. Courtesy of the Wild Onion Market

In the Chicago area, the pandemic had a mixed effect on food co-ops. Take, for example, the Wild Onion Market in Rogers Park, which was deep into planning when the pandemic hit. They could no longer hold in-person meetings or fundraising events. But it wasn’t all bad news.

“Interestingly, during the pandemic – with a lot of the supply chain issues, grocery store shelves were empty – we saw a huge surge in ownership. It was just the excitement for the co-op, you know, hockey stick growth, as they say,” said Board President Jillian Jason.

Currently, the Wild Onion Market has over 1,400 members – just 400 shy of their goal. They are in the process of rehabbing a shuttered grocery store, and are slated to open this coming spring, at 7007 N. Clark St.

The Chicago Market

A few miles south of the Wild Onion, another co-op is about to open in the abandoned Uptown Station, which used to be the Wilson Red Line stop. The nearly 100-year-old building is a historic piece of architecture in the neighborhood. The Chicago Market purchased it in the hopes of renovating and preserving it.

“So we’ve got an old building that was in disrepair and disuse. We’re rehabilitating and saving that important piece of architecture for the community,” said general manager Dan Arnett.

The historic Uptown Station, also known as the Gerber Building, where the Chicago Market is set to open in late 2023.
The historic Uptown Station, also known as the Gerber Building, where the Chicago Market is set to open in late 2023. Grant Kessler / Courtesy of the Chicago Market

The Chicago Market was initially expected to open in 2020. But due to a number of setbacks, the co-op owners chose to redesign their concept to include a cafe, wellness space and kitchen for cooking classes. The heightened ambition, along with inflation, increased the overall costs from $7 million to $11.5 million, according to Arnett.

The project will go forward because Arnett’s team was able to secure $5 million in Tax Increment Financing, or TIF money, from Chicago’s Department of Development and Planning. The Chicago Market hopes to open in late 2023.

The Austin Community Food Co-Op

But what about co-ops in areas where financing is hard to find, and the need for food access and healthy options is even greater?

The Austin Community Food Co-Op was in early development when the pandemic hit. Because they didn’t have a location, they also faced a lack of communal gathering space and fundraising opportunities.

The young Austin co-op took a step back. They maintained a presence through social media and virtual outreach, and now they’re looking ahead. They’re actively recruiting members and hiring staff.

In total, there are six co-ops in development in Chicago and the surrounding area. But it’s important to keep in mind that only 50-75% of co-ops actually make it to open, according to the Food Co-Op Initiative.

But when they do, co-op organizers say the competition and innovations they bring are key. They increase options for customers and soften the blow of consolidation, like the recent merger of the country’s two largest grocery chains.

When co-ops are added into the mix, Arnett says, customers have more choices, better quality and maybe even lower prices. Which, at long last in Chicago, seems like a real possibility.

Monica Eng is an Axios Chicago reporter. JP Swenson is Curious City’s Luminary Fellow.

Illustration of a crate of produce labelled “Chicago Co-Op: Urbs in Horto” with “update” stamped over it.
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Illustration of a crate of produce labelled “Chicago Co-Op: Urbs in Horto” with “update” stamped over it.
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Back in 2018, Curious City listener Katie Hansen asked, “Why doesn’t Chicago have more co-op style grocery stores?” Especially since smaller cities like Madison and Minneapolis have lively co-op scenes. When Monica Eng set out to find the answer, she found that Chicago had only one such option – in the Logan Square neighborhood, with one additional co-op in Oak Park.

Food co-ops provide an alternative to chain grocery store shopping by inviting buyers to become co-owners who take part in the store’s decision making. They typically support local farms, offer fresh produce and pay staff competitive wages, among other shared values.

In her reporting, Eng discovered a new wave of food co-ops on the horizon in the area in various stages of planning, fundraising and attracting member-owners. They spanned from Rogers Park on the northside to the Austin neighborhood on the westside – and into the suburbs – and were just starting to sprout. They were part of the national third wave of co-ops that has been slowly spreading for a couple decades. But then the pandemic hit. Whatever happened to that burgeoning movement?

Well, Curious City has an update to Hansen’s question…

The Wild Onion Market

Signs in the windows of the Wild Onion Market.
Signs in the windows of the Wild Onion Market. Courtesy of the Wild Onion Market

In the Chicago area, the pandemic had a mixed effect on food co-ops. Take, for example, the Wild Onion Market in Rogers Park, which was deep into planning when the pandemic hit. They could no longer hold in-person meetings or fundraising events. But it wasn’t all bad news.

“Interestingly, during the pandemic – with a lot of the supply chain issues, grocery store shelves were empty – we saw a huge surge in ownership. It was just the excitement for the co-op, you know, hockey stick growth, as they say,” said Board President Jillian Jason.

Currently, the Wild Onion Market has over 1,400 members – just 400 shy of their goal. They are in the process of rehabbing a shuttered grocery store, and are slated to open this coming spring, at 7007 N. Clark St.

The Chicago Market

A few miles south of the Wild Onion, another co-op is about to open in the abandoned Uptown Station, which used to be the Wilson Red Line stop. The nearly 100-year-old building is a historic piece of architecture in the neighborhood. The Chicago Market purchased it in the hopes of renovating and preserving it.

“So we’ve got an old building that was in disrepair and disuse. We’re rehabilitating and saving that important piece of architecture for the community,” said general manager Dan Arnett.

The historic Uptown Station, also known as the Gerber Building, where the Chicago Market is set to open in late 2023.
The historic Uptown Station, also known as the Gerber Building, where the Chicago Market is set to open in late 2023. Grant Kessler / Courtesy of the Chicago Market

The Chicago Market was initially expected to open in 2020. But due to a number of setbacks, the co-op owners chose to redesign their concept to include a cafe, wellness space and kitchen for cooking classes. The heightened ambition, along with inflation, increased the overall costs from $7 million to $11.5 million, according to Arnett.

The project will go forward because Arnett’s team was able to secure $5 million in Tax Increment Financing, or TIF money, from Chicago’s Department of Development and Planning. The Chicago Market hopes to open in late 2023.

The Austin Community Food Co-Op

But what about co-ops in areas where financing is hard to find, and the need for food access and healthy options is even greater?

The Austin Community Food Co-Op was in early development when the pandemic hit. Because they didn’t have a location, they also faced a lack of communal gathering space and fundraising opportunities.

The young Austin co-op took a step back. They maintained a presence through social media and virtual outreach, and now they’re looking ahead. They’re actively recruiting members and hiring staff.

In total, there are six co-ops in development in Chicago and the surrounding area. But it’s important to keep in mind that only 50-75% of co-ops actually make it to open, according to the Food Co-Op Initiative.

But when they do, co-op organizers say the competition and innovations they bring are key. They increase options for customers and soften the blow of consolidation, like the recent merger of the country’s two largest grocery chains.

When co-ops are added into the mix, Arnett says, customers have more choices, better quality and maybe even lower prices. Which, at long last in Chicago, seems like a real possibility.

Monica Eng is an Axios Chicago reporter. JP Swenson is Curious City’s Luminary Fellow.

Speaker 1: Hi, curious city fellow Jp Swenson here. Now, I don't know about you, but I hate grocery shopping. The crowds walking a mile to find the miso paste. I forgot the check out line and especially these days the prices, but for some like curious city question Nascar Katie Hansen, it's actually cathartic. I personally love grocery shopping and I often visit multiple grocery stores because I just love it so much. But when Katie shops in Chicago, there's one kind of grocery store. She says she misses the food Co op. A food co op is owned by members who invest in it, help make decisions about it and share in the small profits if there are any. Katie was used to seeing co ops in places like Madison Wisconsin in Minneapolis and was surprised she didn't see them in Chicago. So I just was wondering if it was a matter of laws in the city or a demographic that would make Chicago not a great environment for something like that to thrive. These are good questions, especially since Chicago is such a big foodie town with such an active local food movement and Katie's right, we don't have a lot of food co op options, but it's not really because of laws or regulations. It's more about how certain social and political movements played out here. After a quick break, Monica eng answers Katie's questions and dives into the history of co ops. Then later on, I'll give you an update on some of the co ops mentioned in Monica's story, which she first reported back in 2018 and there's some pretty exciting news that's next

Speaker 2: Stuart Reid is with the food co op initiative which helps launch co ops around the nation. He says here in the United States, the co op model took off in three main waves. Food co ops got started during the first wave in the great Depression. When food and jobs were scarce, cops were one of the solutions for feeding themselves and finding work quite a lot, especially around Minneapolis area in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. And he notes that up there, there were a lot of Finnish immigrants who had a strong tradition of working cooperatively. So these folks in Minnesota and Wisconsin really glommed onto co ops and they wanted to spread the word, they went out and not only delivered food to others, they encouraged them to start their own co ops. And so up north those first co ops beget more co ops and new businesses just to serve them. Soon they just became part of the lok culture. But in Chicago not so much. There was one exception, the Hyde Park Co op. It opened in 1932 and lasted 75 years. It was supported by community organizers and left the U of C types who got behind its communal values, but the movement stayed pretty localized. Then there was the second wave, The second wave started in the 60s, tied in large part to the radical and progressive movements of the time. And they were largely co ops that wanted to sell natural organic food and health food like Alfalfa sprouts and whole wheat flour. This wave hit Chicago big but mostly is buying clubs where members bought stuff together and distributed it from homes in church basements, Chicago had more than 200 of these clubs by the early 80s and a few had storefronts, but they didn't last long. Then there was the third wave that we're in right now. This wave produced the Dill Pickle in Logan square which opened in 2009. It's a co op grocery store whose values are apparent as you walk down the aisles at the dill Pickle, we try to prioritize local and organic produce. We have a nice display of all produce coming from one local Amish certified organic farmers operative, you'll see a lot of the milk that we carry is local, that Sharon Hoyer who manages the store and you might have heard her say local like three times. That's because local food is really important to this wave of co op members. But as we head downstairs to her office tells me they're member owners also value something else. Having a say in how the store spends its money, there is less and less transparency in the flow of dollars as businesses become increasingly consolidated and that's definitely what we see in the grocery industry. I think the whole foods buyout by amazon is probably the most visible example of that. And she says it's these values around local food and greater transparency that are driving this current wave, a wave that's about to get much bigger in Chicago with several new co ops in the works right now. No, less than a half dozen food co ops here in Chicago are underway at various stages of development. So there's a very large group on the north side Chicago market cooperative. They just signed a lease on a very visible building at the Wilson stop and then there are co ops getting organized in the Austin neighborhood in Rogers Park as well as a few out in the suburbs. So we're on a wave of momentum of cooperative activity here in Chicago, but before any of these co ops can open their doors, they have to sign up hundreds of new member investors and that means throwing a lot of sign up parties. I recently went to one of these for the Chicago market co op, which plans to open an uptown, dozens of people were streaming into their future storefront and the old Wilson l stop folks I talked to there were each looking for different things, things that keep it in other stores for sure.

Speaker 3: I live in uptown, I've moved here six years ago, so I feel it's important to do something that's part of the community that's going to improve this whole area.

Speaker 4: I'm looking for something more, I guess in line with my values because I don't really believe in capitalism as an economic system, but

Speaker 2: mostly they were going up to a guy named Anthony at the welcome desk who was filling them in on some pretty basic concepts. So this is going to be a full grocery store. Yes, So this space you're looking at is going to be a co op grocery store today, Chicago market co op has about 1500 members, but they're pushing for a lot more before they open in 2020 And each member has to slap down a minimum of $250 to join. But not all these fledgling co op stores are aiming to do the same thing. Some are about solving a problem that's plagued their communities for decades. Access to healthier groceries. I head to Austin on the city's west side to learn more. So here in Austin we are a food desert, we have very little access to healthy food options. This is Vanessa Stokes co founder of the Austin Community Food Co op. They're just getting start. But she says for people here, it's a lot less about getting fancy local kombucha than getting just a conventional grocery store that the community helped to build. Co founder, Brianna Shields says the project is about folks taking control in a community that's seen a lot of disinvestment. So instead of waiting for whole foods to save the day, they're taking action themselves. The residents will be able to have something that's theirs that they can call their own and truly feel it's not from someone else outside of the community telling us what it is that we want to need. Greg Berlowitz of the Chicago market. Coop thinks this latest wave in all its forms could start a chain reaction of co op activity and one day Chicago could end up looking a lot more like medicine. Wisconsin. What

Speaker 1: we've seen in other cities is co ops spur more co ops. So when a co op like Austin called us and said can you help us start this Coop, we're happy to help. And that culture of co ops I think starts when one coop is open and successful like Dill pickle then people can see it happening and say, hey this works and this is an alternative to the grocery system we have

Speaker 2: for questions. Ask her Katie, she said she had no idea that so many co ops were getting started in Chicago. That's really exciting. It sounds

Speaker 1: like in a lot of diverse neighborhoods to

Speaker 2: one of those neighborhoods isn't far from her home, which makes her excited for a new place to practice her favorite hobby grocery shopping.

Speaker 1: That was Monica Ang reporting for Curious City back in 2018. A lot has happened since then. The pandemic soaring food prices, even a recently announced merger between the two biggest grocery chains in the us all that and more has had an impact on co ops in Chicago Just ahead, I'll update you on the latest wave of co op projects, including some that you heard about in Monica's story. Stick

Speaker 2: around

Speaker 1: Since we first reported that story in 2018. That third wave of co ops has been slowly hitting Chicago and with that wave, Chicagoans are getting an alternative to traditional grocery chains by supporting local farms, sparking community investment and being transparent about where their food comes from. I visited the Wild Onion Market Co op in Rogers Park to learn more about how the coop scene is growing. So we are taking over a former grocery store. So it was a neighborhood store that was really beloved in the community. The store closed, It kind of sat vacant, people peering in the windows like what's going on, julien Jason, the board president of Wild Onion market, took me on a tour of the space. We have to do a little bit of demolition, we're going to reuse as absolutely much as possible. There's walk in coolers, there's, it's really a sustainability and when I was there they were tearing out the old freezers and the walls were being readied for a new coat of paint but you could still see remnants of the stores. Old deli counter in produce section before what you're seeing today. It was really kind of just like a dead grocery store, There was equipment inside and freezers and coolers produce cases. The project was founded by mary Meyer who also joined us for the tour. She wanted a gathering space centered around fresh food in supporting local farmers, something that reminded her of home.

Speaker 5: I grew up on a farm in Ireland so I've always valued food directly from the farm, fresh food because that's what I was raised up

Speaker 1: With. But in 2020, in the midst of planning for the wild onions opening the pandemic hit like other co ops, they faced challenges they couldn't hold in person meetings or fundraising events, but it wasn't all bad. Wild onion actually saw their membership grow as families look for more community minded options where they could have a say in decision making through co ownership. Interestingly during the pandemic with a lot of the supply chain issues, grocery store shelves were empty, we saw a huge surge in ownership. It was just the excitement for the co op, you know, hockey stick growth as they say, because I think folks really realized that they were at the mercy of these corporate chains and that the, you know, our food supply could be disrupted and it was pretty fragile with this boost in members and construction well underway. The wild onion market is slated to open this coming spring with an emphasis on bulk foods from local farms, all that stuff it turned out, but now we say meanwhile, just a few miles south in uptown in the old Wilson Red Line station, another coop is under construction, it's called the Chicago market right now we're doing some basement remediation work. We've got some waterproofing going on. So we got to tour their, the Chicago market is restoring the original spot, bringing a historic neighborhood gathering space back to life. There's 100 year old building, it turns 100 next year. So we've got an old building that was in disrepair and issues that were rehabilitating and saving that important piece of architecture for the community. General Manager Dan Arnett showed me around the mostly empty warehouse sized building. We spoke near the entrance where there are rows of poster boards displaying blueprints and renderings depicting a cafe, a wellness space and even a kitchen for cooking classes. It's an ambitious project with a hefty price tag which started at seven million and grew as the pandemic war on, you know, when you start adding in the changes in the supply chain, which have been rapid covid worldwide issues, oil issues costs for everything has gone up and we got more ambitious. So the cost escalates up to where it's like 11.5 million. Now this could have been a deal breaker for other co ops, but Dan's team was able to secure over $5 million dollars in tax increment financing from the city to support the Chicago market. But where does that leave other projects like the Austin community Food Co op on the west side, we're getting financing is hard and healthy food options even harder. Well currently they're working to overcome the odds, actively recruiting members and hiring staff. There are additional worries on the horizon to, with the planned merger of two of the largest grocery chains in the country Chicago markets, dan Arnett believes that co ops will actually help keep the big grocers in check. That's not all bad. I mean, I'm not saying they don't have a right to do whatever they're doing. Um, but but certainly when any player gets dominance, you're at risk. You know, in terms of service and price, we always know that um having real choice uh generally creates better choices. The coop choice may be coming to Chicago after all though. It's still a big question if all parts of the city will benefit, but stay tuned. It may not be long before one pops up near you curious city is supported by the Conan Family Foundation. It's produced by Jody so and Jason, Mark Adriana Cardona Maggie God is our reporter. Maggie Civet is the digital and engagement producer johanna Zorn edits the show. I'm Jp Swinson, Thanks for listening.

Speaker 2: That feeling when you're living life getting up every day. Adult ng in the windy city you live here, but you don't always know how to tap in for real. It's weird, right? That's why we created the rundown podcast from WBZ Chicago. I'm the host Aaron Allen in bite sized episodes every weekday. I'll meet you at the intersection of curiosity and fomo in the morning. Stay in the loop with local news and three afternoons a week here, the stories and conversations that shape this big little city we call home, listen to the rundown wherever you get your podcasts.

Speaker 1: I'm Khalil gibran, Muhammad, I'm Ben Austin. We're two best friends, one black, one white, I'm a historian and I'm a journalist and we are back for season two of some of my best friends are where we have real talk about the absurdity and intricacies of race in America join us as we talked to notable guests like former attorney General, eric holder restorative Justice Leader Daniel Serra and other notable people about how to make sense of this moment. Listen to Season two of some of my best friends are wherever you get your podcast.


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