Dill Pickle Food Co-op opens in Logan Square

By The Columbia Chronicle

By Eleanor Blick

Two days after opening Dec. 5, the Dill Pickle Food Co-op had to close its doors to “rest and restock,” according to it’s Web site. On opening day, aisles full of natural juices, locally-grown produce, healthy snacks and organic dairy were packed with shoppers, and check-out lines snaked through the store.

The small cooperative grocery store in Logan Square has been in the works for nearly five years. Although there is already a thriving co-op marketplace in other major cities, Dill Pickle is the only existing food co-op in Chicago. The Hyde Park Co-op, started in 1932, filed for bankruptcy in 2008 due to development in the area that pushed the lease beyond what the co-op could afford.

“We’re really excited to be filling that gap,” said Dill Pickle President Billy Burdett. “The co-op is exceptionally committed to values like environmental sustainability, supporting local producers and giving back.”

But that commitment makes the pressure of satisfying community needs that much greater, he said. It is clear the community has been waiting—the co-op’s $150,000 start-up budget was funded completely by member dues, member loans and donations.

A food co-op differs from traditional grocery store in that members buy shares to own part of the business. A fully -vested membership at Dill Pickle is $250, which can be paid for over five years. Though being a member is not required to shop there, members have the opportunity to make proposals, vote at meetings and run for board positions.

Burdett said anyone can be a member, so the co-op is owned by the community. “It’s a democratic organization, so all members have an equal say in terms of what direction the business goes in,” he said.

Along the exposed brick walls and atop some empty shelves, signs were posted telling shoppers that the co-op is still a work in progress and suggestions will help shape the products it stocks. Burdett said there has been outreach to Logan Square’s Latino community and he hopes its voice will help influence a more diverse product selection.

Joe Wetteroth, a neighborhood shopper, said he would like to see more meat alternatives for sale. Wetteroth is glad to have a health-food store close to home, but said a few prices might steer him elsewhere for things like produce.

Tom Beck, a co-op member, pulled out his grocery list and said for the most part Dill Pickle has it covered. Beck said he will have to go elsewhere for a few meats and cheeses, but knows inventory will change over time.

“I am so pleased with the bulk section,” Beck said.

Dill Pickle’s bulk section is one of the largest in the city and takes up almost an entire aisle of the store. The aroma wafting from fresh coffee beans and teas lingers over the bins, but grains like quinoa, brown rice, barley and cornmeal are also in the section.

A snowy weekday afternoon was a different scene compared to the crowded, picked-over opening day at Dill Pickle. Small bushels of sweet potatoes, garlic, onions and greens made up the produce section. Each had a handmade sign describing the vegetable and telling which regional farm it came from. Organic, cane sugar-sweetened sodas in several flavors looked like a rainbow, lined up side by side on the pantry-style shelves.

The 1400 square foot storefront has room for only three long isles. With just six or seven shoppers and volunteers moving between the shelves, there still wasn’t much elbow room. But that is the close-knit, neighborhood idea Dill Pickle was founded on.

Burdett said the plan started five years ago, when Kathleen Duffy, now a board member, sent an e-mail to friends to gauge the level of interest in starting a Chicago food co-op.

“One [main] challenge was finding volunteers that could give the amount of time and energy that [planning] needed,” Burdett said. Until November—when just three staff members were hired—it was an entirely volunteer-run process.

The co-op will still depend on volunteers, through the Hands-On Owner program. Members can help by stocking shelves and unloading deliveries.

“Our [volunteers] will actually be offered a discount on their grocery purchases for their help,” Burdett said.

Laurie Tanenbaum, a Dill Pickle member and volunteer, said she has been a long-time supporter of co-ops. “People owning their connection to food is important,” she said.

Tanenbaum also thinks buying from local suppliers is a vital trend that will continue to grow.

Dill Pickle opened its doors with approximately 500 members, and gained more than 40 more during its opening

weekend.  Although its opening was a success, Burdett said the purpose of the co-op isn’t to make a large profit, but to make an impact in the community with locally supplied foods.

“Our primary concern is serving the community and finding as many ways as possible to make organic, healthy, sustainable, local goods as affordable as possible. Not just to members, but to the community at large,” Burdett said.