THE CLEVELAND FOOD CO-OP was established in 1968 by a small group of neighbors in the HESSLER ROAD community. Lacking a local supply of fresh fruits and vegetables in the University Circle area, the five households pooled their money and organized regular outings to the Cleveland Food Terminal to purchase produce in bulk. While each member of the buying club received an equal share, a surplus accumulated. It was stored in a front porch cache on Hessler Court and made available to neighbors and friends.
In the Fall of 1969, the "Porch Store" found a winter home at the University Christian Movement's carriage house, behind their cafe (now the University Coffee House) on Juniper street. The proximity to the cafe spurred further interest and membership increased to fifty households. The increased activity also garnered the interest of the health inspector, who declared the carriage house, with its dirt floor, unfit for food storage.
In the Spring of 1970, accumulated profits allowed members to purchase a van for the exclusive transport of goods from the Food Terminal to the parking lot of the CHURCH OF THE COVENANT, where food was sold directly from the van. Over the summer, the Church offered a storage room and refrigerator. With the help of Hillel House, a pre-order system was organized to handle increased demand. With this new system, members provided volunteer labor and local restaurants began to purchase surplus goods.
Members initiated a nominal markup to cover the costs of the van, bags, and a mimeographed newsletter. The buying club was formally incorporated as "Food Communities Organization of People," or "Food Co-op" once its activity required a bank account.
In 1974, the Food Co-op opened their first storefront at 12408 Euclid Avenue in East Cleveland. The store operated for three days a week and attracted membership beyond the original Hessler Road community. As the scale of the organization increased, the Food Co-op hired Betty Eck as a full time coordinator to handle day-to-day operations. However, the limitations of the new facility constricted business.
Members were split on whether to move the store to CLEVELAND HEIGHTS or locate a larger building in the University Circle community. In December of 1978, those in favor of remaining won out and the store relocated to 11628 Euclid Avenue. Members of the Food Co-op faced the daunting task of raising ten thousand dollars in two weeks to secure the location. By uniting donations from members with loans from the Hessler Road Association and the University Circle Tenants' Union, the Co-op secured the funds then rented out part of the building to the Cleveland Aikido martial arts club to help cover the increased running costs. With the new location secured, the Co-op storefront operated six days a week and added six paid employees to assist the coordinator and the core group of volunteer members.
Four years later, however, UNIVERSITY CIRCLE INC. advised the Co-op to relocate so its store could be leveled and replaced with a parking lot for a newly remodeled CLEVELAND INSTITUTE OF ART building. After another debate over location, the members decided to simply cross East 117th Street and remodel an available auto-repair garage to meet their needs. The $450,000 renovation, designed by Co-op member and architect Robert W. Blachtford, secured funding through a combination of grants, loans, and donations from members, the City of Cleveland, as well as from area foundations and corporations. The move to its present (2008) home at 11702 Euclid Avenue took place in December 1984. Following the move the Co-op established another storefront in the Coventry Village area and a juice bar on the CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY campus, but these attempts at expansion were short lived.
In 2008, the Cleveland Food Co-op employed 30 staff members and enjoy a rotating base of approximately 30 volunteers. It reported annual sales of $2.25 million from a community of 25,000 members. Of the 150 vendors who supplied the Co-op at that time, over half were local Cleveland or Ohio producers, including the largely Amish farming cooperative, Geauga Family Farms.
Ironically, the middle of the 2000s also saw major changes in University Circle that would eventually lead to the closure of the Co-op. The first blow to business was the construction of the Health Line (which was completed in 2008). Parking and access to the Food Co-op was never a strong feature of the store but when Euclid Avenue was virtually shut down to complete the construction of the Health Line, the Food Co-op saw a decline in business and revenue.
The other external force that contributed to declining sales was the opening of a Whole Foods store in UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS which featured items sold in bulk, a large section of tinctures, alternative medicines, restorative teas, etc., and organic produce. The store also provided a “shiny shopping” experience—a brand new store, a gorgeous section of flowers, even a burbling wall of water. At the same time, traditional grocery stores and even discount store chains, such as Marc’s, which had a location on Coventry, began carrying organic produce.
As revenue decreased, the Co-op’s ability to maintain the store as well as retain paid employees rapidly declined. In the end, the Food Co-op was increasingly unable to pay vendors, thus losing inventory and customers, and ultimately these forces overcame the ability of the dedicated membership, staff, and board members to keep the store open. The Cleveland Food Co-op closed its doors for the last time in 2011. The building has since been razed.
Tommy Crouch, "Celebrating the Cleveland Food Co-op," Taste for Life (December, 2007)
The Cleveland Food Co-op, "Food Co-op: Early Beginnings" (date unknown).Links: