Ally Young opens the big sliding black doors and smiles. Hanging above her head, the new and improved sign of the Dill Pickle Food Co-op gleams in the sun against its recycled wooden background and bright green awning border at 2746 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Freshly painted walls of light purple, the Co-op’s signature green, yellow and orange light up the large store, complete with produce paintings created by local artist Brianna Mello of Bri’s Brushes.
“Check out all this brand new fridge space,” said Young with a laugh, the brand manager for the Co-op and the board of director’s secretary. “Backloading dairy coolers, open produce racks, freezers that stay frozen… this is gonna be a much more efficient operation.”
The neighborhood grocery spot will officially open its new doors to a bigger 10,000 square foot space Sept. 8 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and appearances from local alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa of the 35th Ward and Will Guzzardi of Illinois’ 39th District. The Co-op’s move allows local produce and local businesses to reach more of the neighborhood and continue to thrive. It confirms that local cooperatives can be sustainable with dedication and support from the community, Young said.
“Our emphasis overall is on locally-sourced goods, and we will be offering some conventional items next to those because serving the community is being able to provide a wide selection of good, fresh food overall that folks find affordable,” she said.
The Co-op was nestled in a cozy, three-aisle store on Fullerton Avenue for the past seven years, but Young said the team knew it was temporary, and the expansion was planned from the beginning.
“We wanted to get up and running, have a brick and mortar storefront but knew that it was not going to be a sustainable space for the future,” she said, adding that the expansion has been in full swing for the past five years.
The new space isn’t close to comparable to the old store. It features not only more shelf space for a wider selection of local products and produce, but also houses a hot bar, prepared foods with in-house bakery goods, a community dining area, ample storage in the back, a full kitchen, office space and four checkout counters — an upgrade from the previous store’s two small registers. Young said the Co-op will also soon sell beer and wine.
She said the most challenging but also rewarding aspect of expanding the Co-op has been the capitalization and funding from the more than 2,000 neighborhood owners who own equity. Fundraising for the new store came from more than 200 owners who raised $970,000 through the Owner Loan Program; the Chicago Community Loan Fund and Shared Capital also helped the project, as well as other co-ops nationwide and the National Co+op Grocers. The Logan Square Neighborhood Association and the Center for Changing Lives were strong community supporters, too.
Sharon Hoyer, the Co-op’s general manager, said finding a space to fit the unconventional co-op business model and its cultural practices was challenging but exemplifies a resourceful promise for other co-ops trying to establish themselves. Currently, the Dill Pickle is the only operating storefront co-op in the City of Chicago.
“Having a larger co-op means we have a stronger future, and our owners can see their investment in their store have a bright future and be a real flagship for cooperative practices in Chicago,” Hoyer said.
Seeing the community come together to support the local economy is what co-ops are all about, Young said.
“I feel super proud of the local jobs component; we really focused on local hiring,” Young said. The Co-op added 31 new positions to the staff from an applicant pool of over 200 that participated in the Co-op’s job fair July 31.
Young remembers the exciting energy at the job fair that showed the community’s desire to work at a co-op and be recognized for it. She said this often gets lost next to the local food factor, but local jobs help fuel the co-op economic engine just as much as the produce does. It’s part of the co-op’s democratic ownership, self-responsibility, autonomy and independence and economic owner participation principles. Studies show that for every dollar spent at a food co-op, $1.60 is generated in the local economy, compared to $1.36 from a conventional grocery store.
“To have that public recognition that working at the Co-op can, for a lot of people, mean waking up in the morning and doing something that is aligned with your values is really important,” she said.
The Co-op’s mission to offer affordable healthy food choices, build a vibrant community by practicing cooperative benefits and pump the local economy is now more of a reality, Young said. Hoyer added that keeping welfare within the community can be tough because of large corporations in the industry, but appealing to people’s morals above their pocketbooks is what makes cooperatives assets in communities. The Co-op also will now be able to host talks and events in its community space and hopes to expand its ownership with fresh faces. Those looking to join can do so online.
Sean Shatto, president on the Co-op’s board of directors, said the expansion shows that other business co-ops can be successful in Chicago, not limited to grocery stores. He said it will also foster local business and artisans to prosper. Shatto said the board, which rotates every three years, works to maintain operations and expand understandings on the co-op’s professional business standards.
“As we develop that understanding, we are asking better questions, getting better answers and moving forward together to really understand how this movement can thrive,” Shatto said. “The best part of being involved with a co-op is seeing how people can bring their forces together and create something really big.”