Dill Pickle’s Cooperative Spirit

By John Zaccari and Emily Brosious | Originally published at The Red Line Project |

Nov. 18, 2014

[Video music: “When the Sky Turns Blue” by BOCrew, via ccMixter]

You walk into a local grocery store and notice customers unpacking boxes with staff members. Employees run through future orders with customers. This isn’t the Twilight Zone. This is a community cooperative.

The Dill Pickle Food Co-op promotes a sense of community through ownership allowing customers to buy stake in the store. According to hands-on owner coordinator Ally Young, The Dill Pickle currently has nearly 1,500 community owners including the entire staff.

“The idea of ownership makes people more invested than they would be otherwise,” Young said. “Everyone has a voice in how the store is run.”

By investing in the co-op via one of The Dill Pickle’s many ownership plans, customers can take on active roles in the business such as becoming committee members, board members or even helping out in the store as a hands-on owner. Owners also benefit when the store runs a financial surplus through special owner sales and discounts.

There is a plan in the works to offer a subsidized ownership plan for low-income customers to become owners without paying money up front.

“The willingness to help out when things are really exploding around here is awesome,” manager and produce buyer Amber Zook said. “Sometimes I will get a delivery with boxes piling up, and customers will come up and help me with them.”

The concept for The Dill Pickle started in 2004, when a group of 40 Logan Square residents came together to bring fresh organic produce and healthy groceries to their community. The store opened in 2009.

All of the tags on food sold in the store detail where the item came from and how many miles from the store it is.

“I always want to be sourcing the best things possible,” Zook said “I really value that they get local produce all the time. Some things are a little pricier, but it’s worth the value to find stuff that was grown within the community.”

With the co-op being community owned, the customers have the opportunity to buy specific items that they may not be able to find at other local grocery stores.

Hands-on owners stock the shelves at Dill Pickle Food Co-Op in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood. (Photo/ Emily Brosious)
Hands-on owners stock the shelves at Dill Pickle Food Co-Op in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. (Photo/ Emily Brosious)

“I get a lot of customer requests, mostly with the dairy and the eggs customers are specific with the farms they want to buy from, Zook said. “I hold the meat that I buy to a high standard, and it’s nice to be able to ask questions to the meat buyer.”

According to Zook, the goal is to order food locally first, starting within a 150 mile radius of the Chicagoland area, before expanding out regionally to the other parts of the Midwest. Food that is not in season in the area is brought in from California.

Keeping quality local produce on the shelves can be a daunting task for Zook who says she handles as many as six deliveries a day. Moving to Chicago from Austin Texas, Zook had to learn a very different harvest cycle.

“In Texas, you can have kale, not in the summer because it’s just too hot, but mostly through the winter,” Zook said. Here, you have this beautiful, bountiful season and then there’s nothing.”

When food is ordered from outside the country, it’s by fair trade when possible as well as being of high quality in terms of the product and human rights of those involved in the harvesting process.

“People really care about where their food comes from, and they care about who grows it,” Zook said.

While The Dill Pickle provides options that consumers can’t get at most grocery stores, Zook believes the atmosphere also plays a major role in keeping the customers coming back.

“When I originally shopped here, I just liked that people talked to me,” Zook said. It gets busy here, but it always feels like everyone is working together.”

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