A long six years ago, the East Lansing Food Co-op was trampled, like a rare mushroom, in a slow-motion stampede of competing health food and specialty food stores.
It was a sad end to a 40-year run, but a co-op is not just a building. Any mycologist will tell you that most of a mushroom runs underground, sending out tendrils, feeling for a place to resurface.
The question is, when every store from Whole Foods to Fresh Thyme has organic produce and bulk bins bursting with beans, what is the mission of a food co-op in the 21st century?
Today, ELFCO (re-christened Eastside Lansing Food Co-op) is fruiting above ground again, in more nourishing soil, ready with a smart set of small answers: hyper-local produce and prepared foods, a one-stop selection of groceries, a keen eye on affordability, space for coffee and socializing in the front room, ample parking and neighborhood walkability.
If the new ELFCO succeeds, all those small answers may add up to one big answer, a quietly revolutionary step toward the elusive goal of terraforming the nation’s urban food deserts.
The nutrients are all in place. The co-op’s latest fruiting body, a cheerful little storefront at 1605 E. Kalamazoo St., springs from the heart of Lansing’s east side, with a new business model and a community icon for a manager. Folk musician and entrepreneur Sally Potter is armed with an MBA, plenty of business savvy and a keen feel for the diversity of the surrounding neighborhood.
“This is not your father’s co-op,” Potter declared. “My charge is to make this space welcoming and accessible to everybody.”
Instead of dangling by itself in a suburban parking lot on the far east side of East Lansing, the new space is cradled in the Allen Place development, the home of the Allen Neighborhood Center, an Ingham County medical clinic and pharmacy next door and 21 apartments upstairs. The neighborhood center’s web of innovative food programs will provide support in several crucial ways, including access to a network of local growers and prepared foods made fresh two doors down the street.
The co-op had a “soft opening” today, with coffee, prepared foods, local produce and pastries, followed by an official grand opening 10 a.m. Friday (Oct. 7). Potter said it may take some time for the store to be fully stocked, but the doors are open.
“The stars lined up,” Potter said. “This needed to happen — and it finally did.”
If Sally Potter gets her way, ELFCO will be a throwback to her hometown of Morrison, Illinois, where five grocery stores served only 4,000 people in the 1970s.
“It’s only a matter of time before someone comes down in a bathrobe for a cup of coffee,” she said. “There are 21 apartments upstairs.”
On a typical day, Potter’s mother would send her off in her bare feet to the Red & White, an old-fashioned emporium where everyone had an account.
The memory of a down-home grocery store, where the food is local, everyone knows everyone and you don’t feel like a “cow going through a chute,” stuck with Potter as she studied economics at the University of Illinois and managed Pizza Huts in Cleveland.
In late 1983 and early 1984, Potter drove around the country with a friend in an extended-cab Ford Econoline van, covering 53,000 miles in a year.
She wintered in Phoenix, “waiting for the country to warm up,” playing banjo and singing at nursing homes (“they have a lot of them in Phoenix”) and waiting tables at Sizzlin’ Steak House. In April, she headed up the California coast, stayed in Alaska for two months and drove back across the country to Illinois in June.
“The money ran out,” she said.
She was back on her parents’ front porch, listening to the inevitable question: “What are you going to do now?”
While on her travels, she read in a news account that the U.S. Navy, with the biggest food operation in the nation, sent people to Michigan State to learn the food and hospitality business.
“I’m going to East Lansing for an MBA,” she told her dad. He offered a paternal loan to get her started.
“I came to grad school and forgot to leave,” Potter joked.
Between 1987 and 1990, she taught economics at Lansing Community College and worked at MSU’s career center, focusing on careers in hospitality, but didn’t want to end up a university lifer.
Picking up on an idea from her sister, she ran a second-hand sports equipment store, Play it Again Sports, near Frandor, from 1990 to 2005.
She liked running her own store, without paying a franchise fee, and loved roaming the state in a Volkswagen Beetle (with no heat, of course) to gather inventory. She added a second venture: the Brick House, a restaurant at 311 E. Cesar E. Chavez Ave. in Old Town, now the site of Pablo’s Old Town, from 1998 to 2001.
Meanwhile, Potter put down roots on the east side, not far from the sporting goods store, but the market for used sporting goods began to taper off in the mid-2000s. “More people were selling to us than buying from us,” Potter said. “It was a preview of the coming recession.”
She read the economic tealeaves and hustled to get a teaching certificate from Olivet College, cramming 18 classes into 18 months.
She flourished in her other role as singer, banjo player, booker of folk music acts for Lansing’s Ten Pound Fiddle and ringmaster of a joyful Lansing tradition, the Mid-Winter Singing Festival. She loved teaching economics, history and civics at Williamston High School for 12 years, but the commute wore her down. She found a new “family” at Waverly High School, where she taught personal finance for four years.
“We did credit cards, bought houses and cars, did the real interest rate by hand on payday lending places,” she said. “I miss the kids, and I miss my colleagues, but I don’t miss the paperwork and the meetings.”
A sign on the window of the new ELFCO reads: “Your neighborhood grocery store.” Behind this simple slogan is an idea that ELFCO Board Chairman Stephen Gasteyer called “revolutionary.”
“This could be the kind of place that provides an example that goes well beyond greater Lansing,” Gasteyer said. “How do you combine serving a low-income population with healthy food that actually makes their quality of life better?”
Gasteyer, an associate professor in sociology at MSU, joined the board in 2017, just as the Northwind Drive store was going under. The board voted to close the store in Jan. 2017. The last day was Jan. 28.
But Gasteyer was sure there is an enduring need for a co-op in greater Lansing, and he wasn’t alone.
“The niche here is local and hyper-local,” he said. “What the big corporate stores don’t do very well is provide a place where smaller producers can sell their stuff.”
At the same time, the co-op has embraced the simple, yet elusive, goal of providing a grocery store where people don’t have one.
“In 2022, what is the big thing about food?” Potter asked. “Putting food stores in places without a food store.”
Potter is determined to make the store a one-stop shop for east siders of all income levels.
“This is not a boutique,” Potter said. “No, no, no, no, no, no. There will be multiple price points for every food category. Five bucks for a pint of soup. Frozen pizzas at $7 and at $17.”
“Sally is spot on,” declared John Reich, ELFCO treasurer for the last five years and a longtime member before that. “In this market, about 25 percent of the people are below the poverty level. You’ve got to have a price point that low-income people can afford because that’s a lot of your market.”
“Sally understands that this is East Lansing, not Ann Arbor,” Allen Neighborhood Center Executive Director Joe Enerson said. “Her business model is not to sell $8 lattes.”
Buying local produce, some of it from urban farms a few blocks away, will help, Reich said.
In bigger stores, there are often three or four steps in the supply chain, from producer to aggregator to distributor to retailer.
“Each transition comes with an expensive markup,” Reich explained. “Farmers only get eight or 10 cents out of the retail dollar in commodity agriculture. In Sally’s business model, they get 70 percent of retail. And it could make fresh produce available to low-income people.”
For all its ambition, the new space is a modest 2,500-square feet, including a large back room — 1,000 fewer square feet than its old Northwind Drive location. For comparison, the Capitol City Market downtown, a boutique branch of the Meijer chain, is 37,000 square feet.
“Square feet doesn’t matter,” Potter said. “The Peanut Shop has, what, 400 square feet? How many peanuts can you put into 400 square feet? They’re showing you.”
Potter expects the co-op’s bustle to center on the front room, or “south room,” just inside the door, where tables with 16 seats are set up for people to grab a coffee and baked goods or a quickly prepared lunch.
Fresh produce will be heaped in a high-profile cooler near the front door.
Produce manager Milton Shoup said the co-op would stock “in-demand” produce like tomatoes or green beans year-round, buying wholesale if necessary, but always prioritize local farmers when their produce is in season.
“There are 12 micro-farms within half a mile of this building,” Potter said. “They walk their stuff over, we write them a check, and you come and buy your neighbor’s tomatoes.”
Another cooler will be loaded with prepared foods from local vendors like Woody’s Oasis. Many of the prepared foods will be hyper-local products from Allen Place’s commercial kitchens two doors down the street, like Tantay’s Peruvian cuisine, Teff-Riffic’s Ethiopian food, Mr. Leslie’s cheesecakes, Michigan Made Treats and a dozen other vendors.
Potter pointed to a table in the center of the room.
“That whole table will be Michigan fresh bread, cinnamon rolls, made overnight, and they walk it over at 6:45,” she said. Potter is hoping that the prospect of warm cinnamon rolls, with dollops of frosting the size of peonies, will drive much of the morning trade.
“You have coffee, tea, soup, you take a half hour for a meal and it’s all made by people in your community,” Potter said.
The rest of the space is devoted to what Potter called “Honey, I Shrunk the Grocery Store” — a judicious mix of frozen foods (including frozen meat), dry goods and other essentials, “enough to run your household.”
The co-op’s old bulk section, including the dry-docked bulk bins, coffee bins, spice bins and chutes from Northwind Drive, are cleaned up and ready.
The vibe in the store is warm, despite the cinderblock walls and concrete floors. There’s no aggressive branding. There’s a bright fruit and veggie mural at the back of the store by artist Kate Schneider, who lives within a few blocks of the market.
The only overt reminders of ELFCO’s ideological roots are gently inspiring quotes from the likes of journalist-activist Dorothy Day, civil rights icon Cesar Chavez and environmentalist Wendell Berry, etched on top of the coolers. The walls are lined by more than 20 photographs of East Side scenes by photographer Roxanne Frith, who also lives in the neighborhood.
The massive wood counter at the heart of the store was rescued from the garage of Tom and Linda Dufelmeier, former owners of the Mackerel Sky gallery and shop in East Lansing and longtime friends of Potter. Veteran carpenter Charlie Finkel, who made the counters 30 years ago, put them back together and helped install them in the co-op, where they make a grand command center.
A river of organic molasses has oozed under the bridge since the first East Lansing Food Co-op meeting was called in 1976. Bruce Roth, a former co-op board member, said the meeting of about 25 people was called by Tom Moore, a student in MSU’s School of Social Work, a poet, a cut-throat Scrabble player and founder of the East Lansing Bike Co-op (formerly the Fish Bowl aquarium shop) at 211 Evergreen St. near Grand River Avenue.
Ray Kamalay, a longtime professional musician, joined the ELFCO board in 1979.
“This was all a reaction to corporate food, which was very problematic,” Kamalay said. “There were very few choices, and they had no qualms about using pesticides, and so on. ELFCO was a reaction to that.”
ELFCO started in Roth’s old bike co-op building, then moved to a small storefront at 308 W. Grand River Ave. in East Lansing.
“It was a hole in the wall, like a Dairy Queen sized, about 800 square feet, but it was an improvement for them,” Kamalay said.
The co-op was running a nice profit “selling ginseng tea, brown rice and cheese,” as Kamalay put it, when an ambitious new manager from Philadelphia, Rusty Burshell, urged the membership to lower prices and increase volume.
Kamalay said sales “went through the roof,” quadrupling from 1979 to 1980 alone, from about $190,000 to $850,000.
“It got so that we ordered everything from every wholesaler we had ever dealt with, and by Saturday afternoon the store was empty,” Kamalay said. “We realized we needed a bigger store.”
In the early 1980s, the co-op bought a standalone former bridal and tuxedo shop at the dead end of Northwind Drive, a long block away from Grand River Avenue, still in East Lansing, but close to Okemos and Meridian Township.
The location was convenient for MSU grads with cars and homes in the suburbs, but before long, ELFCO wasn’t the only string bean on the trellis. “The irony is that they were clearly picking the right spot to be,” longtime ELFCO board member Anne Woiwode said. “Now you’ve got Whole Foods nearby, Foods for Living, and now Trader Joe’s.” (A new Trader Joe’s is planned for the corner of Northwind Drive and Grand River, even closer to the former ELFCO location than Whole Foods.) “But it wasn’t as visible to the main drag, and that was a problem.”
ELFCO sales took a hit when Foods for Living opened in 1997 and moved to its present spot on Park Lake Road near Grand River Avenue in 2001. By then, big box stores like Meijer and Kroger were routinely stocking organic produce and health-oriented foods.
“We were losing money,” Kamalay said. “It wasn’t that prosperity that got us out to Northwind anymore.”
The competitive pressure of the 2000s also ratcheted up the never-ending debate over what a co-op should be.
Janet Weinstein started as a volunteer at ELFCO in 1986 and worked in various capacities until May 2015.
“There was controversy from time to time over what a co-op should offer,” Weinstein said. “Is it about what the member-ownership wants, or is it about staying as non-corporate as possible?” She cited Coca-Cola products as a “small but colorful” example.
“These discussions were ongoing, and became even more complex as other stores began to offer more of the items that one could only have found at a co-op or a natural food store,” Weinstein said.
In 2015, Fresh Thyme, a self-proclaimed “natural food marketplace” based in Phoenix, Arizona, opened at the site of the former Goodrich’s Shop-Rite.
The game was all but over when Whole Foods opened in April 2016, barely a football field away from ELFCO. The co-op’s sales plummeted 20 percent in 2016 alone.
The idea of lighting out of the suburbs and embedding a co-op in an underserved urban neighborhood goes back to 2011, when Kamalay and Joan Nelson, the recently retired founding executive director of the Allen Neighborhood Center, had informal discussions about bringing ELFCO to the east side. In 2016, Nelson and ELFCO manager Dave Finet talked about opening a satellite store.
“We co-authored a grant application and received the funds,” Nelson said. But as sales declined, the ELFCO board opted not to stretch its resources and the plan was dropped.
ELFCO closed in January 2017. The board voted to sell the building soon after.
In the following years, the nest egg from the sale was eroded by storage fees, accountants’ fees and other ongoing costs, including an abortive plan to open a new store at 3026 E. Michigan Ave. that foundered in early 2020 over licensing and regulation issues.
At the same time, the Allen Neighborhood Center was completing its crowning project, Allen Place, a permanent home for its many food-oriented programs, along with an Ingham County health clinic and 21 upstairs apartments.
Gasteyer and Nelson saw a juicy opportunity.
A fruitful round of fundraising, including a $50,000 Patronicity grant and a matching grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp., sweetened the kitty. The new ELFCO also got a boost from a $100,000 grant from the Michigan Dept. of Agricultural and Rural Development and $200,000 from the USDA Healthy Food and Farm Initiative. Gasteyer credited two ELFCO board members, Michigan Democratic Party Finance Director Emily Linden and Anna Fisher-Colby of Public Policy Associates, with securing the crucial grants.
“We hammered out details and identified the perfect space, and signed the lease,” Nelson said.
ELFCO’s new membership model centers on a $30 annual fee.
Former members of ELFCO — not just lifetime members, but anyone who was ever a member — can re-register on the ELFCO website, www.elfco.org, and get 3 percent off future purchases, “forever,” Potter said, without paying the annual fee. The option of supporting the co-op, for $30 a year, is encouraged, but not required.
New members pay $30 a year for the same 3 percent discount. Potter said that with wholesale food prices spiking, there was no way to sweeten the discount.
“If you offer any more of a discount, you won’t stay in business,” she said. “The margins are too thin. You want to give something, but you don’t want to give away the store.”
As always, members of the public can shop at ELFCO any time.
Lifetime membership is off the table.
The ELFCO board has learned its lesson from the blowback it received when it retroactively jacked up lifetime membership, from $60 to $240, a decade ago, a desperate policy move that only accelerated the exodus of members.
“We’re turning the page on that,” Potter said.
Now Potter is counting on a coalition of potential customers to bring the co-op back to life, from heartsick former ELFCO members to hungry denizens of the east side food desert to grab-a-coffee-and-lunch commuters, strollers and bikers.
“There is no mystery to me on whether this will work,” Potter said. “There were 4,000 members out there. OK, some have died. But they’re all like, ‘What happened to my co-op?’”
Gasteyer knows that combining a healthy, local food emporium with a neighborhood grocery is far from a slam-dunk.
“It’s really scary, but really exciting,” he said. “If we can show that this can really work, I think it would be revolutionary.”
Potter may be thinking the same thing, but she expresses it less like a sociology professor and more like an MBA.
“It’s like any other business,” she said. “Where’s the gap in the marketplace? If you have to put three or four communities together to do it, that’s what you do.”
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