If they build it, we will come.
Writer Sarah Barden
In 1971 the Ithaca Real Food Collective was a diminutive grocery occupying a storefront on Fifth Street in Ithaca, NY. All employees were part of a non-hierarchical management collective; all products were individually approved by the membership and all nonmember shoppers were given a single shopping trip to decide if they wanted to join.
As it turns out, the appeal of a cooperatively owned grocery store focused on healthy, local and sustainable foods was quite compelling. Forty-eight years of growth saw many changes:
Two moves—first to a comparatively spacious 2,400-squarefoot space at Cayuga and Farm Streets, followed by a nearly three-decade residence at the 6,500-square-foot building at Seneca and Fulton; A name change—“GreenStar Food Co-op” won a member vote in the ’80s; And many expansions of the product line—for the first 20 years GreenStar sold no meat products, and alcohol of any kind was long eschewed.
GreenStar has now made its most dramatic shift of all as the beloved cooperative moved to a new 16,500-square-foot flagship store, located at 770 Cascadilla St.
“It’s a huge expanse,” said Director of Operations Chad Smith. “Some of this is intimidating on how we’re going to fill it. We’re trying to be really purposeful in what we’re putting in.”
Currently, 27% of GreenStar’s products are grown or produced within 100 miles of Ithaca. For comparison, conventional food retailers nationwide report an average of 2% of sales from local producers. “Part of that 27% is a constraint of what the local economy produces,” explained Smith. As the store expands he believes that this might stay at a similar ratio, or even grow. “There may be some local vendors that strictly do the farmers market and stay small, but this [expansion] opens the doors for more local farms who maybe want to take this leap. This could be a catalyst for local farming; I’d like it to be.”
Smith went on to discuss ways that GreenStar might be able to assist the local farming community. “The farmers that are producing for us now compete so much with each other. They’re not a cooperative. Other co-ops have the infrastructure to help guide farmers.” Ultimately, with increased buying power and a higher profile in the community, GreenStar hopes to develop that infrastructure and generate ideas for farmers to ease the burden of heavy competition.
This thoughtfulness extends beyond farmers to local makers of packaged goods as well.
“Right now we’re not actually turning any local vendors away, or if we do it’s because of quality or our product guidelines,” said General Manager Brandon Kane. “GreenStar has so much stuff going that you can just immediately get lost because it’s a collage of density.”
The combination of additional shelf space and intentionally designed displays will give those local brands room to breathe and expand. “There’s an opportunity for vendors to approach us with development. [Local packaged goods] represent over 25% of our sales and about 15% of our product.” Kane said the intent is for that percentage to remain the same, as local products are afforded greater visibility on the shelves.
One department where GreenStar is bringing in both local product and local experience is the addition of a butchery case and cold room in collaboration with The Piggery. “We’ll see their branding all through our cases. They’re helping us to understand how to run a butchery case and pretty much doing whatever we need them to do to help us set this area up,” enthused Smith. The cuts available will start simple, but after a year or two—as staff build capacity and knowledge—the selection will expand.
“We did our best to try to stay true to GreenStar but also be able to open up to more customers. This gives us an opportunity to bring in some more mainstream goods to appeal for more people.”
“Essentially, [The Piggery is] still going to be open, they’ll still have some similar offerings, but a lot of their [current offerings] are coming here and they’re going to have more exotic stuff that we can’t really carry because of our product guidelines.” GreenStar’s cases are expected to be filled with 80% local meats—many certified organic—and 20% nationally sourced, grass fed, humanely raised meats, resulting in a wider range of price points.
“We talk about diversity and inclusion but sometimes we missed the mark on how encompassing that is,” said Smith. “There’s a point where money becomes a factor. I just don’t think it’s right that a family of four can go to McDonald’s and feed themselves for cheaper than they can go and buy natural food.”
A recent restructuring of the product selection system addresses some of these concerns and will also allow GreenStar to include many more international foods. “We did our best to try to stay true to GreenStar but also be able to open up to more customers. This gives us an opportunity to bring in some more mainstream goods to appeal for more people,” said Smith. “In a way we were telling people how you have to eat. We need to be able to give people an option. So we will be opening up and having more of an international section.”
In the vein of inclusion and education, GreenStar has designed a certified teaching kitchen with a 20-person capacity.
“What we’re looking at is a seasonal curriculum that will probably run five, six, even seven days a week,” Kane said, while acknowledging that they would build to this slowly. “We want to bring in a lot of local, regional chefs. So we will have two core positions that will generate classes from GreenStar’s perspective, like cooking on a budget, cooking with local produce, kids classes, etc., while also working with a chef per season to do date nights where you’re making your meals and pairing with wine and cider and beer. Building a curriculum for four seasons a year.”
Directly adjacent to the teaching kitchen is a 55-seat café space with a second public entrance for shoppers who wish to drop in for coffee or a quick meal to go. Staples including the hot bar and soup station will remain, and made-to-order smoothies, chopped salads, noodle bowls, subs and sushi, grab-and-go bakery items, cold beverages, and fresh cold-pressed juices are staged here as well.
“You lose track of the excitement but when you walk through, it brings you back to that bigger picture,” said Kane.
Both Kane and Smith hope that everyone who steps through the doors—both new and old customers, members and nonmembers—will feel the same excitement.
Sarah Barden takes every opportunity to try new food, and now leads tours with her husband through their business Ithaca is Foodies Culinary Tours (ithacaisfoodies.com). When she’s not working, she’s still eating—documented on Instagram @ithacaisfoodies.
Allison Usavage helps makers, craftspeople, couples and small businesses tell their honest and unfiltered stories through documentary-style photography. You can find her work at allisonusavage.com.