In a slight tangent from usual GCF content, Derrick and Adam find themselves browsing the shelves at 6th Ave’s newest co-op grocery store.
It’s funny, we spend countless hours enjoying, discussing, and arguing about food served to us in restaraunts, but we’ve never once discussed the grocery store food we all rely on for actual sustenance. We’ve never gotten in fisticuffs over where the best beer selection is, where your average box of cereal can be found cheapest, or the benefits of organic foods vs. everything else. It honestly never even crossed our minds. This is what happens when you’re mired in first world problems – like this: my Bugatti Veyron Super Sport reeks of Clive Christian Imperial Majesty Perfume! This is one of those problems.
To help rid ourselves of this problem, we are having our first ever grocery post. It’s a short nod to an establishment literally keeping us alive. Hooray for living! In this instance we are celebrating life at the Tacoma Food Co-op, a precocious young and burgeoning member-owned store on the corner of 6th and Junett.
Members Only Member Owned
I am not a hippie. Well, there was that one time in college…. I don’t wear patchouli oil, I never burn Nag Champa, and according to iTunes I haven’t listened to Phish since 2007. I generally try and eat healthy (ish), I prefer locally produced small-batch products over hypodermically sealed national brands, I avoid most things bleached, and I buy organic fruit because it tastes better – that and I goddamn hate waxy apples. All this said, living in Tacoma I desperately missed the food co-ops I shopped at regularly in times past (those being the Moscow Food Co-op, and the Community Food Co-op in Bellingham). Their selection was limited by their space, and you would inevitably need to go to a larger market for the occasional item, but the shelves weren’t cluttered with un-purchasable crap. I don’t need a 50 foot aisle of frozen dinners, let alone two of them. This summer the co-op opened its doors for people just like me. To hell with Swanson Salisbury Steak dinners.
Tacoma has long had a locally owned natural food store in Marlene’s on 38th, but lacked a true member owned cooperative until recently. The Food Co-op’s humble beginnings were truly grass roots, and unlike the inevitable conclusion of Ron Paul’s grass roots campaign, this movement ended well. The origins began with years of small meetings between determined citizens for whom the idea of any actual brick and mortar store seemed a distant fantasy. Eventually meetings grew into action. According to manager and co-op guru Henri Parren the final push came when a small student-run study was conducted to determine the viability of a co-op. “The current location came out as the best to appeal to as diverse a customer as possible.” I suppose 6th Ave is nothing if not diverse, and the location across the street from our beloved Red Hot is super convenient. Fast-forward a few months and the shelves that were once host to Bugles and Natty Ice at the Neighborhood Market now house mostly local and organic produce, meats, and goods at a shiny new food co-operative that is entirely member owned and operated.
It’s a grocery store!…which is a far cry from the collection of organic soaps, skimpy produce, and empty bins that constituted the Tacoma Food Co-op when I first visited last fall: the Neighborhood Market funk was still prevalent despite the reclaiming of the big street side windows, the shelves were mostly empty, and the employees weren’t sure how to communicate with customers. I ended up buying a few odds and ends, flexed my newfound membership muscles by filling out a suggestion card, and went to Safeway for the bulk of my groceries. A humble start for sure, but things are looking up for the folks at 6th and Junett.
The space is moderate. There is enough room for 4 aisles stocked well enough to hit roughly 90% of your shopping list. Unless of course you are only looking for Swanson Salisbury Steak TV Dinners, in which case your list will be 0% fulfilled. The entryway is one of the biggest successes. The front of the building is colorfully painted and ornamented with boxes of open air produce. The paint was removed from big street-side windows giving a friendly welcoming feeling to the place, and a bar with stools has been installed for anyone wishing to enjoy a cup of coffee and a danish while gazing out at 6th Ave. The room still has a bit of the quickie mart feel, but it would take some major reconstruction to eliminate that entirely. There are only two check out stands – currently being updated, a member area where you can make suggestions or sign up to volunteer, and a managerial corner office where you can shoot the breeze with Henri himself.
Now that the setting has been firmly established, let’s take you on a little tour of the new and improved Tacoma Food Co-op.
Stores of this nature are really held under the gun when it comes to their produce selection: it is imperative that it be fresh, local, organic and diverse. Although two of those things seem slightly contradictory (diversity inevitably requires some imported items), the Co-op has managed to do well for themselves here. There are indeed a large number of locally and organically grown items, each with identifying tags for discerning buyers. Henri gave us some numbers:
“In the summer the local selection is over 50%. In the winter this becomes a bit harder. We do intend to have a wide variety at all times but we mark what is local so people can make an informed decision.”
The produce selection is limited to a single aisle, but they’ve managed to cram quite a bit in that little corner. Earth Mama bonus: most everything we saw was indeed organic. You won’t find organic/non-organic duplicates of everything like you would in a supermarket or huge end caps of blueberries in December, but the occasional hard-core local buyer can easily see what was grown within a day’s drive.*
*Hint: the bananas aren’t local.
Adam and I aren’t shy about our meat consumption. Adam’s dietary needs require a direct pipeline from farm to mouth. I am not quite as bad, but I do like a good butcher. This the co-op does not have. The meat is all locally raised and butchered – impressive cuts and ample sausage – but all frozen. I’m assuming this is because demand isn’t high enough to necessitate a fresh meat case, but it’s definitely a downside. I asked Henri about the potential for a butcher down the road, and he seemed to think this wouldn’t be in the cards for the co-op: “we probably won’t have the store within the store that is a butcher, deli, bakery, etc., but we will look at fresh options to offer a wider variety.” I think that Tacoma Boys and Dave’s Meat Market pretty much have the butcher thing covered, but a fresh meats case would be nice. I personally would love to see a bakery/deli someday myself.
We took home some sausage with a local connection. It was from a nearby farm that fed its pigs spent grain from 7 Seas Brewers. We bought it for the gimmick, but the sausage was actually pretty damn good. Fresh, nicely chewy and flavorful. I wonder how much better this would have been had it been fresh. This freezer thing is killing me.
Every store has a section like this, but the Co-op’s is pretty damn impressive. Taking up nearly an eighth of the store, the bulk offerings are extensive: from the typical dried fruits and nuts to unusual grains and herbs. Adam was delighted to find bulk coconut flour, and I was delighted by all the pretty colors! From what I tried (dried cranberries, raw almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, granola mix, dried apricots) everything tastes remarkably fresh. This is certainly a big selling point for the Co-op.
My new plan is to save up for a set of fancy jars to keep bulk flour and sugar in – replace the damn paper sacks that leave little white clouds all over the kitchen. Get my Martha Stewart on.
This, like the meat freezer, seems to be a bit of a work in progress. It’s much better filled out than in previous visits, but it’s not there yet. Most everything seems to be locally supplied, which may be somewhat limiting in this instance. You can get your standard Tillamook or Organic Valley here for everyday use, but don’t come here if you’re putting together a cheese plate for the Saturday night rager. Being a cheese whore, I like to see imports in this area. Maybe that’s not what the co-op is all about, but….I’m just not bending on this one. Enough to satisfy your grocery list, but not enough for an adventurous eater such as myself.
One sad piece of news, there was only one salsa to be found: Emerald Valley. It’s good, not great. And it’s from Eugene which is much further away than my favorite store bought salsa: San Juan Salsa, which – by the way – is impossible to find in Afterburner any more. Bring it back!
On a return trip since, I discovered a second salsa: Simply Organic. A company out of Yelm. The hand-written date was promising, but the salsa didn’t hold up. Too vinegary, no heat, which is funny considering the order of ingredients had serrano peppers listed ahead of the vinegar.
Slowly getting there. Tacoma Boys will have this part of the market cornered for the foreseeable future, but the Co-op has a small but respectable selection. Again, heavy on the local distribution. You have a good chance of finding most local bottled brews here, we took home some 7 Seas Ballz Deep ourselves, but no chance in hell finding an obsolete California craft beer (like Alesmith…. sad face) or a hard to come by import. Again, the Co-op has a narrow focus here, which is good or bad depending on your point of view.
I like a nice wine, but I’m not going to pretend I know anything about the wine market. I will tell you that the selection here seems small, but interesting. It is very clear that the Co-op is open to suggestions, and I’m willing to bet that many of the bottles on that shelf were requested by members. This may be an interesting stop for the casual yet discerning wine drinker out there. Drop by and put a bug in their ear. You might show ignorant wine drinkers like me something new.
This is so awesome. The Co-op has the best selection of tea and coffee in town, carrying a full sampling of Valhalla, Bluebeard, and Tony’s coffee, including some specialty blends, and a huge assortment of handmade teas from Mad Hat. I’m regularly accused of pandering – although I think I’ve been pretty forthcoming this time around – but this is journalistic honesty in its most sincere form. If you can’t buy your coffee directly from the roaster, come here.
Every Co-op has stuff. From locally knit hats and gloves (look at the sexy pic above) to your typical grocery store items like dish soap and toilet paper. All these things are indeed here, but you’re probably not going to find the 24 pack of triple-ply quilted Charmin. Instead you’ll find slightly scratchy reconstituted newspaper in toilet roll form. Every painful wipe is just another reminder of how you’re saving the planet. You’ll find the typical 7th generation cleaning products and all that good stuff too. I won’t go into too much detail, I’ve already spent more time than I ever intended to on this one. This was all actually an excuse to show that picture of me.
The co-op is barely past its first stage of life. So many years were spent planning, like an extended embryonic state, that rushing now would mean certain doom. It’s wisely undergone some slow transitions, and at this point it has just poked its head out of the shell and is looking around awkwardly for someone to imprint on. The place looks surprisingly good, and is clearly moving in the right direction. There is some genuine love behind the Tacoma Food Co-op, and I am excited for its future.
The food selection (the whole point of this post really) is still a bit sub-par, but is already considerably better than it was. If this trend continues the Co-op has the potential to be a real staple for lots of people. This is what the Co-op desperately needs to achieve. It’s never going to win a contest of quantity or variety, so it needs to strike a balance of high quality local goods supplemented with outstanding nationally distributed items. It’s already doing this with the coffee/tea and bulk sections, now it needs to bolster those wire racks with delicious healthy and interesting food. With a grocery store more is better, and for that to happen more people need to shop here.
A final message from Henri:
” Come shop, come volunteer, give suggestions, attend meetings, serve on the board, help out with committees, suggest the store to your family, friends, and neighbors. Be actively involved in a positive way. Support the Co-op and together we can and already are making a difference. The community support has been impressive. The opportunities are endless.”