History of the Ypsilanti Food Co-operative
The Ypsilanti Food Cooperative is the only not-for-profit food store in Ypsilanti, but it was not the first such enterprise in the community. During the Depression of the 1930’s, some area residents came together and formed the Ypsilanti Consumer Co-op, a buying club, to provide better quality food at cheaper prices. The club lasted for seven years and was housed on Cross Street.
The present Ypsilanti Food Cooperative grew out of a “bag co-op” which operated in the early 1970s, supplying produce and cheese purchased fresh at the Eastern Market in Detroit. The orange 1954 Hotpoint “Super-Stor” refrigerator (still located in the Co-op kitchen) would be moved on a monthly basis to various local churches where the food would be distributed to members.
Original Pamphlet proposing a cooperative grocery store
The transition to the storefront occurred when the bag pick-up site was moved to 955 Sheridan. On April 11, 1975, members of the bag co-op formed a not-for-profit corporation under the laws of the state of Michigan, called the “Ypsilanti Cooperative Initiative.” Under the articles of incorporation, the membership was empowered to not only provide high quality food at the lowest possible prices, but also to “organize and support community efforts aimed at improving the quality of life…” These activities could include health, child care, education, recycling, non-polluting energy systems and cultural development. The Co-op remained loosely organized and was staffed mainly by volunteers; if a volunteer was not available to cash them out, customers paid on the honor system! Bulk food was offered from 5 gallon buckets displayed on milk crates and a 3- door glass cooler displayed refrigerated items, along with the orange refrigerator. The Co-op was forced to close in April 1978 when the building was sold.
In September of that year, the store reopened at 308 Perrin, where it sold natural foods to a small, yet diverse, clientele of students as well as community folks. At a General Membership Meeting in 1982, the membership charged the Board of Directors with developing a Five Year Plan to provide a framework for growth and financial stability. This brought about various changes including a one person management system to replace the collective structure which had become cumbersome and inefficient. A capitalization plan was developed to raise money through the system of Fair Shares, which made the members actual owners. Site relocation became the next major step as the rented space in the Perrin Street building was in poor condition and in a bad location, with a dilapidated house on one side and a liquor store on the other. A new location was sought and in February of 1984 the Co-op was moved to 312 North River Street, a historic building in Depot Town.
In 1986, the building came up for sale, but the Co-op was unable to purchase it at that point. A group of concerned members formed the Mill Works Partnership and bought the Mill Works building to guarantee affordable rent for the Co-op and its continued use of the space.
The Co-op expanded into the adjoining storefront in 1986 and underwent renovations. Simultaneously, the Depot Town Sourdough Community Bakery was opened next door and a wood-fired brick oven was installed. When the bakery failed, the Co-op took over the business and it has been running successfully as the River Street Bakery since 2005. Continuous additions and renovations have occurred to the Co-op through the years, as a new tile floor was laid, coolers were added, new windows were mounted, an awning added, new bulk bins were installed, and shelving was built and rebuilt. In 2008, the Co-op obtained a liquor license and began to carry beer and wine, focusing on local and organic brews. In the winter of 2010-2011, staff offices moved into a vacated second floor space to allow the Co-op to expand again, into the entire ground-floor footprint of the Mill Works building.
Over the years, the Co-op has participated in ownership of several co-operative warehouses, Michigan Federation of Food Co-ops, North Farm and Blooming Prairie, but these have all succumbed to competition. As natural and organic foods have become more widely desired, corporate retail stores and wholesalers have entered the marketplace. While we applaud the easy availability of wholesome foods to the general public, we are proud to continue offering a local alternative that provides consumer control to local owners. We are a member of the National Cooperative Grocers Association, a peer group of food co-ops in the United States working together to promote natural and organic foods at competitive prices.
History of our Mill Works Building
Built in 1840 through 1860, the Millworks Building was originally a factory where grinders for flour mills were manufactured. Through various owners, and eras in history, the building has become one of Depot Town’s landmarks. As the Ypsilanti Machine Works, it also produced scalpers, centrifugal reels, elevator heads, and boots with pulleys. A special reel for separating salt was manufactured here for the Diamond Crystal Salt Co. of St. Clare, Michigan.
The building was purchased in 1986 by a group of 5 people interested in historic preservation and community development. They formed the Ypsilanti Mill Works Partnership and, through much labor and capital investment, have renovated the building to its current multi-use with 4 upper apartments, 4 offices and 10,000 sf of retail space.
Since 1984, the Mill Works Building has been the home of the Ypsilanti Food Co-op, a not-for-profit corporation, and has been providing natural foods in the community since 1975.
Co-op in 2012
The Co-op Just Keeps Growing!
One of the few grocery stores in the city of Ypsilanti, the Co-op provides a full line of groceries, with an emphasis on organic, local and unprocessed food. The Co-op has been expanded steadily into the remainder of the building. Further expansion began in 2011 into the remainder of the ground floor to enlarge the bakery, create additional retail space, and add an official in-store eating area/café.
The Depot Town Sourdough Bakery was created next door to the Co-op in 1989, building a wood-fired brick oven into the back wall of 310 North River Street. Designed to produce whole grain artisan breads, it continues today as the River Street Bakery, and is owned and operated by the Ypsilanti Food Co-op. The bakery provides sourdough-started breads of all kinds, plus healthier alternatives to typical baked goods, including granolas, pies, cakes, cookies, brownies, soft pretzels, scones, and cupcakes.
What is a Co-op?
A cooperative is a business organized by a group of people to provide themselves with needed goods or services, not to make a profit from investments. Co-ops operate for the mutual benefit of their members and their community, and according to the common principles established for cooperatives. The member owners own the Co-op equally and work together for the benefit of the community and not those of international or corporate food distributors.
How Did Co-ops Originate?
Cooperation, in its most basic sense, is nothing new, as it has been integral to human society and civilization from the beginning. Today's co-ops are the direct result of the Industrial Revolution. The devastating toll of the Industrial Revolution spawned many radical social movements as reformers sought answers to the growing economic despair.
It was in 1844 in Rochdale, England, that the modern-day consumers' cooperative had its first lasting success. Twenty-eight flannel weavers registered with the Parliament under the hopeful title, "Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers." The previous year these workers had been fired and then blacklisted by their factories after they had organized a strike for better wages and failed. Now they decided that if they could not organize for better wages, at least they might organize as consumers for lower prices.
It took them a year to save the necessary capital to begin the venture. Their initial goods were flour, butter, sugar, and oats. By opening membership to all who would accept the responsibility and by practicing sound management, this co-op met with lasting success. By 1900, it had 12,000 members and $1,500,000 in sales. It added bakeries, dairies, building and painting services, and a laundry and coal delivery service. In protest against the food tainting by local millers, these co-operators opened and operated their own corn mills. Later they bought and operated the very mill from which they had been blacklisted.
"As the Pioneers made progress, a coherent philosophy emerged... When members exchanged money over the counter for cooperative goods, an empire was born, an empire meant to equalize, not to exploit. Revolutions were occurring frequently, throughout the world. While others urged armed revolt, strikes, and mass action on the streets, the cooperators were quietly building the people's business."
From Britain, the cooperative idea spread throughout the world, but has been embraced most readily in Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Canada. The United States lags far behind in large-scale co-op development, compared to Europe and Canada, although there is a long American cooperative tradition. The American cooperative movement began with farmers’ co-ops in the 19th century, but consumer cooperatives did not get started until after the turn of the century, when Scandinavian immigrants brought their knowledge to the east coast, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
The Cooperative League of the U.S.A. was founded in 1916, and facilitated communication between producer and consumer co-ops along with introducing sounder business methods. The movement really became motivated during the Depression in the 1930’s, when Americans discovered how cooperative ventures could help meet needs not being addressed through the capitalist structure. Co-ops were supplying everything from groceries, clothing, hardware and tires, to gasoline, electricity, and telephone service.
After World War II, in an atmosphere of cold War and a booming economy, the interest in cooperatives waned, until the late 1960’s and early seventies. The intellectual and ideological ferment of the era led many to an interest in open and participatory democratic government. Small, personal co-ops provided people with more control, more options and more satisfaction than they were getting as mere consumers of big business and government bureaucracies. A new awareness of chemical and ecological hazards bolstered the co-op movement as consumers desired safer foods and farming methods that were more environmentally sound.
(Portions of this history were excerpted from Weavers of Dreams by David J. Thompson.)
Many cooperatives are thriving today, as they continue to expound natural foods as well as the cooperative principles, which are basically the same as those written by the Rochdale Co-op in 1844.
- Open and Voluntary Membership
- Democratic Member Control
- Member-Owner Economic Participation
- Autonomy and Independence
- Education and Training
- Cooperation Among Co-ops