The Electric Commentary

Monday, January 21, 2008

A Loving Tribute To A Shitty Grocery Store

Today the Chicago Tribune eulogized the Hyde Park Co-op Grocery store. They talk all about the "ideals' embodied by the grocery store, as if you should care about the politics of the place where you buy food. (And as if "ideals" could overcome a complete lack of fresh produce, slow service, and high prices.) This needs to be taken apart line by line:

To the beat of a snare drum and blaring horns, the Hyde Park Co-op was laid to rest Sunday beside the dream that gave it birth 75 years ago.

A grocery store more likely opens than closes with a fanfare. But this one, a longtime linchpin of the Hyde Park neighborhood, was a supermarket of ideas no less than canned goods.

I lived in Hyde Park for two years and the Co-op was the only grocery store in the neighborhood. They enjoyed a virtual monopoly because of the harsh zoning and licensing requirements in force in the area, and no store would have benefited more from a bit of competition. The only thing I would disagree with in these first two paragraphs is that while their canned good selection was lacking in variety and quality, and was overpriced, the ideals of the co-op were still much much worse.

"We're here to celebrate the life of the co-op," said Winston Kennedy, 81, addressing several hundred former customers and shareholders who assembled in the produce department a few hours before its doors closed for good. A group of musicians had just played "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," the traditional anthem of a New Orleans jazz funeral.

I sort of understand when people get upset about historic buildings closing down, but the neighborhood's affection for the co-op is baffling. Did I mention that in addition to being poorly run that the place is also ugly? And dirty inside?

Former 5th Ward Ald. Leon Despres, a founding member, recalled how the co-op was founded during the Great Depression from a vision that a better society could be built from the bottom up. It would not only sell groceries, but also spread the word that cooperation between human beings was better than cutthroat competition. It stood for honesty in an age of shady business practices.

Mr. Despres is probably at least partially responsible for the co-op's protected status in the neighborhood as he is clearly against competition. Ironically, the Co-op is a terrific lesson in what happens when businesses do not face any competition. Despite being a lousy grocery store, the co-op did enjoy a monopoly, and was generally very crowded. They also charged high prices for inferior goods. The place should have been a gold-mine, however, the store ended up millions of dollars in debt somehow.

But I'm sure that shady business practices had nothing to do with it.

"The co-op took the butcher's hand off the scale," said Despres, 99.

Here we have the notion that no member of a co-op would ever try and cheat anyone because being in a cooperative situation magically changes human nature so that we're all altruistic Care Bears.

Have you been to a deli at a major grocery store lately? You will notice that the scales that they use to measure your meat and cheese are actually on top of the display cases in plain site of all of the customers. This is done to ensure that the customer knows that he is not being cheated because if your local Jewel is cheating you, or even if you just think it is cheating you, you can go to the Dominick's, or Whole Foods, or Cub, or Treasure Island, or Trader Joe's, or one of the other stores that exists in areas that allow competition.

If the butcher had his thumb on the scale at the co-op, you didn't have much of a choice in the matter. But I'm sure he would never do anything like that because he's probably a nice guy.

Yet some in the neighborhood believed the store's quality had slipped badly in recent years, despite a new manager brought in to update the offerings.

These people are correct. Most of the produce was bruised, rotting, or misshapen. The Co-op was on the University of Chicago campus, and yet was always out of Diet Coke. They did not have much variety of any product. Buying beer or liquor required a trip to a separate, downstairs store (which is not the case at any Chicago grocery chain). Their parking lot was too small. The workers were not helpful, and generally surly. One of their baggers smelled like he had not showered in months.

To casual shoppers, the Hyde Park Co-op would seem no different from any other supermarket. But to members, it was an enterprise of which they were the owners. A small fee entitled them an annual rebate for purchases made. Profits went to member-owners as dividends.

The first sentence in this paragraph is a complete lie. Even very basic chain grocery stores are far more pleasant than the Co-op.

Joining the Co-op entailed that you pay a small fee. I do not remember what the fee was, but I remember thinking that it was surprisingly high. I do remember that most of the "special deals" that you were entitled to as a member involved large quantities of bad produce that you could not possibly eat before they spoiled. Membership paid no better than a typical grocery store's "savings card" program, none of which charge you any money to join. Because that would be an insane business practice.

But you got dividends, right? Well, keep in mind that the store is closing because it was millions of dollars in debt.

Decisions were made by a show of hands rather than by officials at some distant corporate headquarters -- a form of neighborhood democracy that inspired loyalty to the very end.

As it turns out, skilled people with advanced degrees sitting in distant board rooms are better at running a grocery store than random neighborhood locals.

Who knew?

Most of the musicians who played Sunday were paid professionals. But bassist Andrew Basa, who lives nearby, brought his bass fiddle to join in.

"I loved the co-op and hate to see it go," said Basa, whose wife, Rhea, also played a few choruses on her violin.

The co-op traced its ideological roots to 19th Century England, where textile workers opened their own commissary as an alternative to the factory owners' company stores. From there, the cooperative movement spread to the U.S.

The first co-ops existed to provide competition to the company store. This co-op existed free from competition. It was the company store.

Kale Williams told the crowd how it was natural for him to become a Hyde Park Co-op member when he came to Chicago in 1966.

"I grew up in rural Kansas, where farmers joined together in grain cooperatives," said Williams, 82.

In the last few months, however, as the co-op reached the end of its days, the membership's discussions were acrimonious. To the very end, some thought the institution could be saved. Others thought the red ink on its books insoluble.

Notice how the supporters never mention any actual good qualities of the store itself. They just focus on the cooperative aspect and how it reminds them of old times.

If you're a curious sort you are probably wondering how a monopoly with high prices and low quality merchandise managed to get itself into so much debt. Well...

In recent years, some customers were turned away by the store's appearance. There were complaints about product quality.

Its decline was quickened by the corporate giantism it was founded to combat. It opened a satellite store on 47th Street in Kenwood, a neighborhood once in decline but gentrifying.

Just so you have some perspective on this, the Co-op sits on the corner of 55th St. and Lake Park Ave. It opened another, full grocery store on the corner of 47th and Lake Park Ave.

That's right, they opened another store just 8 blocks away. They paid all new rent. They hired all new butchers, cashiers, managers, and security. They, at the very least, doubled their operating costs. And who did they compete with by doing this?


They cut into their own market share. They stole their own business. And they doubled their cost to do it. Brilliant. And somehow the paper blames this move on "corporate giantism" as if a real grocery store would ever open a new store next to one of their old stores.

But the timing was off.

Yes, you don't want to open a store 8 blocks away from your other store too soon.

Opening before there was a local constituency for its peculiar blend of upscale products and social vision, it failed, leaving the parent co-op stuck with a million-dollar lease.

To be fair to the 47th street Co-op, it was much more pleasant than the 55th street
Co-op, but I still wouldn't describe their offerings as upscale. They had, mostly, the same inferior products. But apparently the store only failed because a bunch of progressive-minded people did not move into Kenwood en masse. I can't believe that business model did not pan out.

Members finally voted to accept an offer from the University of Chicago, landlord for the original store, to pick up most of the co-op's debt. The space will soon be occupied by Treasure Island, a supermarket chain with branches in trendy neighborhoods.

I have a Treasure Island near me. It is not my favorite grocery store, but it is a good store. It is a bit upscale, however the Co-op was so overpriced that I suspect Treasure Island will actually be cheaper for most shoppers. Treasure Island has a very nice deli, fairly good produce, and an international section to rival any specialty store. It describes itself as a "European style" grocery store, and that is probably about right. It will be a major, major upgrade over the Co-op.

Yet even at the end, some in Sunday's crowd couldn't accept the co-op's demise.

"I hate to see them leave," said Dorothy Horton, 83. "Do you think they will ever open again?"

You people are insane. Honestly, who gets nostalgic for a grocery store?

Good riddance. This is creative destruction at its finest.


  • YAY! No more crappy Co-op. How on earth could anyone like th Co-op? High prices, awful produce, cranky cashiers, incompetent baggers, sketchy meat...

    By Blogger Jodi, at 3:30 PM  

  • Uh, apparently "you people" always means black people to black people when a white person says it and some of the affected people are black. Maybe try "Such people" just to be safe.

    As long as I'm playing editor, even rhetorical questions still deserve a question mark.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:32 PM  

  • Good point anon. The "you people" in this case refers only to co-op supporters. I thought the context made that pretty clear.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 8:43 PM  

  • It was pretty clear, but I'm not sure that matters. I was trying to make a sarcastic point as much as I was a suggestion anyway.

    (anon was me, oops)

    By Anonymous Scott H, at 1:41 AM  

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