Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Open Produce

posted by Elizabeth Fama

If you visit a big city in Europe, you notice two things right away: you walk to most of your destinations, and there are storefront shops everywhere. For instance, within a stone's throw from an apartment my family and I rented in Rome, we were able to shop at a cheese and milk shop, two bakeries, a butcher, and a produce store. (A longer walk away, there was a supermarket smaller than Village Foods.) In short, no matter what Treasure Island says about being "America's most European Supermarket" (a slogan I dislike, primarily because a good store doesn't need a slogan...remember when the Co-Op was "Dedicated to Outrageous Service"?), the real European model is urban density coupled with a myriad of small shops.

Open Produce, 1635 East 55th Street, seems to follow that European model. It only lacks the company of the butcher (which, coincidentally, used to be across the street in the Manus Dental location more than a decade ago), the baker, and the cheese shop. And of course, as we all know, Hyde Park has spotty urban density.

There's a good variety of items in the store, with most of the standard fruits and vegetables you'd want (I missed seeing a few green veggies that are staples for my family: broccoli, snap peas, and green beans), and most are in respectable shape. There's an interesting selection of South Asian and East Asian dry goods, some canned goods, spices, and a refrigerator and freezer case with milk, juices, yogurts, and pre-prepared vegan and vegetarian foods. If you're like me and you eat tons of produce -- and frequently run out of tons of produce -- and if you live nearby, you could easily pop in on the way home from work or school.


I chatted with the owners, the animated Andrew Cone and the quieter Steven Lucy, about their goals: to stock hard-to-find vegan and vegetarian products (Andrew touts it as the only place in Hyde Park that sells Tofurkey); to stock humanely-treated animal products; to buy locally whenever it makes sense; but perhaps most unusual of all, to make the store's financial data and practices "open" for anyone to see -- their bank statements and other records are posted on a wall. If you follow their blog, you'll find frank discussions of money there. For instance, for October and November, they do a back-of-the-envelope calculation that shows their monthly "surplus" (not strictly the correct term in an accounting sense, but that's OK) was only $900 per month. Given spoilage and unexpected expenses (the latest are truck repairs), no one is taking home a salary yet. Still, Andrew says optimistically that the store is "20% of awesome." I'm still not sure what that means, but it's charming.

Finally, the hours of operation are purposely tailored to students: it's open from 11 AM to 11 PM every day, which might make it the most happenin' place this side of Dunkin' Donuts.

11 comments:

chicago pop said...

Will this place be there in a year? Who knows.

Am I glad it is here now? Absolutely.

Does it brighten up that stretch of 53rd and make people's lives just a little bit easier and more interesting? Without a doubt.

Time was when you didn't have to go to Europe or New York to find a produce vendor on every corner, as I'm sure many veteran Chicagoans remember. This place seems to be going against a mighty economic tide, but if they read their market right, it might just work.

Now let's go get some Tofurkey!

Elizabeth Fama said...

Yes, the idea of bringing back small produce vending is 100% of awesome. I just hope they're not too ahead of their time.

Greg said...

It's a funny place, I've been in a few times. For a while there it seemed to be almost like a hangout for college kids.

SR said...

Yay, I spy in that picture Swad red chili powder! That was going to have to wait til my next trip to Patel's on Devon, I thought.

Thanks for this post, I didn't even know that store was there.

Peter Rossi said...

the Co-Op really was dedicated to outrageous service. S

edj said...

With all of the hubub over the Co-op for all of those years, doesn't it seem strange that it's like the Co-op was never there and barely missed?

Elizabeth Fama said...

This is why we need to FIX THE POINT, Edj. No one will remember the argument after its fixed -- it'll seem like the revetment was always like that, families with younger children will be able to enjoy it again, and the activists will find another cause to amuse themselves.

edj said...

Find another cause to distract them. Hmmm. Now there's a contest for us.

Otto said...

With all of the hubub over the Co-op for all of those years, doesn't it seem strange that it's like the Co-op was never there and barely missed?

It's just like when Sue Lyon got hold of the distributor head in "Night of the Iguana"!

Chicago_mom said...

...."If you visit a big city in Europe, you notice two things right away: you walk to most of your destinations, and there are storefront shops everywhere. For instance, within a stone's throw from an apartment my family and I rented in Rome, we were able to shop at a cheese and milk shop, two bakeries, a butcher, and a produce store...."

May I point out that spending scarce hours each day trudging in and out of several stores, buying small amounts of selected items, is actually a nightmare for some people? I love variety, and I love trying to "live my Hyde Park life" on foot, but spending hours grocery shopping in different specialty shops is not how I can do it. For my hungry household, it works best to arrange periodic, industrial- strength runs (by car!) to Target, occasional Peapod deliveries, and Hyde Park produce runs (or similar) as needed. TI is a welcome addition to my portfolio when my other plans fall apart, as they often do.

So, not to say I don't welcome niche grocery and foodstuffs providers in Hyde Park, but I can't say I'm likely to contribute to their economic success here.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I think the ideal is a mix of both. I do bulk shopping with Peapod, but I'd stop in shops along my way to get special items. I do that now with the Z&H Market Cafe, for instance.

I also think that people don't make food a high enough priority in their lives. Many Americans have forgotten how to cook, how to cook together, how to eat together, and (related) how to shop. I'm not saying this is true of you, Chicago Mom, this is just a very general (highly opinionated, probably controversial) comment. As a society we tend to prioritize away from food in our obsession with being "busy," often with things that matter much less.