By any measure, the Co-op has come a long way, but just how much we have grown is hard to believe unless you were there at the beginning. Simple math would put the beginning of the story in 1981, but a couple of sharp-eyed observers weighed in on some local initiatives with which they were involved, initiatives that pre-dated the founding of the Co-op. They are Barb and Doug Dailey, longtime Co-op stalwarts whose fascinating story can be regarded as the pre-history of the Co-op.
The Co-op got its start in early 1975 when a local married couple, Barb and Doug Dailey, with the support of a group of friends, decided that they wanted to see if they could obtain whole, healthy, and hopefully organic foods for a better price and of a greater variety. The first store, which we called at the time Rainbow Foods, was of course not a store in a regular sense, was located on the northeast corner of 4th and Myrtle Streets. It was a former corner store, in pretty rough shape, but it had the all-important coolers.
We had wonderful friends in Buffalo that had a nice little co-op going and were willing to help us get on our feet. Some of the early memories include building a rudimentary counter in the back with a stainless sink, building a couple of sturdy benches to process the bulk food we obtained, having the long dormant coolers serviced and started and making weekly runs up to Buffalo to pick up the foods we had all ordered. Our pay was the satisfaction of getting these real foods for us and our friends and the camaraderie involved in creating something good with friends. People readily agreed to come down and slice cheese, bag grains and flours, clean the place up; whatever was needed. It was truly a manifestation of CO-OP, cooperatively working for the common good.
As we evolved, friends of friends wanted to reap the benefits of whole foods and lower prices, so we started to grow. We got big enough to actually have Clear Eye foods deliver directly to us; truly an exciting accomplishment. We were making this up as we went along, but it remained exciting and fulfilling. Having never planned or expected it, we eventually realized we needed a facility that was a little better than what we had.
At the time, we were living in the 200 block of east 14th Street and had often noticed the small former storefront on the corner of 14th and Ash Streets. We soon rang the doorbell of the woman that lived there and discussed the possibility of our little venture moving to her storefront. She proved to be open to it and we signed a lease, not sure what would happen. Soon I was putting down a new floor and we were preparing for the transition. It was a pretty big deal to us all.
As time passed, a number of our friends were moving on and some of the excitement had worn off, so in 1978 when the Minority Health Delivery System a more regular venture, and knowing that they would still carry the natural foods we had, we gave them the keys to the door and became, for lack of a better term, just plain members and, of course, remain so to this day.
When we started Rainbow Foods, we were, as I said earlier, making it up as we went. I would like to think you might understand that, even though we had no idea that it would evolve to us sitting here in this wonderful facility, we're kind of proud of of our founding role here.
That beginning was in 1978 (call it the pre-history of the Co-op) when the Minority Health Education Delivery System (MHEDS), a social service agency in Erie, obtained funds to start a food co-op with paid employees. MHEDS was created to serve the area Hispanic community by providing ethnic foods at affordable prices that had been unavailable or hard to find in Erie. The effort was well-intentioned and successful for its time, but its time was limited. "I remember that the MHEDS project, though it served a fair amount of people, lost $700 a month", said Gay Lipchik who served as an early general manager of the Co-op and who now practices psychology in Erie.
Although ethnic food was the program's stated mission, the MHEDS "buying club", as it was called, also ordered and sold natural foods. At the time, the buying club was, essentially, a truck that came in once a week from Cleveland with foods the members had ordered. Club members unload the truck themselves, and if they weren't there to meet the truck, they wouldn't get their food. Marty Visnosky recalls the deliveries: "It was very cramped, particularly when the big trucks came in from Walnut Acres. People on 14th street became irritated, and they would have to go out of their way to deliver there. The truck days were hectic because you had to make sure that you had enough volunteers."
It was the late 1970s and the impact of the Whole Earth Catalog, the elevated consciousness of the 1960s was well established. Healthy eating, organic and whole foods was starting to break out of the previous cult-like stigma of the so-called "health food nuts" and seep into the mainstream.
But by 1980, almost all members interested in Hispanic foods had left the program (some have suggested that Erie County Farms, then located on 26th Street on what is now the site of Tops Market, established a Hispanic foods section at roughly the same time).
Faced with declining membership and increasing operating deficits, MHEDS wanted to withdraw funding, hoping that the buying clubs (there were three, as Lipchik recalls), would become self-supporting. But the effort needed a new purpose, and within one year, whole and natural foods became the focus. The three buying clubs were consolidated into one and the former Food Basket was incorporated on June 30, 1981 as the Whole Foods Cooperative Association.
The Whole Foods Cooperative Association remained at their 14th and Ash storefront until 1990. They had outgrown their space and needed to find a new place that had off street parking and ample space to display what they had for sale. Lori Wolf, general manager at the time helped them to make the move to 6th Street between German and Parade Streets into the former Medi-Center Pharmacy building. The new store was quadruple the size of the 14th and Ash store. Many of the employees that are still with us today remember the move. "We were so excited to have more space but found it hard to fill the shelves."
By 2000, the Co-op had once again outgrown their space. They then relocated to 26th and Brown Avenue, in a building 4 times the size of their former store. The Co-op remains here still to this day.