Oak Park food co-op gets cash infusion

Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
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March 26, 2014

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An artist’s rendering of the co-op’s interior.

Oak Park’s first locally sourced food co-op grocery, slated to open in early 2015, has received a $102,000 bridge loan from an angel investment group.

The loan will enable the member-based Sugar Beet Co-op to sign a lease with Interfaith Housing Development Corp. for about 5,300 square feet of retail space at 812 Madison St. in the Grove Apartment Building, according to co-op founder Cheryl Munoz.

“Our goal is to offer local, organic, no-GMO (genetically modified organism) products year round,” Ms. Munoz said. “We’ll buy from local farmers and producers whenever possible. Our next layer of sourcing will be through local food hubs — a growing local food distribution system — such as (Chicago-based) Local Foods to continue to provide us access to the organic products our members expect when they shop at the Sugar Beet Co-op.”

The co-op has an estimated 300 members from Oak Park and surrounding communities, including River Forest, Maywood, Berwyn and Chicago, Ms. Munoz says. Anyone can sign up online and become a member for $250. Produce and other local foods will be sourced from nearby farms including Genesis Organic Growers in St. Anne and Tomato Mountain Farm in Brooklyn, Wis. Other goods for sale will include bulk items, cheeses and yogurts, eggs, meat and prepared foods.

Chicago-based Sustainable Local Food Investment Group, or SLoFIG, identified the co-op as a business that meets its mission of filling some of the gaps in rebuilding the local food system, says Teri Lowinger, a SLoFIG founding member. “Sugar Beet will be able to stock smaller brands in smaller quantities to support local producers in the local market that may not be able to supply the volume required for the larger stores just yet,” she says.

Some of SLoFIG’s members who live in the Oak Park area know the founders of the food co-op and wanted to be supportive, Ms. Lowinger says. “With our investment model, it takes a champion among our group (of investors) to make some of the arguments about why we should consider investing in certain companies,” she says.

This week’s announcement brings SLoFIG’s investments to five since its formation in 2011, for a total of about $900,000. Last fall, some of the 20 members in the group pooled $435,000 and awarded it to Erie St. Clair Restaurant LLC, the group that owns the Italian fast-casual Sopraffina Market Caffe and Cicchetti, a small-plates Venetian restaurant in Streeterville.

The Sugar Beet Co-op is among a handful of anticipated member-based local food outlets in the works around Chicago. Others are expected to open in Rogers Park, Elgin and Lombard. Up-and-running co-ops include the Dill Pickle Co-op in Logan Square and South Suburban Food Co-op in Park Forest.

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