Today, most of the food co-ops and other communal groups started in the hippie era have died away. Yet the gleaming, bustling Lexington Co-op at 807 Elmwood Ave. is thriving at 40, carrying out its mission for more people than ever.
The Lexington Real Foods Community Co-operative sprouted in the heart of Buffalo's countercultural community in 1971.
Its organizers wanted to help people eat better, by providing "good quality, reasonably priced food for everybody," said Siri Narayan Fuda, a founding member.
They also wanted to educate members about their food, she said -- what was healthy, where it came from and what systems their food purchases supported.
On the surface today, it's an upscale neighborhood grocery store, selling organic apples, fair-trade coffee and pizzas of naturally raised beef on spelt crusts. Look closely, and it's still a co-op -- with 15 to 20 percent off selected items for members, and a bulletin board where members' queries and suggestions are answered in writing.
Its mission definitions have changed, though. The choice of food the co-op offers is far broader, and the ways it tries to educate members are less dogmatic. Both had to transform, Fuda and other longtime co-op members said, or the store would probably be history.
"From the very, very beginning, there were two articles that were never, ever sold in the co-op," said Fuda. "One was meat. The other was sugar, in any form."
Its founders felt that meat and sugar were not healthy, "so we did not provide them," she said. "That is one of the things that has changed, and that has enabled the co-op to keep going. If we had not made that change, I don't think we'd have a co-op anymore."
By 1986, the co-op, then at its longtime 230 Lexington Ave. address, was facing commercial failure. Its membership rolls had 600 names, but many weren't frequent shoppers.
Nationally, supermarkets had started to react to consumer demand for bulk foods, whole wheat flour, tofu and other products that were hard to find outside of food co-ops in the 1970s. Once the big chains decided to stock those items, their massive buying power often meant prices cheaper than the co-ops, too.
Co-op customers who came to Lexington Avenue found store aisles that could be cramped and dimly lit. Even dimmer were its chances of financial survival, as the co-op's egalitarian management practices made change nearly impossible. Since the co-op made its business decisions collectively -- from altering operating hours to offering a particular product -- any proposal could be stopped by one member's "no."
"You could never make any changes," said Dawn Northwood, a former co-op board member who remains a regular customer. "It took just one person to stop us offering something with sugar in it, or tuna fish in cans. There was someone opposed to everything."
>Growing with the times
Eventually, in the late 1980s, the consensus rule was voted out. Tim Bartlett, who became store manager in 1998, said tuna and meat were finally allowed -- stored in the basement, where you could fetch it yourself, if you knew where to find it.
In 2002, co-op leadership decided that it needed to expand to thrive. Its move would be funded by members who agreed to loan the co-op money.
Usually, a co-op group selects a site, then asks its members to support the co-op's plans, said Bill Gessner, a national co-op consultant who worked with Lexington.
But in Buffalo, "before we had a site to move to, the members came forward and loaned $260,000 to an organization that had no track record" building anything, said Bartlett.
"It turned out members were willing to put their support into this project without a site, which told me they supported the board and leadership of the co-op to make the right decision," said Gessner. The members' confidence helped inspire the co-op leaders, he said.
It would take another three years before the $3 million project was finished. The new store opened on Elmwood Avenue on July 27, 2005. It employs 81 people, including 36 full time, and it sold more than $8 million in food and groceries in the last year.
"It makes me incredibly happy to walk in there and see, first of all, the surroundings, so full of light, which I must say the place on Lexington was not," Fuda said. "The design of the building is beautiful."
Today's shoppers stroll through the produce section, selecting bulbs of fennel and picking out oranges. Strawberries from Florida and Mexican asparagus were among the choices during a visit last week.
Now that there are organic vegetables in every supermarket, a trend attributed partly to the co-op movement's influence, Lexington carries both organic and regular produce, with sales split about 50-50, said Bartlett.
The bulk foods section, the co-op's original core products, still boasts all the whole grains, unbleached flours, rolled oats and dried fruits anyone could want. There's also relative newcomers like yogurt-coated almonds and malted milk balls.
There's still Dr. Bronner's liquid soap, with its characteristic label. Except now, there are four or five different varieties on the shelf.
You can still find the bulk tofu, in a white plastic bin in the dairy case. Beside it is a cooler full of meat, where locally raised grass-fed beef, bison and free-range chicken share space with Mineo & Sapio sausages.
The broader selection means co-op shoppers can do most of their shopping there, if they like. In the old days, "You'd go to the supermarket for most of your stuff, then go to the co-op for what they had," said Northwood. Now, "That's where I do, I'd say, 90 percent of my grocery shopping."
Besides the crusty bread baked daily and the Bagel Jay's bagels, the Lexi's Kitchen staff turn out homey delights like chocolate chip cookies and vegan mixed-berry almond thumbprint cookies.
They're not baking cookie dough out of buckets like some supermarkets, either. Those chocolate chip cookies? Organic butter, sugar and flour go into those. No butter in the vegan almond thumbprints, but the berry jam was cooked in house.
Nearby is the co-op's prepared food section, a relatively recent addition to the store's offerings that quickly became a "huge success," said Bartlett.
Every day, the cooks present entrees and soups for vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, with last Thursday's lineup including curried butternut bisque, curried tempeh with eggplant and tandoori-spiced chicken. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, picky people come in to find something that fits their particular tastes.
While meat is part of the menu now, the co-op does its best to use humanely raised local animals, including two cattle a month from Stand Fast Farm in Forestville, said Bartlett.
The membership rolls are up to 7,400, each having paid a one-time $80 fee for part ownership of the co-op. That gets you discounts on selected items each week, and a modest annual dividend check. Members also get discounts on classes, like the popular canning clinics that 130 people attended last summer, said Joann Tomasulo, marketing and membership services manager.
Instead of telling members and other shoppers what they couldn't buy, the co-op switched to doing its best to meet all its members' needs, Tomasulo said. Besides educating its members about their food choices, it tries to teach them a little about each other, too.
"Part of the cooperative is helping people see that there's a sea of all kinds of opinions and owners, and everyone has needs," Tomasulo said. "Not just seeing each other as a vegetarian or a meat eater, but seeing each other and knowing that we're trying to fill the needs of all the owners, as best we can."