Beyond the Kale

One does not simply walk into the Park Slope Food Co-op.

Before they’re granted entry to Brooklyn’s most talked-about grocery store, guests must first visit its membership office — a cramped facility that, incidentally, housed the entire co-op when it was founded 40 years ago. The office shares space with the co-op’s childcare center and a meeting room, which hosts events with names like “Gluten Intolerance: Fact or Fiction?” (Those events, unlike the co-op itself, are generally free and open to the public.) It’s located at the top of a narrow staircase lined with dozens of fliers advertising drum lessons, free guinea pigs, and cooking classes courtesy of something called Purple Kale Kitchenworks.

Once they’ve ascended the steps, visitors are given bright orange stickers indicating their non-member status — but only after they’ve handed over photo identification. The members working the desk are asked to cross-check outsiders with the co-op’s database, ensuring that guests aren’t secretly co-op members in bad standing. (After a ten-day grace period, members who have been “suspended” due to missing their work shifts lose their shopping privileges.) Members must also sign in all outsiders and promise, in writing, that the guests will not shop.

Ben Johnson, a public radio producer who lives three blocks from the co-op but doesn’t belong to it, remembers being confused by the whole process during one of his few visits. “I was like, ‘Can I pick items up? Can I put items in the cart?’” he recalls. “And they were like, ‘No. You can’t do anything. You’re just here to look.’ Then I started joking with them: ‘OK, are you guys going to throw me in the co-op holding cell?’ They were so not interested. They just had literally no sense of humor about it.” He found the ordeal bizarre and unwelcoming — not what he’d expected from an organization named for the principle of cooperation.

A street view of the Park Slope Food Co-op, which is all but impenetrable to non-members. Photo by Gloria Chung.

This particular policy is a relatively recent addition to the co-op’s litany of regulations. As a bright pink leaflet stocked near the sign-in sheet explains, the honor system used to sign in visitors until 2007 was “significantly abused” by “suspended members, former members, and non-members,” who often shopped after signing as guests: “‘Mickey Mouse’ and ‘Donald Duck’ visited us frequently,” the flier explains. While a two-step verification process may seem extreme, the co-op’s leadership believes it’s the best way to ensure that the store’s discounted high-end groceries are purchased only by those who have earned the right to do so: the members who volunteer for one 2.75-hour shift there every four weeks.

Those who don’t know much about the co-op’s idiosyncrasies think that signing in visitors is a gratuitous hassle. But insiders think of it more as a necessary annoyance — one of the many they credit with actively ensuring the co-op’s survival over the past four decades. As author, comedian, and proud co-op member Michele Carlo explained to me in her thick Noo Yawk accent, “I really believe it works because it’s nuts.”

Any member will tell you that the co-op exists in a perpetual state of controlled chaos. 16,100 members must make do with about 6,000 square feet of shopping space. Its sales per square foot are fourteen times the national average for a supermarket, making for shelves that are alternately abundant and barren. If members are unhappy at monthly General Meetings, they don’t hesitate to voice their displeasure — like the middle-aged man who sat behind me at last month’s assembly, booing loudly and declaring, in a stage whisper, that voting to re-elect two members to the Annual Revolving Loan Committee was “not worth waiting for” before storming out of the auditorium. After he took his leave, another member snippily raised a point of order: “Can those who are coming and going please close the doors gently?”

All this may explain why New York media have long been fascinated by the co-op. Over-the-top articles that paint the place as a self-righteous food snob Mecca seem to pop up at least once a year; see, for example, the Daily News’ “Park Slope Food Coop and the Holy Kale ,” published this spring. The piece gets in as many digs as it can at the store, taking particular glee in describing petulant intercom conversations, disgruntled workers, and entitled clientele, like a toddler who “melts down when his parents won’t buy him dried papaya spears.”

It’s a sensational tale that sounds too ridiculous to be true — and one that hits a series of familiar beats. According to these articles, the co-op is a sanctimonious, yuppified liberal nightmarescape where wealthy parents send their nannies to cover their work shifts and shoppers are more likely to spy an errant bag of Cheetos than a Republican. Its every move is fodder for ridicule, sometimes in real time — like when Reuters editor Chadwick Matlin breathlessly live-tweeted the co-op’s February 2012 General Meeting. The Awl, Gawker, and the New York TimesCity Room blog reprinted the messages, which described a room “tense with passive aggression” where members booed the very mention of Trader Joe’s. At the next month’s meeting, chair Carl Arnold asked attendees not to tweet.

Carlo’s 2012 essay “Adventures at Planet Coop” contains all the elements of a classic “crazy co-opers” story. Carlo describes her first few days among the store’s “militant sanctimonious fascist hippies,” where she butts heads with an aging flower child, “redolent of a low-grade patchouli oil which didn’t quite mask a faint yet distinct undertone of un-neutered cat.” She balks at the co-op’s “totalitarian manifesto of endless Rules” and is told that she’s “ruin[ing] EVERYTHING” when, during her first work shift, she accidentally confuses conventional nuts with organic.

One would expect the essay to end with Carlo getting the hell out of Dodge. (Firsthand accounts of ex-members doing just that have become their own subgenre of the “crazy co-oppers” article.) But here’s the punchline: despite everything she wrote, Carlo has been a proud co-op member for five years now — an evangelist for the kooky grocer, even.

“My first encounters with the co-op were of the most stereotypical and incredible variety,” she admitted over coffee in Nolita. “But I stuck with it, because I figured, you know, it’s like a job,” which occasionally means doing things she doesn’t enjoy among people with whom she doesn’t get along.

Which isn’t to say that Carlo has held onto her membership only begrudgingly. She genuinely likes spending time with her current shift-mates, a group of “very cool and chill people,” and she’s largely made peace with the labyrinthine rules that fill the store’s 50-page membership handbook. When asked whether she thinks these rules are fair, Carlo hedged by saying, “Most of them,” then spent a long moment trying to think of one she doesn’t actually agree with. She came up empty.

And though Carlo isn’t shy about poking fun at the co-op herself — shopping there on a Sunday evening, she said, is like being caught in the fiery riot at the end of The Day of the Locust — she has little patience for its critics. She called its detractors “some of the people who couldn’t hack it, for lack of a better word,” specifically citing writer Alana Joblin Ain, who quit the co-op after racking up over sixteen hours of owed labor, then recounted her experience for the Times.

“You know what?” Carlo continued, pointing an accusatory finger at me. “Maybe she just blew shit off. I don’t care if you’re 24 or you’re 64. If you can’t take responsibility for yourself, you don’t get to whine about how stuff didn’t work out.” In her mind, the method to the co-op’s madness is simple: “This has been in existence for 40 years. And it would not have lasted for 40 days had this model not. been. viable.” She emphasized those three words by speaking them directly into my recorder, in a sharp voice no doubt honed by years of co-op intercom announcements.

In fact, if its crowds and instantly-filled orientation slots are any indication, the co-op’s model has actually proven to work too well.

Today, the overstuffed, closely regulated co-op bears little resemblance to the humble collective it once was. Park Slope’s punching bag was birthed in February of 1973 by a slightly fluid group of about ten progressive-minded, anti-war activists. They were, emphatically, not hippies.

“If hippies were flower children who were smoking dope all the time and not doing anything seriously, the people who started this co-op couldn’t have possibly been hippies!” co-founder Joe Holtz told me during an interview in his paper-choked office, gesticulating wildly. His words were punctuated by the rhythmic sounds of the co-op’s copier, a corporate metronome. “We were willing to make a work requirement!” he continued. “What kind of hippie is that?” Holtz seemed to take the label as a personal insult, perhaps because he’s a Sheepshead Bay native who favors commemorative Brooklyn Dodgers T-shirts over Birkenstocks. (The sandals are a particular sticking point for Allen Zimmerman, a member since ’73 and a paid staffer since ’88: “How many times do I have to read about somebody in Birkenstock sandals buying granola?” he complained to me. “That's lazy journalism.”)

Even if they valued elbow grease over peace signs and pot smoke, the Park Slope Ten were clearly inspired by sixties-era idealism. Founding a community-minded organization allowed them to translate those ideals into something tangible, according to Holtz — and provided a channel for energies that may have been squandered otherwise. Activists and potential affiliates like Zimmerman felt “kind of lost” after the Vietnam War began to wind down. Co-op membership gave them an outlet — even though, as Zimmerman was quick to note, the store has always been “a place for selling good, healthy food at cheap prices. And it has resisted being anything other than that.”

Indeed, despite the leftist slant of its beginnings, the co-op’s founding was driven by pure necessity. “We were all having trouble affording better food,” Holtz recalls. At the time, he was working as a substitute assistant teacher at a daycare and driving a cab on the side. "So one of our purposes was to make really good food more economically accessible.” The Park Slope where he settled in 1972 was a far cry from the bougie paradise it’s become. Early members compare the neighborhood to present-day Bushwick, remembering it as a working-class enclave where cheap, healthy food was scarce. Holtz cites “the concept of cooperating and building a community success” — ideas that seem as though they’d be the store’s bedrock — as simply “the other reason that we were excited about the co-op.”

The co-op gang found a home base on the second floor of 782 Union Street, a building owned by “a really interesting, old-fashioned guy who I’m pretty sure was in the Communist Party,” laughed early member Kip Zegers. “The place was full of old copies of The Daily World.” At the time, Zegers was also involved with the building’s primary tenant, the Mongoose Community Center — a like-minded hangout launched in 1971 that wouldn’t survive to see the end of the decade.

Inside the co-op during its early years. Photo courtesy of the Park Slope Food Co-op.

In the beginning, the business was humble. Zegers recalled “plastic garbage cans filled with rice and nuts and grains,” as well as fresh produce kept in a modest single refrigerator. The store was open only on Saturdays, and all food was purchased via preorder. Work shifts were assigned via a sort of honor system that barely deserved that label: “We didn’t have a system,” Holtz explained ruefully. “We didn’t conceive of someone not wanting to do their share.”

Each week, the founders posted a job chart; each week, their comrades ignored it. The co-op’s more devoted members often resorted to calling up colleagues on Friday nights and asking if they’d be available to play cashier the next day. And if the weather happened to be good, forget it; most members would rather ditch than feign enthusiasm for tallying up receipts. The bulk of the work was left to a small group of highly committed members — “superheroes,” in Holtz’s parlance — who ran a high risk of burning out, thus leaving the co-op even more in the lurch.

Naturally, this loosey-goosey approach wasn’t sustainable. Holtz and the gang suspended operations for a month in the fall of ’73 to ponder how to fix their sputtering creation. When their attempt at a solution, which introduced a membership fee, also failed, the store closed down once more in the fall of ’74.

This time, when the co-op reopened, it boasted features that should be familiar to current members (and readers of the Daily News): regular, mandatory work slots; a penalty of two make-up shifts for every missed shift; and a work system organized by committees, designed both to foster community among members and to increase their accountability.

Holtz was voted in as the group’s very first General Coordinator the next year. His new position’s name was chosen deliberately: “The co-op felt like ‘manager’ might give the impression that members had less responsibility than they should have,” Holtz explained. It’s the same reasoning that prompted the co-op’s leadership to call members’ initial financial contributions “investments” in the co-op rather than “deposits.” Today, though, Holtz serves as both one of nine general coordinators and the co-op’s general manager; evidently, thousands of members can’t be corralled by coordinators alone. Only one other founder, Donnie Rotkin, has stuck with the co-op since the beginning. He currently helps run new member orientations.

In 1977, the co-op formed a board of directors and was officially incorporated. (This body exists only so that the group complies with New York’s Not-for-Profit Corporation Law. After each monthly General Meeting, the board simply takes a cursory vote to uphold whatever the assembled members have decided.) In 1978, after the Mongoose had folded, the surviving business signed a two-year lease with an option to buy all of 782 Union Street. Holtz calls that move “the smartest business decision we ever made.”

By 1985, the co-op was open for business daily. By 1998, membership had ballooned to 5,500. Cramped quarters led the store to expand twice, purchasing 780 Union Street in 1997 and 784 Union Street in 2002. After each expansion, said Holtz, membership immediately surged once more, leading to even more crowding and an even greater demand for space.

Today, membership must be carefully controlled so that the co-op doesn’t grow any larger. It’s a necessary tactic, albeit one that contradicts the store’s founding principles of openness and inclusivity. “We have this system which I’m not proud of,” Holtz admitted, describing the co-op’s policy of allowing potential members to join via its website. Each week, just three open orientation slots are posted online — and without fail, all three are completely booked within 60 seconds.

It’s a turn of events that would astound the Carter-era non-hippies who struggled to find enough people to staff their grand experiment — and one that might slightly frighten them as well.

After giving me a thorough rundown of the co-op’s past, present and future — which may or may not involve the opening of a second branch — Joe Holtz took me on a backstage tour. While leading me around the store, he was clearly in his element; though friendly, Holtz is a difficult man to interrupt in conversation, and being a tour guide gives him an appropriate opportunity to monologue.

We began in Receiving, the street-level area where crates of gorgeous yellow peppers, attractively bumpy avocadoes, and other earth-grown delicacies are unloaded from delivery trucks. From there, we traveled to the co-op’s main shopping floor, where Holtz explained both the store’s complicated checkout procedures and why it accepts debit cards but not credit cards. (Allowing customers to pay with the latter would be more expensive for the store, eventually driving up food costs.)

Though members had relayed plenty of horror stories about the co-op’s checkout queues — there’s a reason that the store’s official newsletter is named The Linewaiters’ Gazette — the scene I saw was hardly the Sunday night Thunderdome Michele Carlo described. Instead, it was downright sedate — much more so than my local Whole Foods at 8 p.m. on a Thursday.

As we wound through the grocery’s narrow aisles, Holtz frequently paused his commentary to greet shoppers and workers by name, pick errant potatoes off the floor, and point out examples of “a job not done right”: in this case, a master produce list hung by one thumbtack instead of two. Even this nitpick had a purpose. As Holtz explained, customers can’t easily read the list if it’s curled around a single tack.

A co-op shopper examines the produce list. Photo by Gloria Chung.

We descended into the basement, a cramped storage space that also features a wide, long table where a squad of kerchief-clad members sat laughing and merrily dividing gigantic blocks of cheese into saleable chunks. Holtz led me past and through a series of freezers, all stuffed with fresh, often exotic-sounding wares. The “chicken cooler,” for example, holds not only that humble bird but also beef, pork, duck, bison, rabbit, and pheasant. (Holtz himself eschewed meat for many years, but gave up when he “couldn’t really remember why [he] was a vegetarian anymore.” Still, he refuses to eat animals unless he knows how they were raised. If he ever takes a trip to Portlandia, Holtz will fit right in.)

While trudging back up the stairway, past several pairs of Paddington Bear-style boots and matching yellow rain jackets — receiving, it seems, can be a messy business — Holtz abruptly began to answer a question I had asked in his office nearly half an hour ago: how does he think outsiders’ perceptions of the co-op have changed over the years? “We keep bursting” with members, he said, dodging a crate filled with some delicacy or another. “Why is that fascinating? They want an answer to that riddle.”

And in his mind, that answer is simple: New recruits are drawn in by an irresistible combination of good, cheap food and the sense of ownership that can come only from a system founded upon member labor. As he told the Linewaiters’ Gazette last month, Holtz knows only a handful of co-ops that use a similar model today: one in Montana (founded in 2006), the other in Clinton Hill (founded in 2012). Neither is nearly as large or successful as his store.

As my grumbling stomach and I exited the co-op, I remembered that we had one more assignment that night: picking up salad fixings for dinner. Since the co-op itself wasn’t an option — I am not, nor have I ever been, a member — I ducked instead into the nearby, mostly empty Seventh Avenue Gourmet market and settled on a five-ounce plastic container of “mixed super greens” that set me back $4.99. I don’t even want to know what I would have saved by purchasing something similar from one of Holtz’s cashiers. (Actually, I couldn’t resist looking it up: at the co-op, a comparable salad mix goes for $5.85 per pound.)

After dissecting the Daily News’s most recent piece about the co-op, the Atlantic Wire’s Jen Doll found herself wondering if the mockery even had a point.

Doll didn’t see much novelty in this latest tale of kale-pocalypse, and not just because she’d read it all before — but also because many of the quirks the Daily News cited are simply realities of New York City shopping, rather than co-op life specifically. (Show me a grocery where lines don’t snake all around the store, and I’ll show you a grocery in the suburbs.) In the post’s conclusion, she pondered whether the co-op’s members are really “crazy,” or if we’re crazy “for continuing to obsess and parse out every nitty-gritty detail about how a bunch of people in Brooklyn do their shopping.”

The answer seems obvious — especially because in its current incarnation, the co-op looks an awful lot like any number of high-end New York grocery stores. While the co-op as an institution has grown more complex since 1973, its stock has gradually gotten more varied.

Kip Zegers remembers a time when members debated whether the co-op should carry products that contain caffeine, or even toilet paper; some considered the latter a shameful waste of natural resources. But exotic coffees and paper home goods can both be found in the co-op now — as can red meat and beer. (Admittedly, those two were added to shelves in 2002 only after rigorous debate.) Along with its much-touted produce and bulk bins, the co-op also sells a wide variety of “healthy” junk foods like Pirate’s Booty and Newman-O’s — “highly processed stuff of questionable sourcing and nutritional value,” according to New York Times journalist and co-op member Michael Moss. Those items are a far cry from the humble plastic vats of rice the store carried at launch.

A selection of greens from the co-op. Photo by Gloria Chung.

The co-op has diversified in order to please the silent majority of its members: those who stand by and sigh when the store is savaged in the press and when their more flamboyant comrades behave stridently or obnoxiously. Of the co-op’s 16,100 members, only 200 or 300 regularly come to the group’s monthly General Meetings — even though doing so gives attendees valuable FTOP (Future Time Off Program) credit, which can be used to “legally” play co-op hooky. The most contentious meeting in co-op history, during which the group voted on whether to table talk of banning Israeli products, drew a comparatively enormous group but even then, only about ten percent of members were present and accounted for.

The numbers reveal that while many members see the co-op as a community-building institution, many more view it in a less rarified light. Gloria Brandman, a teacher who joined shortly after graduating from Brooklyn College in 1973, told me that her co-op membership “was never just for the food.” By contrast, 25-year-old video producer Chris Wade sees the co-op as a purely commercial entity: “In the end,” he said with a verbal shrug, “it’s just a grocery store.”

Wade and his ilk are socially conscious but wary of embodying co-op stereotypes, happiest when they follow the example of Carlo, who says, “I go there to do my shift, be friendly to the people I’m friendly with, shop, and leave.” If the co-op’s comparatively few veterans and most diehard members are religious fundamentalists, these laissez-faire folk are secular acolytes of the same faith. They identify as co-op members, but they aren’t particularly observant. And Zimmerman believes the sensationalist press prefers to think they don’t exist: “I think our story might be more boring than the stories they pick up about breastfeeding, granola-crunching, tofu-eating psychopaths.”

On May 28, Joe Holtz called me to apologize. Though he’d put my name on the guest list for that night’s General Meeting, it looked like there wouldn’t be any room for me in the auditorium. Eight hundred members had signed up for the event; the co-op’s venue, though, could legally accommodate just 400. I wasn’t surprised, given the thorny issue members were scheduled to debate that night: whether to phase out the use of plastic roll bags. (These are the vessels shoppers use to carry produce and bulk items; plastic shopping bags were banned from the co-op in 2008, along with bottled water.)

With this in mind, I headed to Park Slope’s Middle School 51 anyway, expecting a scene — picketers singing protest songs and holding up pictures of oil-covered ducks, well-heeled Park Slope parents prodding their toddlers to scream slogans. Instead, I found a group of 100 or so people sitting in an auditorium and patiently waiting for the meeting to start. They prepared for a lecture on environmentalism by assembling and perusing long packets of handouts provided by the co-op. (Anti-plastic advocates must not give a hoot about killing trees.) The members were a rainbow coalition worthy of a college brochure, a far cry from the lily-white yuppies who populate the media’s imaginary version of the store. As far as I could tell, their one uniting feature was a fondness for colorful glasses.

Everything changed five minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin. In what seemed like an instant, the steady trickle of co-op members swelled to a flood. The event’s organizers began playing a frantic game of Tetris, shuffling around the seated to expose precious empty chairs. Spaces were filled instantly, closing like a piercing after the ring has been removed. Within moments, every single spot in the theater was occupied — leaving a group of about 200 angry co-op members stranded outside the auditorium’s doors, where they loudly hissed and wondered whether they’d still be granted their FTOP credit. “I’m just doing my civic duty,” one curly-haired young woman whispered to a middle-aged friend. “I didn’t realize there’d be such… drama.”

After valiantly trying (and failing) to boost the sound so that the outsiders could hear, mild-mannered meeting chairman Tim Platt began the proceedings. An Environmental Committee representative stepped forward and began explaining the proposed phase-out as the Third Estate’s rumblings grew ever louder. Finally, a woman with close-cropped gray hair — I couldn’t see her name tag; let’s call her Norma Rae — began dramatically, furiously demanding for the vote to be canceled, repeating “It’s not right!” over and over. Platt agreed to consider Norma Rae’s request, but only if she called a formal point of order. She complied, admitting once she retreated from the mic that she had “no idea” what a “point of order” was.

Ten minutes of debate, one hand vote, and one surprisingly frank assessment of the situation (“We are trying to accommodate, basically, a train wreck”) later, Norma Rae got her wish; the plastic bag motion was tabled. And, after confirming that they could in fact get FTOP credit whether they stayed or not, members began a mass exodus from the auditorium. Swarms cleared their seats, slamming the theater’s doors repeatedly as Platt desperately shouted after them, “The meeting is not over! The meeting is not over!”

Just like that, the crowd vanished as quickly as it had appeared. About 150 members stayed behind to hear a report that focused on why they had joined the co-op in the first place — the food. According to Zimmerman, they had plenty to look forward to: hundreds of pounds of spring salad mix were coming that week, he said, along with fiddlehead ferns and garlic scapes — just $4.37 a pound.

Hillary Busis writes for Entertainment Weekly. She has contributed to Slate, the Wall Street Journal, and Jewcy.

Gloria Chung is a photographer based in New York City.

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