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Chicago Market Aims to Recruit 1,000 'Owners' for Grocery Store Alternative

 Greg Berlowitz is the driving force behind Chicago Market (formerly Chicago Cooperative), a proposed Chicago food co-op.
Greg Berlowitz is the driving force behind Chicago Market (formerly Chicago Cooperative), a proposed Chicago food co-op.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

UPTOWN — The grocery store of Greg Berlowitz's dreams would exclusively stock locally produced food — and be owned by 1,000 locals near the store willing to invest in the venture and become faithful shoppers.

"I want people to know the farmer," said Berlowitz, a lawyer by trade.

Berlowitz hopes to recruit others who share his passion for local food and community to Chicago Market. The budding grocery cooperative, founded by the Rogers Park man, is campaigning to enlist 1,000 members, or "owners" to its cause by late September.

Organizers will pitch their vision of the member-owned grocery store to potential supporters via information sessions at Chase Park, 4701 N. Ashland Ave., at 7 p.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. Saturday.

Since June, about 180 people have signed on as owners with the Chicago Market, formerly known as the Chicago Cooperative.

Owner Pamela Bergdall, 65, said her hope is that the initiative provides a model that can proliferate the city, not just the North Side.

"We want to get the word out to people that this is an option," said the Uptown resident. "You have an opportunity to help create your dream grocery store, engage in local food, become an owner and have a democratic voice."

Berlowitz said he's irked by "a disconnect" between food producers, consumers and local economies within the typical paradigm of national grocery chains. Chain stores, he and other Chicago Market supporters argue, are often headquartered out of state, owned by faraway shareholders who might never step foot inside their investment, and stocked with goods from around the country and globe rather than from Illinois farms.

In contrast, "Chicago Market will be a big, bright, beautiful community-owned grocery store," according to the Chicago Market website, which says site selection is scheduled for winter 2015 and will target a 10,000-15,000 square foot space on the North or Northwest Side. Berlowitz said most employees at Chicago Market would be community members.

The Chicago Market website describes organizers' vision of "a community hub" offering shoppers "farm-to-table transparency about food, its origins and its processes," with a focus on "sustainability and integrity in all areas, including environmental stewardship, fair labor practices and cooperative principles."

Owners, who can buy into Chicago Market for either $250 or $500, receive discounts on foods and services and an annual patronage refund based on each owner's spending. They also get a voice when it comes to what the store stocks, how much it charges and how the co-op is governed.

She's eager to see the $250 she paid to join Chicago Market help "create an alternative to big, corporate grocery stores."

"I think that for us to thrive, we're going to have to depend more on local economies, and therefore I want to promote and support local farmers that are producing food for us in the Chicago area,"  she said. "I feel like the more we support each other in communities the better off our communities will be, and more sustainable."

This isn't a new idea, but it's rare in Chicago. The only grocery co-op is the Dill Pickle Food Co-Op in Logan Square. Another co-op called the Sugar Beet Cooperative is being assembled in suburban Oak Park, on the edge of Chicago's Austin neighborhood.

Co-ops, Berlowitz explained, require a lot of volunteer labor to keep the projects financially feasible and profitable, from legal work to business planning and marketing. For instance, Chicago Market's steering committee consists of all volunteering professionals from various fields.

For more information about Chicago Market, click here.

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