A Food Co-Op Dream, Revisited

Courtesy Doug CoffinDoug Coffin loves the idea of a new food co-op in New Haven, like the one that opened in the late 1960s and closed in the 1980s. But he doubts people have the interest in “putting in the time and effort that’s needed to sustain such a place” anymore.

“We were very much in the late ‘60s thinking that we were creating an alternative world,” Coffin said. “The confidence and the sort of feeling that you could do that was really important to creating this whole thing and keeping it going. That kind of space and that kind of confidence isn’t really a part of ... our political and cultural climate at this point.”

The owner of Big Green Truck Pizza and a soon-to-be new restaurant in the old Humphrey’s location in Jocelyn Square, Coffin brought that reasoning to CitySeed last week, where he presented “Anarchist Pizza: The Art of Making Pizza Dough & the History of Food Co-ops in New Haven” to an audience of 12.

For the first half of the evening, Coffin gave a lesson in the dough rolling and wood-fired pizza making that comprises his pizza truck operation. In the second half, he dove into stories from the now-defunct New Haven Food Co-Op, before considering whether a similar model could make it today.

A collaboration with the local food and farming nonprofit and Long Wharf Theatre, the event was intended to ramp up excitement for Long Wharf’s world premiere of The Most Beautiful Room In New York next month while raising money for CitySeed.

That play is about food, family, and New York’s cutthroat culinary scene. Coffin’s business brings him in touch with the first two. He sources from local farms as much as he can, and maintains relationships with customers through weekly trips to farmers’ markets across the state. He also has a lesser-known role, as one of the founding members of New Haven’s now-defunct food co-op, a sort of socioeconomic experiment of the 1970s and 1980s. As he swapped his apron for culinary historian hat, the evening evolved into a case study on how a city’s food changes with its people and their economic demands.

Flour, Water, And History

Coffin remembers the New Haven Food Co-Op starting at the end of the 1960s, with a New Havener named Jeff Kilbreth who now lives in Richmond, California. With a handful of families, Kilbreth organized a buyer’s club, or collective model in which families buy and share food to be more economically effective. From that club, the New Haven Food Co-Op evolved on the idea of member labor — that members would work at least two hours per month to reduce the costs of groceries. There was also a small staff pool of full-time or nearly full-time laborers. That’s where Coffin came in. He had dropped out of Yale and in the early 1970s, he joined the co-op as a meat wrapper and cheese buyer for the group.

It was a different model from that of New Haven’s more recent, short-lived co-op on Chapel Street, which offered members an end-of-year rebate that came without the expectation of member labor. The thought behind the original, Coffin said, was to create “a whole different model of social organization.” Early members envisioned it as a worker’s collective, a place that tried out “new models of participatory democracy,” business acumen, and food education. Those members came from a diversity of backgrounds Coffin had never experienced in a workplace: labor activists, women’s rights crusaders, and people talking about racial equity, as well as “hippies who wanted bulk tahini.” There was an emphasis on local, fresh fare, locally grown produce, a fish department, a meat counter with local selections, and a deli with an assortment of cheese from local and national vendors. 

For a while, the model worked. By the early 1970s, it had grown from a buyer’s club to a small storefront on Carlisle Street in the Hill neighborhood. Coffin remembered selling a literal ton of cheese each week to “hippies” who went through it with stunning speed, demolishing blocks of cheddar and havarti and wheels of jarlsberg, and then buying up bran and granola to make sure it got through their systems.

Within a few years, the co-op had outgrown its space and moved to Kimberly Avenue in 1975. (That location is now a C-Town.) It moved again in 1978 to Whalley Avenue, where Minore’s Market is today. By that time, Coffin estimates that it was drawing close to 5,000 members, about 1,000 of whom were active in the co-op’s daily life. In sales, it was making about $100,000 a week.

“It really was the social center for a lot of the left community in New Haven,” Coffin recalled. “It really did a tremendous amount to give the community a sense of place ... they [members] really got to know everyone in there.”

But the co-op also began to struggle financially. From its outset, members wanted the co-op to be “saving people money across the board,” Coffin said. But it was a small operation, and that meant that the operation’s buyers (including him) struggled to buy fresh and canned foods at prices that were as low as those of some of their competitors. In New Haven and across the country, small, locally-owned grocery stores were being put out of business by new conglomerates and regional chains. Coffin recalled looking at certain foods — canned tomatoes, whole gallons of milk, wheels of morbier cheese — and knowing that he wouldn’t be able to buy at a low price even if he haggled with vendors.

Then there was infighting, and a movement for consensus building that rarely culminated in consensus. Some members didn’t save the co-op money during their mandated labor hours because they simply weren’t that effective — they chatted the whole time instead of working in the deli, cleaning the co-op, or stocking shelves. By this time, the store had changed its model, from member meetings to departmental decisions, to a board of directors with departmental representatives. A rift was rising between staff members who saw the co-op as an eight-hour job, after which they could go home to their families, and members Coffin called “crusader rabbits,” who were always ready for another marathon meeting or internal restructuring that would save the co-op money.

Coffin recalled a “big political discussion” in the late 1970s about whether the store would keep prices low on everything. The co-op tried it. Around its Whalley Avenue storefront, food prices kept rising. As deli and cheese buyer, Coffin found vendors increasingly asking when he was going to catch up on outstanding invoices. He left the co-op at the beginning of the 1980s. A year and a half later, it declared bankruptcy, and closed.

A Model That Can’t Survive

Listening to Coffin and nibbling wood-fired pizza back in the present, CitySeed Executive Director Amelia Masterson said that the co-op’s rise and fall resonated with her. This month, CitySeed plunges into a new season of outdoor farmer’s markets, and is trying an advisory committee and new model of consensus building for the first time. There are only six vendors, four community members, and four CitySeed staff and board members on that committee. Masterson said that it has already proved “good,” but also difficult.

“It is hard,” Coffin agreed. “You have to really get people ... trained in how to do that, how to listen to people, how to try and support a common view.” It was part of the reason he didn’t think New Haveners could bring back the co-op model today. “What was lost ... was the commitment to trying,” he said. “The commitment on the part of white alternative organizations to say: ‘We’re really going to try and do this,’ and a commitment on the part of some of the black organizations to say: ‘Yeah, we’re going to go work with these folks and we’re going to put up with their nonsense, and we’re going to try to make this happen.’”

He saw glimmers of that common view — and maybe the sense of creating an alternative world — in farmer’s markets that CitySeed has brought to neighborhoods, school and summer meals programs and double bucks incentives that fight food insecurity, and community gardens across the city.

But he didn’t see the same propulsive tilt toward labor activism, women’s rights, and racial parity playing out in the country’s farms and markets, he said. He recalled moments when female colleagues in the deli would ask him to clarify a comment, or rearrange 40-pound cow carcasses on a meat hook. He remembered meeting black colleagues — often for the first time — who asked for managerial and supervisory experience. That intimate tie between equality and food took a hit at the end of the century, he said. In its place, he added that he sees a move on the left toward food regulation and environmental protection from a larger policy angle.   

“Certainly, a buying club could survive,” he said in a follow-up phone call with the Independent. “Whether there is the interest in creating alternative institutions and putting in the time and effort that’s needed to sustain such a place, I don’t feel that that’s a project that people want to undertake at this moment.”

But he didn’t totally rule out a co-op renaissance.

“Would you want to see something in the vein of the New Haven Food Co-Op?” asked attendee (and NHI reporter, off assignment) Tom Breen.

Coffin smiled and sipped on a beer he’d been nursing.

“I would take such a deep breath and go: Oh my goodness guys, you’re in for such a long ride,” he said.

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posted by: 1644 on April 19, 2017  4:42pm

I know Bruce Becker was very proud of the food co-op in his 360 State Street building, but didn’t it die?  While co-ops are a wonderful ideal, it seems they suffer from the tragedy of the commons. Most members just are not willing to put in the effort required to keep it going.  Heck, while the Hill Co-operative has kept its apartment complex going since 1983, it’s ready to throw in the towel now.

posted by: Frank Columbo on April 20, 2017  1:29am

What’s missing from that Black and White photo? Cherchez la femme!