BY MARY GILLETT
Special to the Record-Eagle
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — In the early 1970’s, a small group of Traverse City families got together to drive to Ann Arbor and purchase the grains and beans they couldn’t find locally.
That early buying club sowed the seeds for Oryana Natural Foods Market, northern Michigan’s first food cooperative, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
“We are celebrating 40 years of being the people’s grocery store,” said education and outreach coordinator Sandy McArthur. “We are celebrating our community, our food and our farmers.
"It’s a wonderful opportunity to tell Oryana’s story.”
That story weaves through 40 years that saw business, the community and stakeholders grow as the co-op evolved, as well as the hundreds of volunteers and thousands of members who shared a passion for sustainable foods and commitment to keeping Oryana strong.
Oryana incorporated as a cooperative in 1973 under the leadership of the original buying club. It moved through several west side locations before opening at 123-1/2 E. Front Street in 1974. The co-op moved to Randolph Street in 1980, opening a street-level storefront in the building that currently houses Bay Bread. Oryana expanded to its current site on Lake Street in 1998, when it purchased the former Brown Lumber. Additional renovation in 2002 added more space and a sit-down café.
Becky Mang of Traverse City remembers the early days. She began volunteering with Oryana in 1977 and became one of its early employees in 1979, serving as newsletter editor and outreach/volunteer coordinator until 1991. She remembers calling in volunteers to help unload trucks and haul bags up two flights of stairs on Front Street, as well as speaking to schools and community groups about healthy eating and cooperative ownership.
“I have only very good memories of that time,” she said. “It was a counter-cultural experience for those of us who wanted to get our own food and know where it came from … (organic foods ) are much more common and available now, but there was no place else to go in the '70s and '80s.
“We were also young enough, with passion and energy ... we felt this was such an important thing to do,” Mang said, noting that many volunteers were involved in operations as well as developing the business. During the Randolph Street days, as many as 100 member volunteers worked at the store.
McArthur notes that Oryana’s evolution reflects increasing demand by the public, as well as the co-op’s mission-driven business practices. Early staples of bulk grains, beans and cheese grew to include local produce, eggs and prepared foods. Today, Oryana features a wellness department, pet food and body care products and an extensive grocery department.
Sales in 1977 totaled $44,000 with 300 members. Today, there are 5,000 members and 100 employees with annual sales of $12 million. At least 200 local farmers and vendors supply close to $1 million in products.
Throughout each stage, Oryana retained its cooperative, member-owned structure and commitment to building business with attention to its “quadruple bottom line” of purpose, people, planet and profitability, McArthur said.
“We’re not just a grocery store," she said. "We are a community and a hub.” Oryana's endeavors include getting fresh foods and vegetables into schools, supporting farmers, awarding annual grants and sponsoring related events.
Anniversary festivities are continuing throughout the year. Highlights that remain include a historical video presented at the annual meeting, commissioned art work by Glenn Wolff, an Oryana Goddess art contest, a sponsored film at the Traverse Area District Library and retro day on June 21. Also in June, Right Brain Brewery will launch a pale ale with Wolff’s art work as the label. A community-wide birthday bash will be held at Grand Traverse Commons on Saturday, June 8, from 2 to 6 pm, along with live music, children’s activities, foods and stories from Oryana's pioneers.
“It celebratory and fun,” said McArthur. “We want to say, 'We’ve been here for 40 years and it’s great!'”