Traverse City News and Events

'A Way To Change The World For The Better': An Oryana Oral History, Part 1

By Craig Manning | July 2, 2023

On June 18, Oryana hit the half-century mark. On that day in 1973, a group of local families officially formed a DIY food cooperative to bulk-buy whole foods from downstate and bring them back to Traverse City. 50 years later, Oryana boasts over 10,000 member-owners and has two local stores that together generated more than $33 million in sales last year alone. How did we get here? To find out, The Ticker worked with the Oryana team to assemble a detailed oral history of the co-op’s 50-year evolution. Join us today and for the next two Sundays as we explore the journey of this mighty local success story.

Steve Nance (current Oryana general manager): The story started long ago. A co-op was formed by a bunch of dreamers in 1973 to procure and sell whole foods, bulk stuff, and anything that was counterculture and hopefully healthy.

Jeff Smith (communications director, Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities): About a dozen families looking for whole grains and pesticide-free food joined to form a bulk-food buyers club in Traverse City.

David Poinsett (early Oryana employee): The initial public meeting to discuss creating a natural foods co-op in Traverse City took place in 1973 in the community room at Michigan Consolidated Gas Company office at 110 East Front Street. Soon after that meeting, a name was chosen, a board of directors was formed, and Oryana incorporated as a Michigan cooperative.

Smith: Nobody owned the club and every member pitched in to make it work. Pulsing through the work-bees was the then-counter-culture belief that taking control of your food – of what you put into your body – was a way to change the world for the better.

Poinsett: In the beginning Oryana functioned as a pre-order monthly buying club. There was no storefront. One or more members would drive to Ann Arbor to purchase bulk flour, grains, beans, peanut butter, etc. [from a wholesaler called the People’s Food Co-op] and bring it back to Traverse City. Third Level Crisis Intervention Center, then on 16th Street, was used as the monthly distribution place. Members would divide the bulk items according to the portion of their order.

Stephanie Mills (former Oryana board member): The 1970s, when Oryana began, was a time of questioning the givens and envisioning a fairer, freer, kinder, greener world. Movements for peace, ecology, feminism, Black, Native American, and gay rights were afoot. Intentional communities sprang up across the land. Northwest lower Michigan had a counterculture with communes, head shops, a new age book store, a natural foods store, and a food co-op, attesting that the appetite for new freedoms and responsibilities wasn’t just a coastal fad.

Poinsett: In 1974, Oryana moved the monthly food distribution from 16th Street to a small recently-vacated building next to Ace Hardware on West Front Street. Member volunteers operated Oryana for few hours each week to make the co-op more accessible, and to take another step toward a possible full-time storefront. Operation ended within a few months when the building was sold. Oryana's few assets – a fridge, some old wooden barrels, and a baby scale – were stored in the garage of a member who lived in the Slabtown neighborhood.

My direct involvement with Oryana began in the autumn of 1974 when Tom Wilbur recruited me to assist him in moving Oryana's few assets out of the Slabtown garage and into two rooms on the second floor of 123 1/2 West Front Street. Over the course of a few car trips, and several treks up and down Oryana's long stairs, the new storefront took shape. The fridge, the old barrels, the baby scale, a small cheese cutting table, and some shelves looked sparse in those two rooms.

Linda Henry (founding Oryana board member; deceased): It was pretty crummy when we first got [to the West Front Street location]. People would just come and hang out and play guitars and stuff. Some would even sleep there all night.

Poinsett: At some point around this time, I finagled a questionably-sanctioned residency at Oryana – even though the building did not comply with city residency codes and the Oryana board had not been consulted. Here's how it worked: Chris Morey [Oryana’s first manager of daily store operations] would officially open Oryana in the morning, and then head out to do other things. Even though he was officially the manager, I would stay and run Oryana for the rest of the day as a volunteer. At night, after Oryana closed, I'd sleep on the floor in my sleeping bag.

Henry: Back then, if we brought in $15 or $20 a day, it was a good day. If we made $100 on a bake sale or a benefit, it was like a big windfall.

Jim Crockett (early Oryana member and volunteer): It was all hands on deck when the truck arrived [to deliver stuff from downstate]. I remember the long staircase on Front Street. Someone would call me up and tell me the truck is on the way and I’d go and help if it was my turn. I carried 100-pound bags up those stairs.

Rob Serbin (early member and volunteer): I remember schlepping 50-pound bags of flour, cases of juice, and five-gallon pails of peanut butter, fire drill-style while the truck was double parked near the curb. I’d get a call…with very little notice, typically with the plea that the truck is going to be here in 45 minutes and can I help? And when I could, I would team up with whomever else could make it, hopefully logging in the six hours a month that entitled a household to the working discount: 15 percent off the normal co-op prices.

Pointsett: In the window facing Front Street I painted a rainbow capped with letters O-R-Y-A-N-A above and Food Co-op below, hoping that a symbol of an inclusive new beginning above Front Street might beckon people to trek up the Oryana stairs. It seemed to work… Throughout 1975 and 1976, Oryana continued to prosper. Membership and daily sales grew. People from all walks of life were becoming part of Oryana. The management team was working well. All members were required to volunteer, and received a special discount on food purchases. Non-members paid an undiscounted premium.

Helping Oryana’s growth was the fact that, by 1975, the People’s Co-op wholesale operation in Ann Arbor had evolved into the Michigan Federation of Food Co-ops, which had its own mill, warehouse, and logistics division. That year, Oryana started receiving truck deliveries, which meant the days of sending members downstate to drive bulk product back to TC were over. According to Poinsett, though, the “wonderfully sunny picture” of Oryana “dimmed somewhat” by 1977, with the management team dwindling and co-op growth sputtering. Shortly after, Oryana suffered one of its first major setbacks.

Poinsett: Oryana oversight was nil, and none of us knew just how bad things had become until the day after the big robbery. It was so easy to avoid what happened. Empire National Bank had a branch directly across the street which made nightly deposits very convenient – though, apparently not as convenient as stuffing Oryana's daily cash and checks into a plastic bag, and shoving it into a bucket of dried beans in plain view of the nightly party crew. As we later found out, that routine was followed for many months until some needy soul returned one night when everyone was gone, took a crow-bar to the second-floor back door, and helped themselves to the bean bucket bank.

Because nightly deposits were not being made often, cash would accumulate. The amount taken was likely between $1,500 and $2,000... For Oryana at that time, that cash was just about all the working capital it had. Among other things, losing it meant canceling a pending order for food supplies, since there would be no money to pay for it. Rent payment and utility payments would soon be due.

It did not occur to us that a fundraiser or reaching out to potential donors might be a smart next step. Instead, we just felt crushing disappointment, betrayal, and doom. We loved Oryana. We believed that wholesome food and natural living could change the world, and that food co-ops like Oryana were a good way to make that happen. Now it was all about to end – at least for Oryana.

To be continued…

Pictured: The first proper Oryana storefront at 123 1/2 West Front Street.

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