Traverse City News and Events

'The Little Hippie Co-op Had To Grow Up': An Oryana Oral History, Part 2

By Craig Manning | July 9, 2023

To mark Oryana’s 50-year anniversary, which the food cooperative officially celebrated last month, The Ticker is taking a walk down memory lane with a detailed oral history of that first half-century. Last week, we covered the first five-plus years of Oryana – and left off in the late 1970s with recollections from early Oryana member David Poinsett about a middle-of-the-night robbery that put the co-op on the brink of oblivion. This week, we pick up right where we left off, with Oryana casting about for a path forward after a devastating blow.

David Poinsett (early Oryana employee): I offered to quit my existing job and go to work for Oryana to do whatever I could to get it back on its feet. With nothing to lose, the board said yes. I paid myself $1 an hour. I worked 60 hours a week. Instead of selling everything in bulk, I started pre-packaging the more expensive non-staple foods like figs and dates and cheese, and added an extra markup to the price. I budgeted every purchase literally to the penny, balancing the purchase of luxury items that would help us make up our lost funds while staying committed to providing staple foods at affordable prices near cost.

Over time Oryana inched forward, slowly caught up, and started regaining its momentum. Interest in natural foods continued to grow. More and more people were coming to realize the benefits of a wholesome daily diet... By the end of 1978 Oryana was thriving. With debts repaid and sales up, we had enough money to hire part-time staff, and pay them a normal wage. (I still paid myself $1 an hour.) Things were humming, but for better or worse, I was burned out. The long hours and countless evenings spent unloading and carrying 1,500-pound deliveries of food up Oryana's long stairs finally caught up with me. I needed a break.

Poinsett’s exit from Oryana led to the hiring of Mike Williams as the store’s first official general manager. Williams worked at Oryana from 1978 to 1986. Among other accomplishments, he helped orchestrate the co-op’s next big move, to a larger space in a former print shop and photography studio on Randolph Street.

Mike Williams: The growth of the business – doubling, and then doubling again – was creating an imperative of its own, resulting in the move to Randolph Street.

Poinsett: When I parted with Oryana as an employee, the organization was in good hands: Oryana staff included Debra Trowbridge, Becky Mang, and soon-to-be general manager Mike Williams. The Oryana board included community visionaries Bob Russell and Sally Van Vleck. Together they facilitated the move from Front Street to Randolph – now Bay Bread – with a loan from the National Co-op Bank. Oryana was the first food co-op in the country to [take advantage of that type of loan].

Williams: The move [to Randolph] was made possible by an earlier board decision to change the $5 annual membership fee to an annual contribution of $7.50 to $12.50, depending on the size of the household. The down payment was funded largely by many families prepaying five years of contribution.

The Randolph Street Oryana was a clean, airy, well-lit space. It is hard to describe how radical a change the new location was from the typical dimly-lit, poorly capitalized stores that comprised the co-op retail presence across the state at the time.

Steve Nance (current Oryana general manager): My personal story with Oryana goes back to having shopped – though not as a member – when the co-op was on Randolph Street

Oryana’s growth and the move to Randolph Street, coupled with more general evolutions in the world of retail, led to an era of change for the co-op. 1981 saw Oryana’s first community banquet, which helped introduce more of the community to natural foods. And in 1985, the co-op purchased land on Cherry Bend Road and built a commercial soy and deli kitchen where it could make tofu, tempeh, hummus, eggrolls, tabouleh, spinach pie, and more.

Poinsett: They started the Oryana tofu and food service operations, a wonderful annual banquet, and a long list of things that strengthened both Oryana and our community.

Williams: We were a capital-hungry enterprise. The opportunity came to purchase the tofu equipment: $3,000 please. Want to carry produce? Appears you’ll need another cooler; several more thousand dollars. Electronic cash registers. Digital scales and Hobart labelers. New dispensing bins. How to go about raising the capital necessary to fulfill ‘our mission from God,’ as the late Phil Thiel [a long-time Oryana supporter] constantly termed our activities?

Eventually, we started working on improving our margins without increasing prices to members. We stopped ordering trail mixes from outside suppliers and starting making our own. Changes we worked to affect at the central warehouse level led to pallet and half-pallet pricing breaks on items we could order in that quantity. More importantly for cash generation, we developed a series of activities that went beyond the storefront – natural food banquets and our festival presence foremost among them. These outreach activities…were very cash flow positive for Oryana.

Lori Korb (30-year Oryana employee and recent retiree): It was a big deal when we started selling packaged groceries and frozen foods. In the beginning it was all bulk foods. In the early days members were upset when we started selling non-vegetarian food, like when we brought in fish sticks. They were very vocal. Some folks were also upset when we decided to sell chocolate. We had only carried carob chips. And back then we didn’t have air conditioning in the store on Randolph Street, so on really hot days, we put the carob chips in the cooler because otherwise they would melt. We would also go jump in the bay on our breaks on hot summer days, and by the time we got back to the store we were dry.

By the mid-80s, Oryana was averaging $370,000 in annual sales – up from just $15,000 per year a decade before. By the end of the decade, the yearly sales number was up over $1 million. Williams ushered Oryana through all that growth before handing off the baton. So began a revolving door of leadership that, along with a cycle of other challenges, made the 1990s a challenging period for Oryana.

Stephanie Mills (former Oryana board member): In the early ‘90s, a turbulent time for Oryana, I served as board president. That’s long enough ago that my memory’s sketchy. Others will recall it differently, and the minutes can supply the facts. The crux was the need for a different general manager. That heartbreak made way for expansion and the search for a better location. The winds of change blew through three more general managers before landing the co-op at the former Brown Lumber yard [on Tenth Street]. That rocky process unfolded in full view of the members, whose oversight led to important course corrections.

Nance: My wife Robin was my connection to Oryana. After we had moved back to Traverse City following 15 years moving around the country with my career at General Motors, she joined Oryana not only as a member but quickly was elected to the board and served as secretary. I have paperwork with her signature from 1997! This was just after the co-op moved to Tenth Street, which was not the best location or building on the planet. There was no retail synergy and no drive-by traffic. And the neighborhood was a bit sketchy. I picked up needles on the railroad tracks behind the co-op. I also recall being asked to fix a light and found exposed live wires in the walls. How it did not burn down, I do not know!

Korb: Moving to Tenth Street was huge. At Randolph Street, the basement ceiling was so low that you couldn’t stand up straight. It was interesting whenever we had to put cases of heavy stuff in there. You would bump your head!

Nance: Moving to the Tenth Street location was a gamble, and we almost did not survive the move from a smaller location that had done about $1 million in sales. After the move, the board had to run the day- to-day operations without a GM, and with only a few brave staffers helping.   

Linda Waddell was the general manager who led the move to Tenth Street, but her tenure was short-lived and she left the co-op soon after. With a vacuum of leadership, several staff members took on management roles to keep the co-op functioning. Joan D’Argo, Sandi McArthur, Eric Bartell, and Phil Thiel collectively ran the co-op while a search was underway for a new general manager.

Woody Smith (‘90s Oryana board member): They were all great people and very committed to Oryana, but it’s a little tricky with four people in charge.

Robin Nance (former board member): We were so busy helping run the store and making sure employees showed up. [Oryana at the time] didn’t have any systems in place, no employee handbook, no rules to speak of. When they moved [to Tenth Street], there was still a lot of hippie stuff going on. But when you expand and have a bigger mortgage, you have to start pushing a business model.

Smith: They thought volunteers would build out the space [at Tenth Street] but that didn’t happen. They needed to pay professionals to get the work done and had spent all the money on the renovation. So, all the money was gone, and the renovation was still incomplete.

Nance: The little hippie co-op had to grow up.

To be concluded...

Pictured: A collage of Oryana's locations from over the years and what they look like today. Left: West Front Street. Center: Randolph. Right: Tenth Street.

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