From a Mustard Seed grows a thriving local food co-op
“We focus on keeping everything as local as we can. People come in and ask, how did this get here, why is it here, why is this good for me, what are the farmers’ practices?” STACEY ALLEN-CILLIS MUSTARD SEED CO-OP FOUNDING MEMBER
THE MUSTARD SEED CO-OP is throwing a birthday party and everyone is invited.
The Saturday celebration marks three years since the co-op, located on York Boulevard, opened its doors in Hamilton. In that time, they’ve nearly tripled the number of members.
“We are very excited to have made this milestone,” said founding member Stacey Allen-Cillis. “We’ve expanded with what producers we have, the small businesses we have instore and it’s a good opportunity to showcase how far we’ve come from the learning and growing stages.”
There’s a steady flow of customers weaving in and out of the wellstocked aisles, some stopping to glance at a new product, grab a coffee and snack or decide what vegetables are needed.
The community-owned, livingwage grocery store opened January 2014 with about 800 members. It has grown to more than 2,300 with its goal of helping residents get access to local, wholesome and affordable products. When you walk through the doors, the staff and bright colours immediately welcome you in.
“Customer service is a big deal here,” said Allen-Cillis. “We like to engage with our patrons whether they’re coming for a quick coffee or to see what’s in season or on special.”
The first thing you notice is the large variety of bakery and produce items. The middle of the store is wellstocked with typical as well as unusual pantry products. Cleaning supplies and bulk food take up the far side. There is something for everyone, including those with dietary restrictions.
“We focus on keeping everything as local as we can,” said Allen-Cillis, who is also in charge of the bakery section. “People come in and ask, how did this get here, why is it here, why is this good for me, what are the farmers’ practices?”
Having knowledge of where the food comes from, how it’s made and produced gives customers the ability to make educated choices, she added.
“Hopefully it will allow you to have a healthier mindset around food. And a little more understanding and appreciation as to how much work it takes to get to your table.”
Nathalie Hughes has been a member of the co-op for three years. Living close by and with four children, she says the location is convenient but the core values of having a positive effect on the local economy, the community, health and the environment are what inspired her to become a member.
“The local vegetable produce selection is something that I truly appreciate,” she said. “I like knowing that the kale, celery, lettuce, the vegetables that my family is consuming, were grown in the healthy soil up the street instead of having been harvested prematurely and on a truck for six days before reaching the store shelf.”
“I’m usually there daily, grabbing a coffee or some fresh fruit and veggies,” said Chris McLean, who is not a member. “The deals and the staff who are so friendly keep me coming back.”
“I think sustainability is very important for our local businesses,” he added.
“You get the best products from our community and they always put their customers’ needs first.”
You don’t have to be a member to shop at the co-op. However, they encourage it because it gives staff an opportunity to educate people about the organization.
“We offer workshops, they’re year round,” said Allen-Cillis. “Our bounty box program has grown — which is a yearlong program — and we have demos that come in with small businesses who feature their products.”
General manager Scott Crockett said they have a long-term goal of opening a second location and are continuing their efforts to introduce more local products and building relationships with local growers.
“The Mustard Seed is an evolution of the city,” said Allen-Cillis, noting that Hamilton has evolved into a food-conscious community.
“It’s wonderful to be a part of such a big city with a small-town feel,’ she said.
“It’s just got a big heart.”
Clockwise from top left: Local and organic produce; locally made bread; Allen-Cillis stocks the produce section; bulk food offerings; Evelina and her mom Kseniia Kulihina do their shopping; the co-op exterior; price list for the local-food box program.
Stacey Allen-Cillis is a founding member and employee at the three-year-old Mustard Seed Co-Op.