From a Mus­tard Seed grows a thriv­ing lo­cal food co-op

The Hamilton Spectator - - BUSINESS - KELLY NOSEWORTHY

“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.”

PHOTOGRAPHY BY BARRY GRAY, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

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.

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