VIRGINIA — Michelle Robillard and Wayne Wilberg could talk all day about the beginnings of their “baby,” Natural Harvest Food Co-op.
It was, you could say, their “lovechild” of the late-1970s. In fact, the two were so passionate about giving birth to their vision of providing quality, clean, organic foods to the community that, more than once, they were incorrectly mistaken as a married couple.
They laugh about it now, as that baby is turning 40 — with a big, outdoor community 40th anniversary celebration coming up Aug. 24 at NHFC.
Some people were immediately on board with the whole foods concept, Robillard and Wilberg said on a recent day, reminiscing about the co-op they helped pioneer.
Others questioned: Who is this group of “hippies” who opened the hole-in-the-wall “healthy food store” on Chestnut Street, crowded with bins of spices, grains, beans and flours with scoops and shelves of products not found in conventional grocery stores?
Natural Harvest Food Co-op, which began even more humbly, as a small buying club with no real home, has grown up tremendously since its original store opened in 1979 in downtown Virginia.
Skip ahead to 2005, when famous stars of the major motion picture, “North Country,” were on the Iron Range to film portions of the movie. Actor Woody Harrelson frequented NHFC for flats of wheatgrass; actress Sissy Spacek was a regular. And locals stopped in, hoping to spot Woody or, perhaps, Charlize Theron.
NHFC was, by then, located in the far-larger log cabin location on Bailey’s Lake. The co-op was coming of age.
Skip ahead to today, with consumers abundantly seeking what NHFC’s founders sought — products without pesticides and unwanted additives; unprocessed foods more like those of their grandparents.
The idea is becoming rather mainstream.
But NHFC continues to grow and thrive because, say those currently involved in the 9,000-square-foot location on the shores of Silver Lake, the co-op is “more than a store.”
That’s how General Manager Anja Parenteau describes it.
It’s a place where people “feel comfortable” and connected — where you don’t have to be a member/owner to feel welcomed shopping there. Where educating the public, providing choices, and giving back to the community is valued.
NHFC has been doing all that for a solid 40 years, she said.
To celebrate, the public is welcome to the anniversary event set for 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 24.
It will include a lunch of hot dogs, veggie burgers and chips (while supplies last), Minnesota craft beer served by The 218, make-your-own smoothies on the pedal-powered bike blender, free samples, popcorn, raffle prizes and several local vendors.
There will be children’s activities, including face painting. The Amazing Charles magician will be on-site from noon to 3 p.m., with his main show at 1 p.m.
Kim Grillo Nagler will provide live music from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., followed by Big Waves and Bonfires from 2 to 4 p.m.
Commemorative ChicoBags will be given with purchases, while they last, and a 10% discount (up to $10) will be offered storewide.
Tents will be set up, and the celebration will be held “rain or shine,” said Briana Sterle, marketing and owner services manager.
Parenteau fondly recalls shopping at the tiny Chestnut Street store.
“It was a quirky little place. It was a fun little shop to go into. It made you feel good,” she said.
Parenteau called there one day, in search of camomile tea — something back then she could not find “anywhere else.”
“Oh, yes, for sure, we have that,” was the response.
When her kids were older and Parenteau was looking for work, she thought about how welcomed she always felt at the co-op, and took a part-time job in the produce department 12 years ago — working her way up to GM.
The store has worked its way up, too. Total sales during the co-op’s first year were $38,000. Annual sales are projected to reach $4 million next year, Parenteau said.
NHFC is approaching 40 employees (there are about 36 now), and it’s on its way to 4,000 members (more than 3,600 with 200 more expected by 2020).
“Four” seems to be a key number, appropriate for the 40th anniversary, she said.
Oh, and community dinners, already held a few times so far, will be now be monthly each third Tuesday. Cost of the meal: $4.
NHFC has, indeed, come a long way.
And that’s all thanks to “people power,” Parenteau said. “People power got this going.”
Natural Harvest launched as a small buying club in June of 1976.
A group of citizens united seeking access to a larger variety of nutritious whole foods at more reasonable prices.
“We were raising food in our own gardens,” tapping maple trees for syrup — but there were a number of foods simply not available in the area, Robillard said.
Buying club products were distributed at various locations — at a Pike-Sandy farm, eventually in the basement of a church. The group, however, grew so much that purchasing and distributing became difficult to manage.
People would call up, looking for goods that remained, and another of the founders, Ann Foleman, had to find a time to “open up” for them, Robillard explained.
So, the club’s members decided to further “co-operate” by starting a retail store.
On Nov. 16, 1979, NHFC was incorporated by the State of Minnesota, and it opened for business in December of that year, with a 600-square-foot store at 119 Chestnut St. The actual retail space, packed with bulk bins, an upright freezer and some shelves, was only about 400 square feet, Robillard said.
Wilberg got involved during the infant days of the store. One day, his wife was making bread and he thought, “I should bring some over there.” The space was crammed with “buckets on the floor with scoops,” he said. “I thought, what is this place?”
Wilberg promptly understood what the co-op was all about. It was a place that sold peanut butter made with only a few ingredients, non-irradiated spices and herbs — things that may have seemed “hippie” to some, but were really old-fashioned, “like what our grandmas and grandpas used.”
Wilberg would go on to become a buyer for the store; Robillard (then Michelle Greene) became general manager in 1983.
The co-op was really less about “selling,” and more about “‘buying’ food for people” that was healthy and “real,” for them to purchase, Robillard said. For patrons, buying in bulk was not so much about cost-savings as it was about access to quality products, she said.
“Money was not the driving force,” Wilberg added.
People would stock up on cardamom for baking bread at Christmastime; cornmeal was a coveted product for polenta; the Laskiainen ladies would buy 100 pounds of whole yellow peas for the pea soup served at the Finnish sliding festival in Palo.
Ethnic supplies — “we couldn’t keep them in stock,” Robillard said.
Customers shared recipes with each other. The store sold products from local farmers, area coffee roasters, bakers and small businesses. And the founders navigated a world — void of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s — where only 27 natural food warehouses in the country stocked all the nation’s budding co-ops.
For NHFC, that warehouse was in Superior, Wis. A member family would make runs with a truck, later a van, to pick up supplies, Robillard and Wilberg recall.
And the co-ops worked together.
“Whatever we could do to help each other, we did,” Robillard said of the meetings with other regional co-operatives.
By the early-1990s, it became apparent that NHFC needed a new home, Robillard said.
Business and architectural plans were developed, with the goal of renovating an old railroad depot building on the south shore of Bailey’s Lake.
But it was a tough sell.
Negotiations lasted for years and the depot was demolished. But, eventually, after many hurdles, a proposal was accepted. With an Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board grant to the City of Virginia for new construction of a community co-op, work launched by a contractor on the log building.
A buy-a-log funding campaign was started, volunteers put in countless hours on the project, “we cobbled together” miscellaneous and used equipment, Wilberg said. And in 1996, NHFC re-opened in the new structure.
It was a January day. The store opened at noon, but closed by 3 p.m. due to a blizzard. It didn’t open again for three days because of weather conditions.
After sales approached $2 million at the end of 2013, NHFC in 2014 was granted membership into the National Co+op Grocers (NCG), which represents 145 food co-ops operating more than 200 stores in the country. The business helps unify natural food co-ops in order to optimize operational and marketing resources, strengthen purchasing power, and ultimately offer more value to patrons.
NHFC moved into its current eco-friendly new store in April 2017, complete with a deli, a daily hot bar and salad bar, a community classroom and greatly expanded offerings throughout every section of the store.
One of the co-op’s latest endeavors was adding additional products to its Co-op Basics line, which offers groceries at more affordable prices.
“It’s gotten so big now,” Parenteau said. “It keeps attracting so many new shoppers.” NHFC is “one of the bigger small employers in the area.”
But working there “feels like more than just a job,” she said.
Sterle said she feels her role at the co-op is “instilling positive change in the world. On a small scale, I’m doing something positive for the world every day.”
And the co-op continues to cooperate with other like-minded stores, just as it did in the early days. In fact, the bike blender that will be set up at the 40th celebration will be borrowed from Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth, Sterle said.
Members were asked to share memories of Natural Harvest for the Summer 2019 issue of its newsletter, “The Harvest Beet.”
Here are a few:
•“Before there was a store front our buying club would get together once a month, I think it was, to order in bulk, which meant that if someone did not want the full bag or box they had to find someone to share it with. I once needed bay leaves, but no one wanted to join me, and I hadn’t given much thought to just how many bay leaves there are in a pound. They must have lasted me for years!”
• “The highlight of our week was a trip to the co-op on Chestnut Street! It reminded us of a European market filled with crates and boxes piled one on top of another. It was crowded and so much fun searching for items. In the summer they put the crates and boxes outside on the sidewalk.”
• “It was a big step to move from Chestnut Street to the log building. I don’t think people today realize all the volunteer hours put in and fun we had (and heartache) while obtaining and maintaining the log building. Lots of varnishing went on there for weeks.”
• “What’s not to love?! Healthy food, love the bulk section, great atmosphere, and the offering of classes!”
Wilberg describes his years working at the co-op as “utopia.”
Robillard adds that “it makes the heart happy” that “my baby” — nurtured for so many years — has become the great success it is today.