Dorchester Food Co-op opens on Bowdoin Street
The Dorchester Food Co-op has officially opened its doors to customers. This community- and employee-owned grocery store aims to create jobs within the neighborhood, provide access to fresh, locally grown foods and create an environmentally sustainable business.
The project has been a long time coming. The Dorchester Food Co-op was incorporated by 2012 and spent more than a decade operating as a pop-up at events and markets, selling fair trade coffee and chocolate and informing community members about the possibility of a physical space. Finally, that dream has been realized.
The store, open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, is situated on the ground floor of a new affordable housing apartment building at 195 Bowdoin St. All the employees are local to the neighborhood and many live right upstairs, General Manager John Santos says.
Its cooperative structure means that the company is owned by employees and members of the community. Anyone can buy a share of ownership by purchasing a membership. As of Oct. 13, the day before the grand opening, the co-op had more than 1,724 household memberships, representing 4,000 people.
Besides part ownership, a membership gives purchasers a regular discount on products at the store. Members have a voice in what products are stocked and how the shop operates. They will also share in the profits when the store is profitable. Santos estimates it will take several years to reach profitability.
For regular members, the discount is 5% once a month, meant to be utilized on the big shop for the month. For EBT shoppers, the discount is 10% off everything, always.
Members pay a one-time cost of $100, but a Solidarity Fund has been established to help provide discounted and free memberships to those who need assistance. Membership is not required to shop at the co-op.
The new co-op aims to improve food security and quality for local families.
“Many people think food insecurity is not being able to have access to food,” Santos said. “But maybe you have access to food, but the nutritional value of that food is not there. So the children are not eating the right things. So they’re not prepared for school as well as they could be.”
The offerings inside the Dorchester Food Co-op differ from a traditional grocery store. For example, the co-op buys from primarily local growers and business owners in an effort to stock the healthiest, freshest products. Nothing in the store contains high fructose corn syrup or tripolyphosphate, a chemical often used to make frozen fish appear more robust.
The co-op also offers gluten-free and vegan alternatives, which can be difficult to find at other neighborhood grocery stores. Outside, there’s a moveable garden with pots growing herbs, tomatoes, peppers and other foods. Anyone can harvest from the garden free of charge.
Dorchester native Keilin Wright works at the co-op as its IT specialist. He also assists with marketing efforts.
“I was really excited to hear it would be worker-owned. It’s going to be great for the community,” Wright said. “One of the things that really drew me was the bulk section in particular, because of rising costs in the economy.”
Customers can purchase many items in bulk, including laundry detergent, olive oil, honey, house cleaning supplies and more. The co-op buys these in bulk, often from beloved brands, and shoppers can buy as much or as little as they like. Having the option to bring a container and request just enough laundry detergent for a few loads cuts down on the cost of a huge container of detergent and on the environmental waste of a large plastic bottle.
The higher-quality produce and other products can cost more at the co-op than at bargain grocery stores. But Santos said the bulk offerings, including staples like beans and rice, are one area where the co-op can provide steep discounts.
“Money is tight for many families,” Santos noted. “So we have to find ways to help them save money on things where we can. If you have that old empty Tide jug you paid $23 for, bring it here and we’ll put whatever you want in.”
In addition to groceries, the co-op offers prepared foods and a small café and juice bar. Shoppers can find frozen and pre-prepared meals to take home as well as halal rotisserie chickens.
An eco-friendly approach is a part of the co-op’s mission. The store uses recycled plastic produce bags and opts for products with sustainable packaging. Food waste is composted, and solar panels on the roof power the shop. Some of the furniture is even recycled. Santos sourced several conference tables that Simmons College was giving away and souped them up into display tables.
Community involvement has been at the heart of the Dorchester Food Co-op, starting from the ground up with the hiring of BIPOC- and female-led firms for everything from the architectural design to public relations, and then hiring neighborhood locals to work in the store, experienced or not. The same approach applies to shoppers: All are welcome.
“We speak Somali, we speak Cape Verdean Creole, we speak Portuguese, we speak Haitian Creole, and French and Spanish,” Santos said. “We have almost everybody covered.”