The future of downtown Bethlehem’s groceries may have been initiated in a meeting last night at the Bethlehem Area Public Library. In a gathering of around 0f 70 people spilling into the hallway, the groundwork was laid for the restructuring and revival of the Bethlehem Grocery Co-op. Andy Popichak, co-proprietor of the first Bethlehem food co-op that spanned decades was even in attendance. Various kinds of food was displayed across the table in the back, brought by interested parties as a potluck snack feast.
The idea came about due to the fact that for downtown Bethlehem residents, whether residing on the north or south side, don’t have a viable option to simply go pick up food when they need it. Wegmans is a decent enough drive to be an inconvenience when you need a quick ingredient. It was pointed out that Allentown and Easton both have health food stores in their inner cities, allowing for easy access to common groceries. According to the two co-op masterminds, Jamie Karpovich (of Save the Kales) and Cathy Frankenberg, center city is in a “food desert”. They had a few cool charts showing the grocery stores in the area, the walking distances to the stores, and maps with the number of people without grocery store access in the area.
The real question a lot of people might have is, well why doesn’t someone just open a grocery store in downtown, and what makes a co-op better than that? The meeting was set up to answer just those types of questions. According to Karpovich, most grocery companies aren’t interested in the downtown area due to the plethora of stores within a decent driving distance, effectively creating a ring of stores around the downtown area that aren’t within a walking distance. The real draw of a food co-op is the tons of possibilities. Just some of the ideas batted around were, once a storefront is secured, holding classes, selling prepared goods, products from local farmers year round, and other locally-crafted items.
The co-op that the group wishes to bring to life is a bit like the credit union of grocery stores. Members of the co-op control the prices, elect the board of the directors, and drive the decision-making process behind the organization. If the co-op suddenly finds itself in an excess of money? Perhaps financial kickbacks to all the members, says Karpovich. With democratic control of the co-op, members would be free to run the non-profit how they see fit. The idea of a mixed paid staff and volunteer staff seemed well received. This co-op would allow non-members to shop there, however the non-members may not see the same discounts as members would and wouldn’t be able to participate in the democratic process of the co-op.
One particular notion that the group wished to dispel off the bat was the stereotypes that only organic-liberal-dreadlocked-hemp-clothed or Prius-driving-fancy-panters would be frequenting the joint (they’re welcome too, apparently). Although much of the crowd seemed to be made up of just those types (one participant noted that, “this is not a representative crowd of who will come to the co-op”), the majority agreed that this is to be a community venture open to all.
Locations were discussed, including the former Jack Jones auto dealer on Broad St, the former Wildflower/Terra Cafe spot on Southside, and city property. The biggest concern voiced among the participants, who were broken out into focus groups to discuss thoughts and rejoined at the end to compare findings, was the issue of finances. A project such as this, with a storefront, will no doubt take a lot of capital. Committees, including planning, communications, finance, and others were laid out for interested volunteers to sign up for. Towards the conclusion of the meeting future steps were discussed, including market surveys, feasibility studies, and interest gauging. Taking tips from other co-ops like Pittsburgh and Ithaca, Karpovich and Frankenberg are poised to start rolling quickly. Frankenberg noted that these things don’t happen overnight, and cited sources that say it usually takes 2-3 years for co-op plans like these to get off the ground. And to that I say, my stomach’s waiting.
To keep up to date, join the Bethlehem Grocery Co-op Facebook Group.