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Finding a better way of life at Lost River Market & Deli


October 29, 2008
There's something good about food. Everyone seems to like it — and people spend a significant portion of their incomes on it. But few people actually take the time or make an effort to look at where it comes from, how it is prepared or processed, and how clean and healthy it is. It could be that a lot of folks really don't want to know. Or it could be that there's a feeling that nothing can be done about it, even if people find something questionable about the food they consume.

But recently, there seems to be an increased interest in food quality, and its origins. And more and more options for getting good, clean food are becoming available. Lost River Market & Deli, a community co-op in Paoli, is certainly one of those options.

With several recent hamburger recalls, tomato and pepper salmonella scares, mad cow disease and the realization that meat from cloned animals can be introduced into our food supply now without any requirement to be labeled as such, a lot of people are questioning the integrity of food producers and even government inspectors. And with soaring gas and diesel prices, the economics of consuming local food has gotten more and more attention in the past few months.

There's always been a certain segment of the population that didn't want to eat food that contained preservatives or transfats and preferred to eat locally-grown produce, fruit and other foods. But now, the demand for those kinds of food is growing and a lot of communities are meeting that demand with farmers markets and food co-ops like Lost River.

"We're actually a full-service store," said Debbie Turner, a co-op board member, "but our focus is on food grown locally, and both natural and organic foods. We have created a market for a lot of local vendors, and it's worked out well. Many of our customers know the vendors, know their products, and know how the products are raised. That's important to more and more people now."

Lost River Market & Deli officially opened last October, but the idea blossomed about three years ago when a handful of people got together and brainstormed about the possibility of such a venture.

"We then published an ad, and announced that we were going to have an open meeting about it," Turner, a former newspaper publisher, said. "We wanted to hear ideas. We were pleasantly surprised when over 60 people showed up, including a person from the Indiana CO-OP Development Center and someone from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was standing room only. We asked a lot of people if they would shop at a place like this — would they support us? And the answer was yes. We then set up a research team and developed a mission statement. We held public meetings and brought in speakers from other co-ops, like Blooming Foods Co-op. Each meeting, we had more and more folks attending."

Eventually, the co-op was formed and at the first annual meeting in January 2007, they had 100 members. By October, that number had increased to 344 members. This year, the co-op has 575 members, and is still growing.

The idea of a food co-op is not a unique one. Stores like Lost River Market & Deli have been springing up all over the country. And many of them, including Blooming Foods of Bloomington, have proven to be quite successful.

"Although we're still a work in progress, we've come a long way," Turner said. "We're working to increase our membership. We still need to raise more working capital, and increase the number of shoppers and the amount of shopping they do. But we've done well in our first year, and that is a critical time for any business."

A walk through the store reveals the amount of hard work, capital and planning that went into the member-owned venture. The building, a former variety store, has been remodeled to suit the needs of the co-op, and the tasteful decor, wide aisles and ample lighting — including natural light made possible from large, new windows — give the store a certain warmth and ambiance that many large, commercial stores would give their eye teeth to obtain. The overall first impression is one of cleanliness and convenience, and the inventory is displayed in much the same order as other grocery stores.

But the similarities pretty much stop there. A trip down aisle one immediately sets the store apart from other grocery stores. Much of the produce is labeled "Local Grown," and looks, smells and feels crispy fresh. Further down the aisle, the dairy products are displayed, with a large selection of cheeses — made in Indiana — and organic milk and butter. Also there, and one of the best sellers, are the fresh, locally-produced eggs. And at the end of the aisle, there are eye-catching large, clear plastic bins where bulk foods are displayed — everything from oats and other grains to peanut butter, local sorghum and maple syrup, and dried fruits can be bought in bulk at reduced prices. Also, there are over 120 organic spices and herbs available in bulk. Other aisles feature natural cereals, pasta products, sauces, can goods, fair trade coffees, environmentally safe cleaning products and almost every grocery item imaginable.

Another highlight of the store is the deli department, where a person can find fresh-made deli sandwiches, a salad bar and soups, complete with small cups so the soups can be sampled.

"That has really been a hit," general manager Brad Alstrom said. "We also have a nice selection of craft beers, those made at area breweries, and regional wines. Keith Robertson, our produce manager, is also the buyer for our wines and beers, and we stock several kinds. We also stock a large selection of wellness products, including vitamins, minerals and nutritional supplements."

The store also features a selection of meats that are produced locally. The beef products are supplied by Dave Fischer Farms in Dubois County. The pork items are from Hall Farms in Orange County. There is also a good selection of frozen food products.

"Anyone can shop here," Turner said. "You don't have to be a member, but membership has its advantages. For instance, one day a month is members' day, and all members can get a discount on many items. It only costs $90 to be a member, and that's a one-time fee. The membership fees help us with operating capital and we also have a member loan program that helps. With that program, people in the area, including members, can loan us capital with an eight-to-10-year payback. Those loans have already given us $258,000 in extra capital, and it gives members the opportunity to invest in something they're involved in.

"There's no corporation here — just us," Turner continued. "The members are the owners. We have a lot of advisors, and we also have a suggestion basket here in the store so everyone can contribute their ideas. We've learned a lot from those. And Brad, our general manager, is really good at tweaking the smallest of details, and that has brought the business a long way toward what we are striving for. We've also had a lot of support from other Indiana co-ops."

The co-op also sponsors and co-sponsors programs like smoking cessation classes, "What's in Your Food," and prevention of diabetes sessions, and they partner with an area church on vegetarian cooking and recipes. Also, each Wednesday at 6 p.m., they have a music jam at the store featuring local musicians. On Mondays, there is a 5-percent senior citizens discount. The store also accept food stamps.

The co-op is located in downtown Paoli, one block northeast of Paoli Square, behind the library and Riley's Marathon. The phone number is 1-812-723-3735. They also have a Web site at www.lostrivercoop.com.

"This is not like a big chain store that has its company headquarters in another state somewhere," Turner said. "Every dollar spent here stays in the local economy. We invite everyone to take the plunge and give us a try."

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