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::By Zak Stambor

:: Photography by Dan Dry

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Chicago Journal ::

Checkout time for the Co-Op

The Hyde Park Co-Op Market, a neighborhood institution, closes its doors after 75 years.

In its final weeks, the Hyde Park Co-Op Market’s shelves grew barren, refrigerated cases emptied out, and many staff resigned themselves to the prospect of losing their jobs. On January 20 the store closed its doors following a New Orleans–style jazz funeral. The move came after a 7–1 vote by the 75-year-old institution’s board December 17 to dissolve the grocery store. In exchange, the University (the store’s landlord) and Certified Grocers, the landlord of the Co-Op’s failed 47th Street location, agreed to forgive most of the store’s more than $2 million debt. Less than a month later, a Treasure Island grocery story was set to open in its place.


Hyde Park Co-Op Market shoppers encountered barren shelves in the store’s last weeks. 

“Losing an institution is always a loss for the community as a whole because it is part of the community,” says Co-Op board chair Jim Poueymirou. “However, the financial reality of the situation dictated that it was not simply about continuing operations. … The Co-Op was insolvent, and it was irresponsible to keep the doors open for the sake of doing so.”

Neighborhood residents founded the Co-Op in 1932, pooling resources to buy food in bulk and save money. In 1959 the establishment became a members-owned store and moved to the 55th Street and S. Lake Park Avenue location. But several financial missteps, including the failure of the short-lived 47th Street store, which opened in 2000 and closed in 2005, contributed to the market’s $1.8 million negative net worth.

The board’s vote followed an impassioned battle between Co-Op proponents and those who felt the store was no longer worth fighting for. In the end, 3,200 of the nearly 19,000 shareholders voted for so-called Option A, in which the U of C agreed to forgive back rent up to $1 million, and Certified Grocers would forego all future rents on a contract that ran through 2023 in return for a one-time, $1 million payment. The proposed tenant, which later became Treasure Island, a small, high-end Chicago area–based grocery chain, also agreed to provide the Co-Op’s current 181 employees, 40 of whom work full time, an “opportunity to interview for employment positions.” Another 2,049 shareholders voted to seek financing that would keep the store open, while about 15,000 shareholders failed to vote. In the final agreement, Co-Op employees lost their jobs but received accumulated sick and vacation pay. 

Option A, the University’s solution to the Co-Op’s financial woes, emerged from a “recognition on all sides that Hyde Park needed a stronger grocer than the Co-Op had been in recent years,” says Hank Webber, Chicago’s outgoing vice president for community and government affairs (in November he accepted a position as executive vice chancellor for administration at Washington University in St. Louis, effective March 1). The Co-Op failed, Webber says, because while the national grocery industry has grown more upscale and specialized with the rise of stores like Whole Foods and delivery services like Peapod, the Co-Op had not. Meanwhile, over the past decade Hyde Park has become an appealing location to attract a “first-tier grocer.” Because the Co-Op failed to meet those needs, residents had been leaving the neighborhood to buy groceries at Dominick’s and Whole Foods’ South Loop locations.

In the end, says Poueymirou, the Co-Op was no longer a vital element of the community. “Starting in the 1940s and up through the 1960s, the Co-Op provided child care, there were teaching sessions, educational programs on fair and free trade, but over the years those parts have gone by the wayside. The Co-Op lost its central role. It simply became a place to get groceries.”