Saskatoon’s Steep Hill Food Co-op Celebrates 40 Years
by Melva Armstrong
Steep Hill Food Co-op began in 1978 when a dozen people who were Magpie Food Co-op members got together because they wanted to start a co-op on the east side of Saskatoon. The food co-op concept was the preference because the members wanted to purchase local and bulk food in a group as it would keep the cost for each member down. After many meetings and much discussion, on September 7, 1978, Keith Grey, Bill Hutchinson, Don Mullord, Verna Piedt, Val Veillard and Gerri Yakimoski met and signed the memorandum of the association and an application was sent to the registrar of co-ops. Prior to sending the application, the group had secured a location for their new store on the second floor at 821 Broadway Avenue with a rent of $300 per month.
In order to get started, several people involved in this project, as well as the Magpie Food Co-op, loaned money to this new business venture. Although the second floor location wasn’t the easiest or best for a food store, it was all that was available and affordable on Broadway at the time.
At first the store hours were only a couple of days a week—Thursdays and Saturdays—as the business was run totally by volunteers. The lifetime membership fee was $12. Promotion was by word of mouth for this new co-op as there was no advertising budget (and still isn’t). The first few months they had quite a few new members join who were mostly wanting local and bulk buying including such things as raisins and large slabs of cheese, as well as bulk tofu which they purchased from a Chinese grocery store. The current manager, Gerry Yakimoski, who was part of the new co-op from the start, says, “Everything was quite archaic at the beginning. The big interest in organic food didn’t take hold until the late 1990s.”
In December 1980, Steep Hill Food Co-operative Limited moved over to its present location at 730 Broadway Avenue with a street entrance. The members and friends of the co-op moved everything by hand from the old location to the new one. By the time they moved to the new location, Gerry Yakimoski was a paid employee. She was in charge of ordering and had some members to help her with it. By this time, members and the general public were getting very interested in having organic food and goods in the co-op which is when they began to order organic fresh produce. Though they are not a 100 percent organic store, this is definitely the main objective of the co-op. Around 1995, Gerry says there was an upsurge of interest in organics. People were concerned about toxins that were being sprayed on apples, causing an outrage from those with young children. There was more consciousness about good health and wellness starting in the late 1990s.
The Steep Hill Co-operative is set up so that the members have to work in order to get the price listed on the products. It was a 3-hour shift per month at first and eventually changed to the current 2-hour shifts. Members that don’t work get a smaller upcharge and those who aren’t members get an additional percentage added on. Membership is $20 per year as of 1988.
According to Gerry, at one point they had 2,000 members and thought they would have to divide the co-op into two stores. They were concerned about needing more space, but that has not been necessary.
I asked Gerry to talk about the many changes she has seen during the past 40 years. She says there are different buying habits now than earlier. For example, she was forbidden to order crackers as they were packaged, not bulk. Today they do special orders, which are very popular. They’ve kept adding more kinds of products so they could be called a full grocery store, such as toilet paper, paper towels, and cane sugar. Now they cater to people with food sensitivities as well. They have a good relationship with local farmers who bring in their products to sell. A personal touch is vital for making people happy, according to Gerry, who even calls members when products come in because she knows who likes what. Members have many opportunities to do things like recycling cardboard, packaging food, and doing laundry. At one point they had so many members they didn’t have enough shift times for them to work.
The community spirit that happens in the store is because people feel they are a part of something they appreciate. Those who join and support this co-op are looking for good food as well as community and like-mindedness. Trust and distrust as to what is organic and what isn’t, is important. Certain standards have to be met in the world. The members call and ask for things and the Steep Hill staff goes to bat for them to find what they are looking for. Members often can’t look for themselves or aren’t able to trust what they find, but they trust those who are running Steep Hill. The co-op space is small so shoppers generally do bump into each other physically which is kind of fun, says Gerry.
The board of directors (nine members) is working on some anniversary celebrations. They have done a couple of things already. The non-working members have paid 13% more than the shelf price since 1978; the board has dropped it to only 10%. In April, the store had a whole week of sale days rather than just one day. The actual anniversary is in October, so be sure to watch for special events they will be having to celebrate this Steep Hill Food Co-op 40th anniversary.
For more information, you can contact Steep Hill Food Co-op by phone (306) 664-4455, by visiting steephill.sasklife.com, by email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or drop in at 730 Broadway Avenue, Saskatoon, SK.
Melva Armstrong is the WHOLifE Journal editor.