Downtown grocers gain foothold

Vancouver Food Co-op to sell Burgerville sandwiches; Neighbors Market shuns anything corporate

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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Neighbors Market

Vancouver Food Cooperative

Downtown Vancouver boosters have long called for viable grocery options. A vital, thriving downtown core requires residents, they've argued — and residents require groceries.

Now there are two grocery stores on Main Street south of McLoughlin Boulevard; a few blocks north is Arnada Naturals, dealing mostly in supplements but also featuring some gluten-free and other foods. Safeway, the nearest supermarket, is many blocks farther up the street.

The Vancouver Food Cooperative and Neighbors Market are both growing every month, pulling in the passing public while nailing down niche customers. For the ultra-conscientious Neighbors Market, 1707 Main St., that means people who want to be certain their food has been vetted as local, natural and ethical in every way proprietor Lyn Krogseng can think of.

"I have become very anti-mega-corporations," said Krogseng. "I really think they are job-destroying evil empires."

"There is a burgeoning interest in real food," said Kirk Wright, president of the Vancouver Food Cooperative board of directors. "I think we have complementary businesses. Lyn is as local as it gets, and she's dedicated to that. That's not exactly our mission — we aim for a more complete shopping experience."

In fact, the Vancouver Food Co-op, at 1002 Main St., has made a deal with Burgerville to stock the local fast-food chain's new line of grab-and-go sandwiches and snacks.

Turkey clubs and turkey cranberry cream cheese wraps, a grilled southwest chicken wrap and a blue cheese salad are the offerings so far. There will be others, including vegetarian sandwiches. Burgerville plans eventually to roll out these packaged-to-go items at its own restaurants, too — but VFC is already doing it via its coolers downtown.

It began when Wright bumped into Burgerville CEO Jeff Harvey at an event last fall. Wright told Harvey his midday customers tend to custom-build lunches from such store offerings as yogurt, chips and fruit — but a readymade sandwich would be ideal. Harvey loved the idea and gave Wright his card.

Wright was skeptical that a big, if local, chain like Burgerville would actually bother with his little storefront -- but it turned out that Burgerville, which recently razed its historic drive-up restaurant on Mill Plain Boulevard, wanted to maintain a presence in downtown Vancouver. Until it finds real estate for a new restaurant, Wright was told, this is it.

"It's the first time they are selling their products off-premises," Wright said. "It is a perfect fit for the need we've become aware of."

He said the Burgerville restaurant alongside the Oregon Convention Center in Portland was the first to start selling wrapped lunches to go — appealing to visitors and conventiongoers who want something better than a burger. Most refrigerated, wrapped-to-go food isn't so great, but Burgerville's is better, Wright said. Local, natural ingredients, making for better-than-usual fast food, are central to the success of Burgerville, which was founded in Vancouver in 1961 by George Propstra and now has 39 restaurants in Washington and Oregon.

The Vancouver Food Co-op was founded as a buying club in September 2010; it moved into its storefront on lower Main one year later. Inventory has increased tenfold since then, Wright said. It's still a member-driven organization, with 410 members at present, Wright said; that number is always going up, too — as are curious first-time visitors, Wright said.

Despite all of which, he said: "We're still a start-up business." Wright ought to know; his real job is consulting with local small businesses on strategy and planning. He said the Vancouver Food Co-op is doing "pretty well" — and needs to be doing about 10 times better. The business still depends on member dues and lots of volunteer labor; more paid staff would result in a more reliable, stable operation, he said.

Right now there is one paid store manager and two part-time workers. There's a volunteer board of five directors who are elected every June.

The Vancouver Food Co-op does business with three dozen purveyors of regionally grown food, Wright said.

Real food

Lyn Krogseng does business with many of the same local farmers and distributors. But her Neighbors Market also displays maps and diagrams that detail exactly what "local" means to her and precisely which "megacorporations" are manipulating the market or just plain devouring smaller food producers and distributors — both mainstream and "natural" — across the country and around the globe.

For example, did you know that the "pure goodness" of Odwalla juices is wholly owned by Coca Cola? Did you know that just three multinational agriculture-biotech giants, Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta, together control more than half the seeds in the world?

"I want to educate people who aren't already aware what's wrong with our food system," Krogseng said. "I have taken my activism and made it into this store."

That activism began when she was a teenager living in England — and noticing the way her friends swooned over McDonald's and Pizza Hut. It started to appall her, she said. She grew twice as appalled when she got married, grew concerned about her family's diet and started reading food labels.

"I became conscious of a whole bunch of stuff in food that isn't food," she said. "I've become incredibly educated, and a little paranoid."

In 2004, her family came to Vancouver, and she got involved with the burgeoning Vancouver Food Co-op — which took some years and some unpleasant politics to really get up and running — before deciding to live out her ideals and principles her own way. She wrote a business plan and opened Neighbors Market in October 2010. The business plan has fallen by the wayside, Krogseng said, and there's no denying that the market, while growing, still struggles to survive.

That doesn't mean any moral compromise is on the horizon. Krogseng wants her customers to know that she checks out her suppliers personally and crosses them off her list if she discovers they're farther away than 250 miles, too big or somehow masking their real corporate owners, or otherwise unethical or cruel to animals or people.

She stocks fresh produce, raw (unpasteurized) milk and dairy products, organic and pasture-raised meat from farms such as Ridgefield's Inspiration Plantation and the entirely horse-powered Yacolt Mountain Farms. You'll find local beers and wines, too. You won't find a molecule of high-fructose corn syrup or other "multi-syllabic ingredients from laboratories" in the place, she said.

"I just want our customers to know, this is the kind of store where there is no blood on the food system," she said. "I have had many consultations where I've been told maybe my standards are too high, maybe I should relax a little bit. I find that a very hard place to go. I don't do well with compromise."

Not sustainable, you say? As far as Krogseng is concerned, it's the mainstream food system that's not sustainable. She expects to watch it fall apart as the real economic, environmental and health costs of large-scale agribusiness and long-haul food trucking become prohibitive.

"Eighty years ago, every town had its little grocery stores," she said. "My store is a little renaissance."