Boise Co-op's founding members reflect on early days

After 40 years, founding members reflect on the Valley institution's early days

adutton@idahostatesman.comApril 8, 2014 

At 88 years old, Julie Kreiensieck gets a lilt in her voice when she recalls the early days of a 1970s food-buying club.

Kreiensieck (it's pronounced "cry 'n' seek," she says) was finishing up her bachelor's degree and worked on campus at Boise Junior College.

"I would go to work, and at 5 o'clock or quarter-to, I would leave and go over to the Co-op and open up," she said. "Somebody would have brought the food that had been ordered and put there on a porch ... on the back of a house on Broadway."

It was a once-a-week affair, she said. The bulk-buying cooperative arose from the founders' desire for fresh, local, organic food - and items they couldn't find elsewhere. Members would place an order, pay for it, and the next week return to pick up a pound of dates, a box of Boise-grown apples or a big chunk of cheese from Nampa.

"We never did do advertising much," she said. "It was practically all word of mouth."

The idea caught fire, and soon there was a Boise Co-op store in Hyde Park. The member-owned natural food store continued to grow, and it now boasts a membership of 25,000 and a newly renovated building at 8th and Fort streets.

Some of its earliest members say they never considered whether it would become a successful business or the Boise icon it is now. They just wanted to keep it open day to day.

Those founding members say the Co-op has retained its sense of community and quirkiness while undergoing some drastic changes in the past few years, as a wave of competitors entered the market - Natural Grocers, Rosauers and Whole Foods Market, followed this year by Trader Joe's.

Those changes included the replacement of longtime general manager Ken Kavanagh in 2011 with current manager Ben Kuzma; a new business structure that pays member dividends; and a remodeling project that opened up an eating area and expanded the wine and pet-food offerings.

"I have a membership card that's framed" from the Co-op, back when it was in its infancy, said Divit Cardoza. "It was in this funny little hole in the wall, out by Boise Avenue."

Cardoza, a 62-year-old artist who spearheaded - and works part-time in - the Co-op's Wine Shop, remembers working at the Co-op in 1979. He'd spent a couple of years away from Boise and returned that year to find the Co-op had moved to Hyde Park.

He remembers the Beatles, Santana, the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead creating soundtracks for his work days as people brought in records to play on a turntable in the store.

Like every other employee back then, he says, he did "everything." He ran the cash register, ordered health-and-beauty items, stocked the shelves, bought apples from a farm off Hill Road - the Co-op sold them for 30 cents a pound or a few bucks for a half-bushel box - and drove his station wagon out to Nampa to load up on blocks of cheese. He also remembers doing one of the main volunteer "chores" - cutting those blocks of cheese into pieces small enough to sell.

"We just hoped that it would make it another year, back then," he said.

Cardoza credits former manager Kavanagh with having "the vision" to sell imported olive oil and specialty foods, giving the Co-op a reputation to build on as it grew into a larger store.

Cardoza is among the early members who said the store affected the rest of their lives. It introduced them to new ideas or, for members like Kreiensieck, allowed them to feed their families healthy food on a small budget.

"I discovered the Co-op back in 1975," said Charles Raymond. "I just walked in the door one day and said, 'Oh, this is interesting.' "

Raymond, now an acupuncturist and Chinese herbal-medicine practitioner in Boise, says that day "opened a whole new world to me, in terms of natural foods."

Back then, when the store was on 13th Street in Hyde Park, every member had to volunteer - a requirement that has long since disappeared. Raymond took it to an extreme, volunteering 50 or 60 hours a week for several months.

He became the second full-time employee, working there for a few years. His paycheck was $200 a month.

"It was a labor of love," he said.

The pay is higher these days. The median hourly wage for the Co-op's 151 employees in the latest fiscal year was $13.94.

At least once a week now, Raymond strolls the aisles on a shopping trip.

To him, the evolution of the Boise Co-op bears a resemblance to that of the Burning Man festival, which started in the 1980s as a small gathering in California, mushroomed into a weeklong event in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, and has undergone some management and business-model changes.

The Co-op has "changed and morphed and gone in different ways," he said.

Audrey Dutton: 377-6448, Twitter: @IDS_Audrey

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