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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Common Needs, Uncommon Food

Riverwest's neighborhood co-op

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It's amazing what can happen when financial profit is not the primary focus of an enterprise. While the ashes of our economic market rain down upon us, practical business organizations like co-operatives provide a safe haven. A co-op is an age-old concept of people uniting to meet their common needs-economic, cultural, social, whatever it may be-through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.

"The Riverwest Co-op is a neighborhood taking care of itself," says Gibson Caldwell, volunteer coordinator and board member of the Riverwest Co-op.

The neighborhood food co-op, now the pulsing heart of Riverwest, has simple origins. Because of its cost advantages, a group of neighbors began buying food in bulk and splitting it up among themselves as the Riverwest Workers Buying Club. In 1999, members of the club and other individuals active in the community made a commitment to create a viable neighborhood food co-op.

Two members purchased a former Schlitz Tied House built in 1904 on the corner of Clarke and Fratney streets, specifically to have the Riverwest Co-op as their primary tenant. It took two years to transform the run-down building into a quaint, comfortable storefront. The Riverwest Co-op opened its doors to the public in the fall of 2001.

"We started very small," Caldwell explains. "We had a couple of thousand dollars' worth of inventory and pretty limited hours."

Nearly eight years later, the Riverwest Co-op has more than 1,300 members, approximately 60 active volunteers and nine board members. The inventory has expanded to include organic and locally grown produce, vegetarian and vegan groceries, bulk foods, dietary supplements and pet food, as well as body care and baby products and paper and wool goods. October 2004 saw the opening of the Riverwest Co-op Caf, which transcends its origins as the building's adjoining garage to prevail as a cheerful, light-filled gathering place for thinkers, activists, artists and vagabonds.

"Part of the reason our food is so good is because it's made with all-natural, mostly organic ingredients," Caldwell says. "These are expensive, but because the co-op isn't motivated by profit, we can sell high-quality food at an inexpensive price."

While the caf uses predominantly local and organic foods produced by small businesses, it operates as 95% organic because it uses ingredients like bread from Wild Flour, which isn't organic but is made from scratch daily without the use of hydrogenated oil, dairy, eggs, sugar or preservatives.

The caf's creative lunch and dinner menu has a wealth of reasonably priced vegan and vegetarian made-to-order sandwiches, soups, salads and smoothies. Some of the most popular items on the menu include the Phamous Milly, a hoagie bun stuffed within an inch of its life with the caf's homemade seitan, grilled peppers and onions, dairy or vegan cheese and creamy, rich Vegenaise; and the barbecue tofu, layers of grilled tofu, carrots, red onions, spinach and Vegenaise drenched with the caf's homemade barbecue sauce, all at home in one of Wild Flour's delicious hoagie buns.

Each day the bakery case is filled with fresh all-vegan bakery items like carrot cake, muffins, brownies and cookies. Don't delude yourself into thinking these decadent sweet treats are a dietary freebie because they're sans dairy and eggs: These bad boys are as naughty as they are delicious.

The caf serves a full breakfast every morning from 7 to 11 a.m., with extended brunch hours from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the weekends. The blueberry pancakes draw a horde of Riverwesterners on Sunday mornings, so plan for a wait-at least until the anticipated dining room expansion is a reality. Outdoor seating is available when weather permits. Delivery, take-out and catering services are also available.

You may not be a vegetarian, but the Riverwest Co-op Caf will make you want to eat like one.

The Riverwest Co-op is located at 733 E. Clarke St. Hours are Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, call 414-264-7933 or visit www.riverwestcoop.org.