50 Years of Oryana: Food co-op thriving as it approaches a half-century

In the early 1970s, a group of friends and acquaintances in Traverse City embraced the back-to-the-earth, environmental and health food movements. They gathered together to form a buying club focused on healthy eating with whole foods, vegetarian and organic foods.

The food co-op has come a long way since then. Next year, Oryana will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. It has grown from those few friends to a $32 million, two-store cooperative business serving more than 10,000 member-owners and the public at large.

Today Oryana sells everything from organic food, fair trade products and complete meals made in-house to dog food and cookies. Well-known organic and vegetarian brands – Amy’s Kitchen, Pacific Natural Foods, Field Roast – are next to local favorites from Food for Thought, Third Coast Bakery and Naturally Nutty, as well as produce and meats from farms across the region.

And there’s no letdown in sight, says General Manager and CEO Steve Nance.

“We’re rocking this summer,” said Nance, who has been with the store for more than 12 years. “We did $780,000 (in early July), our biggest week ever.”

It’s all quite a stretch from those early days. Back then it was all about buying whole foods like cheese, beans and rice in bulk.

Nance

“It was the counter-culture hippie days,” said Nance with a laugh. So much so, there was discussion over whether the store should stock any pre-packaged goods at all.

Oryana first took root in an alley off 15th Street behind Third Level Crisis Intervention Center. The community increasingly embraced the concept, and growth meant finding better digs. It soon moved to a second floor location on Front Street.

Hauling the bulk foods up the stairs eventually got old and its continued popularity allowed/forced a move to Randolph Street, where Bay Bread is now located. That enabled the co-op to expand and welcome new customers, but the business eventually was bursting at the seams there as well.

“It could only grow so far,” Nance said.

Any chance of further expansion meant a new location would have to be found. Oryana found an available building that had previously served Brown Lumber as its lumber yard, but its suitability was questionable at best.

“It was a terrible retail location,” said Nance. “There was no traffic and a terrible building.”

Nevertheless, the decision was made to relocate to 260 E. 10th St.

“We made it work,” said Nance.

The store has since been remodeled a couple times and boasts an in-house kitchen and bakery.

It actually worked so well that Nance and the board began looking for a second location, eventually deciding to open another store in Acme. Trouble was that competitors recognized the opportunities as well. Other stores began building out their organic and whole food selections. Rumors abounded regarding new stores such as Costco and Aldi. Target was moving into grocery.

And then a new player came into view, as Lucky’s Market purchased the old Horizon Cinemas and renovated the building. The Boulder, Colorado-based natural foods chain – “Organic for the 99%” – was aggressively growing.

So, Oryana pulled the plug on its expansion plans.

“Everybody got into natural and organic food. There was just too much competition,” said Nance. “It turned out to be a good decision.”

When the pandemic struck, Oryana was one of the essential businesses that stayed open. And in the midst of the pandemic came perhaps its biggest gamble: The co-op bid on and won the bankruptcy auction for what had been its biggest competitor, Lucky’s Market, which was closing its Traverse City location.

“Part of my job is to keep my ear to the ground,” said Nance. “Suppliers talk, and I made some calls. We’d looked at the location and knew it was a good one.”

Nance put together a venture with other community co-ops to bid on the remaining stores, and won the auction for the Traverse City store. It turned out to not only be a major win for Oryana, but it also meant that a community grocery remained open, and 62 jobs were preserved during the economic shutdown in the midst of the global pandemic.

So further expansion is now over, right? Maybe not. Nance noted that the store’s 10-year long-term plan, dubbed “Oryana Imagined,” still sees the east side as an area that could merit a new store.

“We already checked off the second location, but not the east side,” he said. So the coop is keeping its eyes open for potential opportunity in the Acme/Williamsburg/Hammond area.

Oryana has not only helped spearhead the move toward natural foods, it’s become an increasingly important community player, supporting non-profits with micro-loan programs, offering cooking classes, and becoming a founding partner with Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan, providing fresh food to those in need.

It hosts a community garden and café, popular convening spaces for business meetings and family gatherings. The Community Room at Oryana West has been remodeled to accommodate cooking classes and provide a space for local groups to meet.

Oryana is one of only seven co-ops in the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) network to remain profitable each year since 2006. It is also the largest co-op in the state.

How has it managed to survive and even thrive in a competitive marketplace where the margins are razor-thin? There are undoubtedly many reasons. The area’s visiting and permanent population continues to increase. So too has the appeal of natural and organic food as people embrace the concept of healthy food as good medicine.

Nance said it’s also in large part because of the co-op’s commitment to customer service.

“Our marketing and approach is different than Meijer, Target, etc.,” said Nance.

Dubbed “The Amazing Oryana Experience,” the approach is geared toward providing customers not only a friendly shopping experience, but ensuring that the staff members are familiar with the store products and services.

“You own the place,” Nance said, referring to the member/owners of the Oryana cooperative model. “And the product lines are highly curated. We look for profit because it is a business, not a non-profit, but we’re not driven by ROI. It is an economic engine for good.”

Nance (holding CCMA award) with Oryana board members.

Those efforts have been recognized. Oryana recently won the Scale Up North award from Traverse Connect and the Cooperative Excellence Award from the Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA). The former is described as a tool to “recognize and celebrate the vibrant and varied companies doing business up north, their achievements, and their impact on the community and economy” by Traverse Connect. Oryana received a $5,000 cash prize and a bundle of in-kind services and benefits valued at more than $41,000.

The latter is a national award for co-ops that demonstrate high achievement in leadership, strategic planning, organizational effectiveness, human resources and business results. Nance described it as the Oscar of the co-op world.

Not bad for an outfit started by a bunch of whole-wheaters during those long-ago counter-culture days.

How Oryana got its name

Mike Williams, an early Oryana GM

So where did the name come from? Jackie Shinners and her husband Seamus had recently moved to the area when the local buying group formed.

“I’d been active in a cooperative in Buffalo,” Jackie Shinners said. “It was a natural progression.”

When the group was trying to come up with a name for the new venture, she recalled the book she was reading at the time, Chariots of the Gods. Author Erich von Däniken suggested in the book that many of the marvels of the ancient world, from crop circles to the Pyramids to the Moai of Easter Island, could only be explained by the planet having been visited by extraterrestrial visitors.

Shinners said there was a chapter in the book about the goddess Oryana.

“She originated in Tiahuanaco and was known as the Great Mother Earth or the First Mother of Mankind, who arrived in a vessel brighter than the sun,” she said. “I think we all liked the idea of Mother Earth, providing sustenance and abundance. She is one of the ancient ones believed to have brought civilization to earth.

“It seemed fitting that Oryana be the name to represent the food co-op,” she said.

The rest of the board agreed and Oryana was born.

Comments

comments