Photo by Chris Casella

Co-Op Catch-Up

When I was a kid, my mother sold alfalfa sprouts up and down the state of Vermont from the back of her yellow Suburu. Sprouts that she grew herself in the underground sprout house that was a few steps away from her underground home. The sprout house was damp and filled with—you guessed it—sprouts, which to a city kid in for a summer visit were like slimy little white worms and thus, immediately went on my “shit that freaks me out list.” That list also includes the entire gluten-free aisle, VeganToona, and kimchi. Gasp if you like, but the word “ferment” is on my “words that freak me out list.”

Needless to say, home-bagged sprouts don’t end up on grocery store shelves, so I spent a couple of summers curled up in the passenger seat, driving up and down the skinny mountain state delivering the produce to co-ops—mom driving, unfiltered Camel burning, and Neil Young in the tape deck.

While mom hawked her wormy wares, I wandered the aisles, nibbling on carob bits, peering at hand-printed labels, and marveling at the abject ugliness of Birkenstocks.

So, when I recently went to visit the Clintonville Community Market, I had a lot of baggage already in my shopping cart. It’s located at the corner of Crestview and Calumet in the blurry boundary between Olde North and Clintonville. Short and square, with murals and a few outdoor tables, it’s been watching over the Columbus community for over 30 years. It’s had its ups and downs and is currently experiencing a renaissance, fueled by an active customer base, interest in local produce, and advocacy for supporting local businesses. In the midst of the coldest winter ever, the kitchen opened and is now serving daily scratch-made creations, as well as a weekend brunch.

Trish Clark, former interim general manager and current director of community outreach and marketing, is enthusiastic about the direction the Market is headed.

“My husband and I refinished the community table and donated to the Market,” she said. “It’s symbolic for bringing the community together.”

Even though the Market has been hugging the corner for years, many people are unaware that it exists or are unsure what shopping at a co-op entails. Membership simply means supporting the Market with an annual donation and receiving 2 or 5 percent off future purchases. According to Clark, the majority of those who shop are not members, but people are still intimidated. “A woman once said to me, ‘I’m not sure how to use the bulk foods and I’m embarrassed.’ The staff is here to help,” Clark said. In a recent survey, current shoppers cited the bulk herbs section and the staff as their favorite part of the Market experience, she added.

A food and plant activist since forever, Clark is interested in supporting local growers and farmers. “In high school, I would make plant bombs,” she said. “That was me protesting: ‘I’ll throw wildflowers all over your backyard!’”

“It’s not a deli. It’s a kitchen with a creative chef.”

She might be older now, but Clark and the rest of the Market family are still looking around the backyard—for local businesses. “We’ve so many local businesses,” she said. “There’s Krazy Kraut, Portia’s Little Eaters, Snowville. We sell Del’s food from Wellness Forum.” Everywhere customers look in the shop, there is a local product staring back at them.

One of the biggest changes at the Market is the quality of the produce. All of it is A-plus quality, said Clark, and if it doesn’t sell right away, the produce goes back into the kitchen for use in soups, stocks, and the like. “The produce will be daily and seasonal,” she explained. “The daily menu will mirror what we have on the floor.”

“It’s not a deli,” she emphasized. “It’s a kitchen with a creative chef.”

In the back of the store, Justin Boldizar is that chef. Wearing a jaunty grey cap and bright blue safety gloves, Boldizar tears up while talking about his job—from all the onions he’s slicing. Trained at the apron strings of La Tavola’s Rick Lopez, Boldizar has also traversed the lines of Frezno and Ethyl & Tank. “I’ve always wanted to work in a place that I can make whatever whenever, where I can be creative and part of a community.” The young chef loves the farm-to-table vibe, the chalkboard menu where dishes change daily, and the freshness of the produce.

In addition to the handwritten offerings, the kitchen is also creating take-home treats, from beet guacamole to chimichurri, sandwiches to yogurt. “I’m most proud of my kimchi,” Boldizar said, smiling. “It’s house-made with sautéed tofu.”

Kimchi, my acidic nemesis. I managed to walk by the packaged alfalfa sprouts without flinching, and here I was, faced with fermentation. Boldizar’s excitement about the condiment was so frickin’ catchy, I wanted to try it… I was thwarted though because it was sold out. Yet the afternoon inspired me to become a member, so one day soon, I’ll stare that cabbage-y mixture down. 

While there are stores all over the city promoting organic, healthy, and local products, there are only a IMG_0040handful of true cooperatives—operations that encourage membership, volunteerism, and community outreach. In addition to the Clintonville Community Market, there is the Bexley Natural Market. Located at 508 N Cassady Ave., the Bexley Market showcases products representing every corner of Ohio, from botanicals to bread, in addition to workshops and community gatherings.  Over in Olde Towne East, the Near East Side Cooperative has recently moved to 85 Parsons Ave. Snuggling in next door to Upper Cup Coffee, the Cooperative will reopen this spring with all the produce and product patrons have come to expect, plus a renewed commitment to being a space of community interaction. The memberships at each co-op are good for a 2 percent discount at the others. 

Clintonville Community Market is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. The Market will reopen on Mondays starting April 6. Meals are served 11 a.m. – 7 p.m., with weekend brunch from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. It is located at 200 Crestview Rd., and liking it on Facebook will clue you
to specials and upcoming events. Every third Friday the Market celebrates with music, and tastings,
and 5 percent off everything.