Oct. 3 2012 01:10 PM

Will city residents support a City Heights project like they did Barrio Logan's Public Market?

Vegan Co-op organizer Mitch Wallis
Photo by Katrina Carroll

The cultural significance of Barrio Logan's month-old Public Market goes beyond farmers and artisans having a permanent, indoor location to serve locals and attract tourists; deft fundraising by a niche group of foodies proved that with organization—and a strong vision—a mainstream grocery-store alternative for and by the people has made the leap from dream to reality.

The social-media blitz headed up by founders Catt White and Dale Steele was also momentous because it broadcast the power of an online community rocking the fundraising website Kickstarter.com. During the three-week campaign, Tweets and Facebook updates exchanged between founders, donors and business owners hustled the momentum and resulted in more than a $50,000 surplus once the initial $92,244 goal was met.

The proof is in the (organic) pudding: San Diego is ready for alternative grocery-shopping options, and Mitch Wallis, co-owner of Evolution Fast Food in Hillcrest, believes that locals are hungry for more.

With the help of four more organizers, Wallis is hoping to open San Diego's first Vegan Co-op in the former Ford dealership on El Cajon Boulevard in City Heights— they have a handshake agreement with the property owner, who, Wallis says, supports the plan. He says the move's inspired by, and a reaction to, the popularity of People's Co-op in Ocean Beach.

"We love People's. We're all members," Wallis says of his group. "It's so easy to sit back and say, ‘If I could do this, I would make these changes….' There's always room for improvement, and competition is good— it makes things stronger."

With limited parking and beach traffic, Wallis says that longtime customers of the 40-year-old co-op are in need of more options. The proposed central San Diego location for the Vegan Co-op addresses these issues, he says. It's just off Interstate 15, and has 101 underground parking spaces; there's a neighboring transit center, and it would be on the same lot as Pearson Fuels, California's only biodiesel filling station, which also has a car-sharing partnership with car2go. Hubbell and Hubbell Architects—the second choice to build People's in the early 1970s—is eager to transform the 8,000-square-foot building into an environmentally friendly produce super-center, complete with a rooftop garden and indoor living wall with herbs that shoppers can snip themselves. If all goes as planned, the corner is poised to become a world-class, green-lifestyle hub.

"There's two basic aspects that make our vision unique. One is that we'll have local, fresh, crafty food. At the same time, it's not going to be passive like a shopping experience; it's going to be an educational experience," Wallis says. "We don't want people coming in and left to their own devices. We want to invite them in and find out how we can help, whether it's through the homeopathic pharmacy or the medicinal uses of the food."

The plan for Vegan Co-op is to have more layers than People's, including an all-natural pharmacy and a theater for cooking demos, lectures and movie nights.

"A lot of people are switching to plant-based diets for their health, to reduce their risk of heart disease and prevent diabetes," says Teagan McClain, one of the organizers and the founder of San Diego Veg Week. "People can come and find alternatives, with many fresh organic fruits and vegetables, and actually see cooking demonstrations that you don't have to sign up for. Anyone who comes can watch for free, eat food samples and learn more; we want to be very welcoming to everyone—you don't have to be a vegetarian—no judgments."

The space is optimal, and the vision is there, but the team faces some challenges. Their Kickstarter campaign, launched in mid-September, had raised just $9,426 as of Monday morning. The goal is $150,000 by Oct. 13. Clearly, they could use a marketing campaign.

While Kickstarter's a hip fundraising tool, Vegan Co-op organizers haven't been prepared for the responsibilities that come with it. They have a website and a Facebook page, but the latter isn't updated daily; Twitter, with its more efficient and farther-reaching sharing function, was overlooked. The point is to get the word out by interacting with friends and non-followers; posting an occasional update may not be enough.

But the group's old-fashioned ways are in tune with their back-to-basics ethos, both in a dietary and business sense.

"Right now, our whole economic system is in tatters, and a co-op is like getting back to the roots of sanity," Wallis says. "Everyone gets one vote. The shoppers own the business. We're dealing with a lot of suppliers directly.

"Nobody is getting a profit; nobody is getting bonuses or a high salary. Everything is transparent," he continues. "It's the opposite of almost every other business. So, taking stock and going back to the basics and organizing a business as a co-op, for us, is the only thing that makes sense."

Wallis says that if the co-op happens, it'll employ people from the surrounding neighborhood and offer benefits like discounted groceries and even trade for its healthful food.

Another challenge the group faces is changing people's perception of the word "vegan"—after all, it's in the name of the business and could come off as exclusionary. Wallis says that vegan food has come a long way, but still fights stereotypes. McClain adds that the shift is already in progress—vegan menu items, whole restaurants dedicated to the cause and store-bought products that use the word on their packaging are helping. Increasing commercial appeal is causing more people who aren't vegans to eat the food by choice, she says.

"Vegan, at first blush, is a smaller niche, and even though it encompasses much broader global issues that everybody is really passionate about, they don't always make the connection, especially when they see the word," Wallis says. "We're reaching out, still trying to find our constituents…. We know that once people understand what's involved in this, they will absolutely connect and want to be a member."

Memberships are being sold in two-year, $50 packages. It's like owning stock, and folks can take their cash out at any time. Grocery prices will be higher than at Albertson's, Wallis says, but lower than most health-food stores, including People's.

"When you go on a journey, you never know what's going to happen. We need to meet our [Kickstarter] goal, but we aren't going to quit," he says. "If there's not one thousand [people] that want this, then it's not going to work. There is always the chance that an angel will step forward."

Amy blogs at saysgranite.com and you can follow her on Twitter @saysgranite.


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