4765 Voltaire St.
"At the time, our register was a nail in the counter and you added things up on an adding machine," explains Amber Forest of People's Co-Op in Ocean Beach. "The customers told you how much everything cost and we just added it up. Then you'd hit the nail and this little muffin tin would pop out."
Forest started working at the fledgling grocery store back in 1971 at age 10. "That was our cash register then," she said. "August 19th is our birthday, and now we do about $9 million in sales."
It's no surprise that People's Co-Op is so successful since it is, hands down, the best place in San Diego to buy produce-particularly if you like to cook. For some reason, an emphasis on the need for quality ingredients is frequently overlooked in cookbooks. You can have the world's best tomato-sauce recipe, but if you prepare it with the tough pink monstrosities that pass for tomatoes in the local supermarket, it's gonna suck. Bad. Why subject yourself to inferior tomatoes when the co-op stocks produce grown by small family farms that actually care about what they grow?
"Small farms take pride in what they do, and we get really some of the best quality produce I think that's offered anywhere in the country," says Trent Weston, who's been working in the co-op's produce department for more than 25 years. "California's one of the biggest organic regions in the country, and we have access to those really high-quality small farms-so we get the pick of the litter. We really do get some of the very best that Mother Nature puts out. We deal with one distributor in the Bay Area called Veritable Vegetable," he said. "They're great at bringing us produce from farms that even some of the other distributors don't have access to."
In addition to outrageously good fruits and vegetables, the co-op also has an outstanding selection of cheese, yogurt, butter, ice cream, chocolate, bread, olive oil, nuts, dried fruit, soap, vitamins-in short, nearly the same type of goods you'd go to your local supermarket for, but at a quality level far surpassing that of most any other market. As perishables buyer Dave Orstrom puts it, "We have probably the most stringent ingredients parameters that I know of. So to get a product into our store actually makes [the manufacturer] look good and can get them into other stores."
Not only must the food be organic, it must also be free of genetically modified soy, refined sugar, preservatives, cornstarch, artificial colors and animal rennet. "Rennet comes from the stomachs of dead calves and is used to firm up cheese," explains Orstrom, who only purchases cheese that is made with microbial or vegetable enzyme rennet.
While these kinds of prohibitions may be unimportant to some, they often noticeably affect the flavor of food. Compare the co-op's Strauss Family Creamery ice cream to any commercially available product and see if you don't taste the difference. Or try one of the co-op's fresh goat cheeses paired with some fresh heirloom tomatoes (tomatoes grown from century-old seed varieties) drizzled with cold-pressed organic extra-virgin olive oil and fresh bread from local bakeries like La Provence, Bread & Cie or Charlie's Best Bread.
Naturally, this kind of quality doesn't come cheap, but the co-op's prices are pretty reasonable, since the People's Co-Op is, well, a co-op. Co-ops are owned by members, who pay a modest annual fee of $15 (on top of the price of food, of course). Consequently, the profit margin is much less than that of a standard business, and the interest is in quality above all else since the co-op's sole purpose is to serve its members. So while some items might be a bit more expensive than you'd find at, say, Ralphs, you're getting better quality. And if you're a smart shopper and buy the produce in season, you'll find the prices are often less than that of a large supermarket.
Non-members must pay a 10-percent surcharge on their purchases-a fee that is waived for first-time shoppers. However, I'm confident that after trying some of the summer fruits currently on offer, you'll agree that 15 bucks a year is a small price to pay.