A look at Hamilton's new co-operative grocer: The Mustard Seed

Ana Qarri
The Silhouette

Friday, Jan. 24 marked the grand opening of Hamilton’s first community-owned grocery store.

The Mustard Seed, located on 460 York Boulevard, offers an alternative to student favourites like Fortinos and Metro. Along with typical grocery products, the co-op will focus on selling local and organic food.  A user-owned grocery store, The Mustard Seed allows its shoppers to have control over how their grocery store is managed and maintained. To become shareholders, shoppers purchase memberships which are sold per household, but are not mandatory to shop at the co-op. Having a membership gives the household voting rights on decisions like where the co-op’s produce is purchased, and the impact that the co-op wants to have on the larger issues.

Co-operative grocery stores were commonplace in the late 1800s until World War II. The emergence of capitalism led to fewer co-ops being established and a larger focus on privatized for-profit companies. The influence of the co-op on bigger private firms can still be identified in branding and marketing techniques often attempting to capitalize on the image of the community member you’re well acquainted with, or the local farmer you can trust. Over the last few decades, there’s been a resurgence of co-ops as community members have begun to recognize the need for healthier food and the importance of supporting locally-owned businesses.

The idea of establishing a co-operative grocery store in Hamilton came to business-owners Emma and Graham Cubitt when they visited one in Vermont, and were convinced that a co-operative could be an equally successful undertaking in Hamilton.

Emma and Graham had been sitting on the idea of opening a co-op in Hamilton since 2010, and eventually gathered a group of approximately 40 supporters and volunteers to help them in making it a reality. As of Friday, the community-owned store had over 1,250 registered members with the number still increasing.

The Mustard Seed is not only owned by the community, but it was also built by a group of more than 200 volunteers. They painted walls, installed shelves, cleaned floors, and together built Hamilton’s first community-owned and community-made grocery store.

It has a modest size for a store that plans to serve thousands of costumers, but the warm colours and the rural chic interior design give it an open and welcoming vibe.

I visited the store on its second day of operations. Even though the weather was dismal and I myself considered not leaving my house, The Mustard Seed was buzzing with costumers, staff members and volunteers.

I was even greeted at the automatic door (which had broken earlier that morning) by a friendly face who had taken on the role of makeshift door-slider. Graham invited me to talk about the collective idea and vision behind The Mustard Seed.

He describes the co-op as a “democratic business model.”

“In other companies, some people purchase more shares so they have more votes,” he explained. “Whereas at co-ops like The Mustard Seed, everyone is given equal shareholder participation and status. Here, we make decisions as a business together,” Graham added.

“Every year, we’ll have a general meeting, and make a vision of how our co-op operates, how we want to impact our community.”

It’s the direct consumer engagement with the store that makes it an appealing business model in a society where companies are always trying to find ways to “connect” with their buyers. The Mustard Seed is committed to its customers and its customers are committed to its vision.

The store isn’t only making locally and environmentally-conscious decisions about food. The majority of the resources used to build and maintain the space are equally supportive of Hamilton’s businesses and initiatives. Everything from the staff uniforms to the music played at the store comes from local places and local people.

The Mustard Seed is the perfect place for students to become more engaged with the Hamilton community. It provides opportunities to volunteer for a community organization, as well as be part of decision-making processes about the well-being and direction of many local initiatives. The co-op promises to be a great contact point between students and the greater community. Graham stated that he’s already seen some student involvement in the building and opening of the co-op, and he would love to see more in the future.

“We’d love for students to be involved, we know they’re only here for a period of time, but volunteering or shopping at the co-op can be a great way to get integrated to the community locally. We also hope our products will be affordable options for students.”

The Mustard Seed has planted itself in downtown Hamilton at a crucial and almost strategic time in the city’s rebirth. Although Hamilton’s steel-producing years are behind it, the city is slowly transforming into a hub for artists and innovators where support for local organizations is becoming the norm. In a city that’s redefining itself by encouraging local groups to create local solutions for local people, a grocery store co-op seems like a natural next step, combining collective control over healthy and local food options with Hamilton’s community-driven business models.

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