COOS BAY —Forty eight years ago, a group of like-minded community members came together to create an inclusive space for residents around the South Coast to share and purchase high-quality, local, organic food products.
With the simple belief in community and clean, healthy eating, the group founded what is now the Coos Head Food Co-op, which opened its doors for the first time in February 1971 out of the garage of a North Bend home.
“We all worked as volunteers back in the early days,” said longtime Co-op member Christy Vollstedt. “It was such a grass roots beginning and I’m so grateful to have been a part of that growing period. We really were and still are a family.”
The Co-op, which originally began as a not-for-profit, member-run store, moved around in its first few years of operation. In 1977, the local grocery store reset its roots to a larger location settled in the heart of downtown North Bend.
Its members did what they do best; they rallied together and through their combined efforts volunteered their time and worked countless hours to help restore and revamp its new location. Vollstedt was among that group as she aided in designing the store’s kitchen and bringing it up to par to become commercially certified.
“The Co-op was such an anchor for me,” said Vollstedt. “I started baking and selling cookies in that very kitchen which became my bread, butter and gas money.”
At the time, being a mother of two young boys, Vollstedt said she would oftentimes bring her children shopping with her. Across the kitchen, she said was a small, playing area for kids to keep busy while their parents browsed and picked up their food items.
“We all looked out for one another and the camaraderie was so strong,” she said.
In 2010, the Co-op became a registered food cooperative with a majority of its membership voting to make the transition. The new structure allows for its members to become its owners with their own say and stake in the store’s operations.
Manager Deb Krough, who joined the Co-op in 1979, said the switch definitely empowered its members and revitalized their pride in their locally-run grocery store through their new ownership status.
Currently, community members can join the Co-op by investing $150 into the business for a one-time, buy-in fee, which can be spread out with an initial $25 payment and then $5 monthly payments until the total buy-in fee is reached.
Over the years, Krough has worked a number of positions at the Co-op. From her early days of checking in freight, cutting cheese or cashiering, she is described by those who’ve worked with her as one of the standout, key players in the Co-op’s success.
“I moved here in the fall and was looking for a job,” said Krough. “I wandered into the Co-op and found out the structure then was you could volunteer and get a discount on your food. I thought, ‘Hey, it looks like fun and the people are great,’ so I did it.”
In 2016, the Co-op relocated to its current location on 353 South 2nd Street in downtown Coos Bay. According to Krough, the move was another defining moment for the business, which took years in its search for the perfect building that would meet its growing needs.
“We had a lot of community members help in the remodeling of the new location,” said Krough. “We had folks pulling nails out of wood that we reclaimed and used to build the walls in our offices. The enthusiasm from the community was similar to how it was like when we first started.”
Retired contractor Richard Kuznitsky first experienced the Co-op back in 1973. The longtime member, who began primarily as a customer, has dived deep into the workings of the Co-op over the years both volunteering and aiding in its designs and locations.
“We had a lot of issues in our old location. We had problems with parking and the traffic,” said Kuznitsky. “Initially I was going to stay out of it, but then I just somehow got back into it. I got us into the old store I was going to get us out.”
Kuznitsky helped with emptying out the Coos Bay location and creating its layout and design.
With over 100 vendors featured in its store, nearly 1,000 Co-op members and a growing number of outreach opportunities, the Co-op doesn’t show signs of slowing down. According to its board president Jamie Doyle, the board is working on a number of projects centered on its new location.
“In the past couple of years we’ve been trying to do things that would continue to build on the recent move,” said Doyle. “Projects like fixing the parking lot, dealing with some fencing issues and recently adding solar panels are all things we want to continue improving on.”
The Co-op’s varied inventory of natural food products and local produce is a big draw for member Tere Branson. Since 1993, Branson has been shopping at the Co-op, who said she originally heard of the store through her husband, Stephen Procunier, one of its founding members.
“We share our lives and chat with folks inside the Co-op,” said Branson. “It’s like a family. I love that every time we go into the store we see someone we know and its kind of like our social time.”
Like any business, the Co-op has certainly had its ups and downs, said Kuznitsky. However, through all of its challenges its members have always come together and pushed it forward, he added.
“I’m proud of us that we’re still here,” said Kuznitsky. “Forty eight years ago we created a niche in this area for having better quality, organic food. I think today we serve just as an important role in our community as we did when we first started.”
The Coos Head Food Co-op will be hosting a free anniversary celebration Feb. 22 at its downtown Coos Bay location from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. The event will feature live music, local food samplings, tastings and desserts.