A Utah co-op grocery gets closer to happening, offering local food and community

Wasatch Cooperative Market is looking at the Milk Block, at the old Southeast Market site on 400 South.

The dream of a cooperative grocery store in Salt Lake City, first proposed 13 years ago, may be closer to reality — with organizers eyeing a location being developed on 900 South.

The people in charge of the Wasatch Cooperative Market, representing more than 800 paying members, said they are in talks to become the anchor tenant in what used to be the Southeast Market at 422 E. 900 South in Salt Lake City, less than a block west of Liberty Park.

The area is being redeveloped by married owners Kathia Dang and Sam Sleiman, under the name The Milk Block, made up of properties the couple have been buying for the last seven years along 900 South between 400 East and Denver Street. The name is a tribute to the late San Francisco city councilman and gay-rights icon Harvey Milk, for whom 900 South is also named.

“When Harvey Milk stood out on the stoop in the Castro district in San Francisco, there was a line in one of his speeches where he said, ‘I believe in building community one neighborhood at a time,’” Dang said. It’s in that spirit, she said, that they named their development after him, “because we believe in building community — in our case, one block at a time.”

Dang said she and her husband “are big proponents of supporting local and small. … I don’t think anything represents local more than” a co-op grocery store.

What a co-op is and isn’t

What, exactly, is a co-op grocery? According to Stephanie Buranek, who serves on Wasatch Cooperative Market’s board as the chair of feasibility and planning, it’s a store where the members have a say in how it’s run.

“Because it’s operated in a democratic way, I have a legitimate voice in it as to the direction that the co-op is taking, which is amazing,” Buranek said.

The plan for Wasatch Cooperative Market can be described, in part, by what it’s not. It’s a bit like the outdoor retailer REI Co-op, in that it gives out year-end refunds to members — but without REI’s corporate structure. It sells memberships, like Costco or Sam’s Club, but unlike those warehouse stores, nonmembers can shop there, too.

“Co-ops feel like a third space,” Buranek said. “It’s not just a place to shop. It’s a place to go in your neighborhood, a place to experience community outreach, to do things for your community. It really does bring the community together in a way that grocery store doesn’t.”

Community-owned co-ops, she said, tend to focus on sourcing their products locally, with about a third of every dollar spent going back into circulation in the local economy. Wasatch will work with small-to-midrange farmers, and will look to join forces with Utah restaurateurs and farmers’ markets, she said.

“The thing the co-op provides to a lot of farmers and other producers in the surrounding counties is we aren’t requiring them to show up at 5 o’clock in the morning and stay all day in a stall,” she said. “It’s a full-service market that handles everything else, and so it really allows those farmers and artisans to really get back to what they do best, which is farming or making cheese.”

Though Wasatch Cooperative Market would be Utah’s first co-op grocery store, the state has a history with co-operative marketplaces. The first, formed in 1868 by leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was Zion’s Co-operative Mercantile Institution — or ZCMI, which is often called the country’s first department store. Most ZCMI stores ultimately became part of the company that now operates Macy’s; the famous initials, not used since 2002, are preserved in the facade that now fronts the Macy’s store in downtown Salt Lake City’s City Creek Center.

Plans for Wasatch Cooperative Market started in October 2009, with the first 40 lifetime memberships sold in short order, at $300 each. The cooperative now boasts 809 members, still at that $300 price level.

Finding a permanent location has been a struggle. In spring of 2021, the Wasatch market was in talks with the developers of the former Sears store at State Street and 800 South. Then, in December, Intermountain Healthcare bought that property — with a goal, according to sources, of building a medical center to replace the aging LDS Hospital.

Now the market is trying to work out a deal for the Milk Block.

“We’re hoping that we can put all the numbers together and make sense of it all as far as the timeline and be able to have them be our anchor tenant in that space,” Dang said.

To run those numbers, the board of Wasatch Cooperative Market launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for a feasibility study, to see whether the neighborhood can support a grocery co-op.

Buranek said they just got those numbers back, “and it looks like the data says, ‘Yes, this is a viable location,’ which we’re thrilled about,” she said.

(Utah State Historical Society) O. P. Skaggs Market on 900 South in 1947.

An old grocery space reborn

The next question is whether the building can function as a full-service grocery store in that space. Dang said the building was originally built as a grocery store, the O.P. Skaggs Market, before its second life as the Southeast Market.

It’s important, Dang said, to keep that continuity of use — and to use the infrastructure that’s in place, even though rehabbing a building can be more expensive than tearing it down and building a new one.

“There’s some structural integrity there,” Dang said.

As they began work on the building, Dang said, they discovered wooden bow-truss ceilings, 23 feet high. “It kind of looks like the underbelly of a Viking ship,” she said. That discovery led them to change their plans, she said, to further enhance the building’s look, and “chip off the godawful stucco” on the facade.

“There was also this lovely marquee on the side of the building,” Dang said. “We don’t know if it’s still there, but we hope that it is.”

The plan also calls for seismic retrofitting, and to shrink the building’s footprint by removing 10 feet at the back of the building, to create space for the tenants of Grace Court, the narrow street behind the building.

“We would actually have our own delivery truck lane, so that it frees up congestion for any of the neighbors,” Dang said. ”

Buranek said the market would, if current plans hold, take up a footprint of about 7,500 square feet, a little more than half of the 14,000-square-foot building. (Part of the building is taken up now by a Vietnamese restaurant, Pho 28.)

There would be some new construction in the rehab plans for the Milk Block, Dang said, including a 1,500-square-foot building that would house a new restaurant, and a covered parking garage that will be topped with live/work spaces.

Dang said plans to break ground in earnest should start next June, to dovetail with the 9th Corridor bike lane construction set for May. “There will already be so many disruptions and road closures, we’re hoping to align our construction at the same time to minimize the impact,” she said.

Construction should happen in two phases, Dang said, but if they can get all the permits, they will try to push through so everything can open at the same time.

The goal for the Milk Block, Dang said, “is very much about giving access to local, small businesses.” She and Slieman have been approached by larger, more corporate tenants, she said. “Although the numbers look attractive, we actually turned them down,” she said.

The co-op market’s board, Buranek said, appreciates that Dang and Slieman respect architectural history and the community.

“The space was originally built as a grocery store. So the link and the fact that the Southeast Market was in there, they really want to see that continuity of usage,” Buranek said. “We’ll end up with a really beautiful facility. And [the owners are] all about being community-minded. When we first talked with them and emphasized that as a value as a co-op, they were like, ‘We want you here.’”

(Paul Fraughton | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) The legendary cook Eleanor Kondo Ream looks for ingredients at the Southeast Market in 2003. The space where the marked once sat is being considered as a location for the Wasatch Community Market, a co-op grocery.

Wasatch Community Market is selling lifetime memberships for $300, available online, at wasatch.coop, or by mailing in an application; those forms also are online. The market will hold its annual meeting on Saturday, Nov. 5, at 10 a.m. for current and new members.

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