Davis Street Co-op takes a fresh approach to local food

Nathalie Tadena and Nathalie Tadena

Evanston’s Wild Tree Cafe will further its philosophy of “Profit, People and Planet” this fall with the opening of a new food co-op, an indoor market where customers can buy locally grown food in bulk. The three-and-a-half-year-old cafe, on 1100 Davis St., attracts local residents with its colorfully decorated interior, healthy food options and community outreach programs. “It’s a comfortable environment, it’s unique and a nice place to spend time – that’s what drew me personally to this place two years ago before I started working here,” said manager Gregory Bourgen. The cafe’s menu is composed of mostly homemade food that is not pre-packaged or processed, he said. Though the food is not specifically vegan or vegetarian, he said the menu provides flexibility and alternatives for customers who may have a dietary need or preference. While sandwiches, salads and smoothies are made fresh on site, the staff works with local vendors from the Chicagoland area to obtain products like bagels, coffee and baked goods. Quesadillas with a black-bean spread, soups and the signature Wild Tree sandwich, made with hummus and vegetables, are among the cafe’s most popular offerings.The store is also heavily involved in giving back to community organizations. The Wild Tree Cafe runs a non-profit program, Food from the Heart, with the Heartwood Center to help low-income women with cancer maintain a healthier diet. The cafe also raises money for a Tibetan girls school and works with groups like the Evanston Food Policy Council and the Talking Farm. “Local produce and food security and urban agriculture are all part of growing a self-sufficient local economy and mutually supportive local economy,” Bourgen said of the cafe’s outreach efforts.After hours, the cafe is the site of several creative arts classes taught by local artists and healing practitioners. Bourgen said the staff try to “keep things constantly evolving” and think of new ideas and projects for the cafe to better accommodate customers.”Business has been steady, which actually works out okay – we don’t want to be crazy, we want to be doing something well,” he said. “At the same time, we have to recognize that the economic climate maybe has made people a little more selective with spending. The people we’re used to seeing all the time might come in once a week or less often or might not buy a specialty drink as opposed to just a coffee or tea.” The cafe’s latest project, the Davis Street Food Co-op, will begin this fall and will run all year if it’s successful. Two to three nights a week after the cafe closes, the space will be open for a small marketplace, known as a co-op, where local area farmers will sell dry bulk goods, such as grains, pasta and rice, on the cheap.

One of the co-op’s organizers, SESP junior Emmaline Pohnl, said she formulated an idea for a food co-op while working as a summer employee at the cafe. “The only sort of local food options we had here in Evanston are Whole Foods and the farmers’ market, which ends in the winter,” said Pohnl, who is working on the program with cafe owner Ivy Boyer. “A lot of people came into the cafe thinking we are more local business and asked if it would be possible to have more locally grown food overall.” The project would help residents buy food in a more responsible way, Bourgen said. “The co-op can provide a local economic stimulus to provide a market for local farmers so they don’t have to ship things all over,” he said. “It builds local economic vitality through this sort of activity, and this (is) something the cafe can benefit from – the local products we hope to bring in from the co-op we’ll stock ourselves at the cafe and supplement our traditional producers.”In the future, Pohnl said she would like the co-op to accommodate fresh produce when the cafe has enough capacity to store vegetables and fruits. The co-op may also be able to provide local cheese and eggs from area farmers. The organizers held two informational meetings earlier this month for community members interested in participating in the project. “There is a sense of support and collaboration that lifts the whole group, creating a stronger community,” Pohnl said. “Within Evanston, this type of strong community network would be a wonderful addition to the city and encourage greater change to occur, both on environmental matters and also social justice concerns.”[email protected]