I was fresh out of Monterrey, Mexico, and didn't know anybody, so I got a job as a cashier at a grocery store a few blocks from where I lived on the Northside. It was not a glamorous job. I remember once a customer threw a tub of ice cream at me (he missed), because he was frustrated that it didn't ring up at the sale price he thought it should. He was mistaken; the discount was on a different brand. But my manager apologized to the belligerent man, saying "the customer comes first." Then my English was not great, so I had to ask people to speak slower to me. Not everyone had the patience for it. I took solace in knowing the regulars and learning all of the four-digit codes for produce.
In hindsight, I find it interesting that during that time in 2007, when my own grocery store adventures as a cashier came to an end, a group of Eastside neighbors and community leaders were just beginning their adventures in that market. The idea was to open a co-op grocery store in Indianapolis.
Nothing like it had been done in Indy before. "None of us had any experience on how to start a grocery store, but we were willing to put the time in," says Mary Bowling, bookkeeper and one of the founders of Pogue's Run Grocer. Almost four years after that first meeting -- four years ago this month -- Pogue's opened its doors for the first time.
Since then, the colorful grocery at East 10th and Rural has become a pillar of Indianapolis' food community and our only community-owned retail grocery store, with more than nine hundred members (owners) (full-disclosure -- including my husband and me) from all over the city. You don't have to be a member to shop, but if you do "buy-in" you can have direct input on policies and programs at the not-for-profit.
"I think it is great", says Nathan Roberts, General Manager of the store. "A lot of people didn't think a store like this could exist in the area."
With a focus on health food and local products, the co-op found its home in a repurposed previously abandoned appliance store. It's no surprise that the community's commitment to the project also came through in the artistic process of painting the building.
Local graphic designer Todd Decker won the contest to create a mural on the store's east exterior wall. And in the spirit of the co-op itself, the community worked together to assist with the project. Area residents volunteered by pressure-washing the old paint from the wall and then priming it, to providing extension ladders, snacks and their time helping to paint the design after the image had been transferred onto the side of the building.
Just like the bright, bold mural itself, the co-op has taken shape beautifully with everyone's engagement. It has become the pride of the Near Eastside and of the city of Indianapolis. "Given the location and the food culture in our area, people are used to picking up fast food. People don't know how to cook. Eating organic and natural is not as expensive as people think," says Bowling.
A wide variety of the city's favorite local products are sold here, including dairy, dry goods, frozen prepared meals, potato chips, coffee, sodas, beers and wines. It also offers monthly food culture classes. At Pogue's, food education is also important -- you can learn how to make queso fresco and what edible plants you can grow in your garden. "One of the big things is to instill people with skills that inspire creativity in how they prepare food," says Twon Schroeder, the store's produce buyer.
It's true that Pogue's cannot compete with other grocery stores when it comes to prices, but the prices are not what bring me and people from all parts of our city to Pogue's. People come because they want to support their local food communities. "We carry stuff from three small urban farms, and that has direct impact on our neighborhood and city," says Schroeder. Pogue's also features non-edible products, such as personal hygiene and cleaning products made by locals.
Bowling believes that if Pogue's continues to be sustainable, in the future we can have more stores like it in other locations throughout the city. I'd like to think that the future of our city looks like Pogue's: owned by all of us; controlled in a democratic way; built on solidarity and equity; concerned with education and the well-being of the community and designed by our own artists. A less consumerist and gentler capitalist model that prioritizes process and quality, gives Near Eastsiders a better chance for economic sustainability, as the area has had major grocery chains come and go, turning the area into what has been deemed a "food desert."
Supporting local businesses is not Pogue's only contribution to our cultural landscape. Its co-op philosophy enriches our cultural landscape by challenging how we understand consuming -- in Pogue's business model everyone comes first, making it easy to add caring for our community to our shopping list.
You can join Pogue's in celebrating four years on East 10th St. on Jan. 17, 11 a.m.- 3 p.m. It will offer free samples, door prizes and entertainment.