January 11, 2008

Co-Op shelves empty as closure looms

[img id="80285" align="alignleft"] The Hyde Park Co-Op will close on January 28, after the grocer’s Board of Directors voted seven to one in favor of shutting down the severely indebted grocery late last month. The Co-Op elected to accept the University’s offer to assume the store’s debts and replace the neighborhood’s sole supermarket with a Treasure Island or Dominick’s by mid-February.

The vote by the board came on the tails of a referendum by Co-Op shareholders in which 3,200 ballots were cast in favor of the University’s offer—approximately 61 percent—versus 2,049 votes cast in favor of a proposal to pursue bankruptcy and eventual reorganization.

“We were pleased with the community’s decision and with the Co-Op’s decision,” said Hank Webber, vice president for community and government affairs. “There’s no way to predict these things.”

In one of the most hotly contested issues of the Co-Op’s fate, the grocer’s employees will lose their jobs but will receive accumulated sick and vacation pay.

“All employees will have the opportunity to reapply,” said Webber. “And anyone who is rehired will receive at least an equivalent pay.”

The mood was resigned at the supermarket earlier this week, as customers shopped among bare white walls and employees shared their anxieties about finding work. Many expressed general frustration without targeting any particular party.

“I’m looking for jobs; it’s not going so well,” said Jasper Baisten, a stocker and employee at the Co-Op since 2001. “I’m upset, but there’s nothing to do about it. The management treated us well.”

“It’s not a happy thing,” said one Co-op employee of seven years, who wished to remain anonymous. “Well, I’m looking,” she said with a laugh when queried about her job search, adding that she hoped to apply for a job when the supermarket reopened.

Hyde Park residents will be forced to find new venues for grocery shopping during the interim period between the Co-op’s closure and the opening of the new store, with some considering downtown grocers to be the next best thing.

“I do shopping at Hyde Park Produce and I go into the city to Trader Joe’s probably every two weeks,” said Sarah Micley, a third-year in the College. “I don’t come [to the Co-Op] that often, just stop in to pick up something I need. I think we need another grocer. This place needs revamping—there isn’t a healthy selection and the organic foods are unaffordable.”

Some of the store’s customers waxed nostalgic. “I’m rather sad about all this,” said Marguerite Bookstein, a resident of Hyde Park and Co-Op member since 1969. “I always bought fresh fish here—this is one of the best fish retails stores in the city. At Whole Foods the fish selection is smaller, they stuff the fish for you, [and] they don’t have whole fish. I really liked the Co-Op—they had a lot of ethnic foods and the produce was always fresh.”

Bookstein, who cooks twice a day, seven days a week, said she was excited at first about the prospect of a Treasure Island grocer, but reconsidered when she learned that the new store might not continue the Co-Op’s community traditions, such as the book sale and Christmas tree sale.

“Dominic’s and Treasure Island are very good at tailoring stores to reflect locals needs. This is what the grocery business requires,” said Webber, responding to questions of how the larger chains would integrate into the Hyde Park community.

Although she voted in favor of the University’s proposal, Bookstein said she has since become embarrassed about her choice. “I voted for A because I thought it was a done deal. But then I talked to a less emotionally minded neighbor, and she said, ‘I think we’ve all assumed this was the way things go, but that that didn’t necessarily make it true.’ And I realized she was right. So I’m sorry that I voted the way I did.”

“It sucks,” said Tom McGuin, who has been shopping at the Co-Op for over 40 years. McGuin did not vote, adding, “The choice between the options wasn’t clear, there were parts that were ambiguous. But I hate to see these people lose their jobs.”