October 7, 2008

College grads open new produce store

[img id="80789" align="alignleft"] From Javascript to java beans, from Cauchy’s theorems to Kashi cereal, a pair of U of C graduates have left behind their math books and taken on the world of groceries.

Andrew Cone (A.B. ’06) and Steven Lucy (A.B. ’06) recently launched their new grocery store, Open Produce, on East 55th Street and South Cornell Avenue, where they’re supplying Hyde Parkers with fresh fruit, vegetables, and ideas.

Just a few months ago, it was hard to guess that for Cone and Lucy, the future held groceries. Cone, who has a degree in mathematics and computer science, worked as a computer programmer and at a hedge fund before leaving his desk job. Lucy received a degree in mathematics and history of science and worked as a freelance web designer and information technology consultant in San Francisco before returning to Hyde Park. Dissatisfied with their jobs in computers and finance, the two decided that they wanted to create something, meet people, and see their work result in a concrete end-product.

But competition is stiff in Hyde Park, and grocery options in the neighborhood have expanded in recent months. Hyde Park Produce founded a new location on East 53rd Street and South Kimbark Avenue, and Treasure Island opened a new store in place of the Hyde Park Co-op. The grocery business stands only to get touchier with the specialty grocery store Zaleski & Horvath MarketCafé slated to open soon on East 47th Street.

But Cone and Lucy remain confident that they can carve a niche for Open Produce amid Hyde Park’s burgeoning grocery scene by offering a unique shopping experience for their patrons. As customers choose between price and sustainability, location and organic offerings, Open Produce’s proprietors hope to offer an answer: fairly priced, healthy, organic offerings for all Hyde Park residents. Even with a growing number of grocery offerings in Hyde Park, most shoppers prioritize shopping at a convenient location within a quarter of a mile of their homes, Cone said. He hopes to attract Shoreland and Broadview residents on their way to and from campus as well as use his unique mission to appeal to buyers.

“People need to be made aware of the origins and nature of what they’re buying at the time of purchase,” Cone said. “When the effects of people’s actions are transparent, this is what I believe empowers people to act morally and to act correctly.”

They hope to create a more transparent operation than conventional grocery stores. That is, they will display wholesale prices as well as the price at which they sell goods and where the item comes from. Open Produce displays both wholesale and retail prices. The wholesale price of a jar of guava jelly, $1.98, is listed above its retail price of $3.00. The store also offers unusual treats: “coffee made by hippies” and “chocolate made by Catholics.” Cone and Lucy also regularly post photographs of their trips to wholesale markets on the Open Produce blog.

Open Produce also sells its produce by the item, as opposed to the conventional method of selling produce by the pound. Cone pointed out that few people know how much a banana weighs. Open Produce’s organic, free trade bananas cost 35 cents each, or about 83 cents a pound—a price tag that promises stiff competition for Treasure Island’s $1.19-a-pound organic bananas or even its 79-cents-a-pound conventional bananas.

Bananas are one of a number of foods that Open Produce supplies specifically to appeal to college students. Many of the store’s fresh foods and packaged items are easy to eat on the go or without a kitchen and exotic candies displayed near the register are designed to attract curious students. Cone and Lucy hope to use their familiarity with the lifestyle of U of C students to reel in customers.

A vegan who is dedicated to animal rights and environmental concerns, Cone said that he is not interested in the upscale, gourmet products sold at many organic and locally grown produce stores and boutiques.

“They’re not trying to change the world. They’re trying to change the way rich people eat,” Cone said.