By Alexander Germanis
Most people are old enough to remember a time in America where main streets in towns and small cities were lined with stores and other businesses owned and operated by the citizens of those communities.
Due to mass market retailers, online juggernauts, and increased globalization, those main streets have become miniature ghost towns. Most mom-and-pop establishments have been forced to fold, leaving consumers with fewer ways in which to support their local economy on a retail level.
But there are some who dare to stand up to the looming extinction of “Main Street USA.” In Bloomington/Normal, the local food-focused cooperative known as Green Top Grocery dares.
Planted in Native Soil
In 2011, Elaine Sebald, coordinator of the Bloomington Farmers’ Market, had grown empathetically despondent from what she had been witnessing. “Elaine had seen new farmers arrive at the market, bursting with enthusiasm, and within a year or two be defunct,” Melanie Shellito, co-founder of Green Top Grocery, recounts. “Our local farmers almost universally struggle to farm and pay their mortgages, health insurance, etc., and most have a spouse (or themselves) that work a 9–5 in addition to farming, simply so they can make ends meet.”
Elaine met with Melanie, Melanie’s sister Jerica Etheridge, and friend/former farmer Mercy Davison to discuss the viability of the year-round, seven-days-a-week farmers’ market that would become Green Top.
Admittedly unschooled on the concept of a co-op, Melanie and Jerica followed Elaine and Mercy’s leads, attended conferences for co-op organizers, held public information meetings, educated the public, raised awareness of both what local farmers had to endure and the need to strengthen the local economy and infrastructure.
Their dream of a democratically-run, locally-owned grocery store offering local products and healthier food options had almost come to fruition.
“We then held a capital campaign and raised over $ 1.3 million in personal loans from owners of the (not yet existing) co-op,” Melanie shares, “which was the largest amount ever raised by a startup. So, while those five years of organizing were some of the hardest volunteer work I’ve ever done, it was also the most rewarding. We struggled, cried, and celebrated alongside people who I now count as friends, because of the co-op.”
In 2017, Green Top Grocery finally opened for business.
Of, In, From, and For the Community
Any business usually has its growing pains, but one not backed by a massive corporation and also facing considerable competition can truly struggle. Green Top has been fighting an uphill battle since its beginning.
But new General Manager Jackie Pope-Ganser is so passionate about this community, when she was asked by the Green Top’s board in December 2022 to lead the store, she didn’t just see it as a challenge, she considered it her duty to a community which she has called home for the last 35 years.
After being a co-owner of the Garlic Press and filling four directorship roles—including the executive director—in senior living homes in town, Jackie understands the importance of community to the people of Bloomington-Normal.
“Bloomington-Normal is the biggest small town I’ve ever lived in,” she says, citing the community connections as what she really respects. “The small businesses, the farmers, the entrepreneurs—all of these people doing creative, amazing things all without having the corporate background is really inspiring.”
Jackie has funneled that respect and inspiration into her passion to help Green Top Grocery fulfill its purpose. “I have great belief in the need for Green Top to exist in this community,” she declares. “It’s an outlet for 76 local farmers; cheese makers; bread makers; livestock farmers; breweries; health, wellness, and body care products; people who raise chickens; and people who make butter and milk. We are selling products for people who don’t have other opportunities or the finances to sell from a brick and mortar.”
“There’s a lot of work ahead at Green Top Grocery and Jackie’s a realist about that,” Melanie says, “but she has also told me on multiple occasions: ‘I did not come here to fail.’ That level of commitment to the values of this store that this community built—that’s the kind of leadership that can make all the difference. The whole energy in the store is different just in the few short months Jackie’s been at the helm. I can’t wait to see what she’s able to accomplish!”
Everyone is welcome at Green Top. Whether it’s from a desire to support local farmers and food producers, to have access to a wider variety of healthy, organic foods, or to contribute to a business that prioritizes the welfare of its community over profit, there’s a good reason for anyone to visit.
Even those who don’t like to cook but also want to eat healthily have a solution in Green Top Grocery. “We have a fantastic deli; ninety percent of our food is from scratch,” Jackie states. “We also compost as much as we can, recycle everything we can. We are consciously aware of how we’re leaving the planet.”
That concern for the world outside of the store extends to the Round-Up at the Register program in which Green Top participates. In the 2022 fiscal year, the pennies and nickels contributed by owners and customers resulted in $22,000 for not-for-profits in the community.
Those not-for-profits are voted on and chosen on a monthly rotational basis by the now 2,450 owner-members of Green Top. This is further proof that at the end of the day, the consumer always makes important decisions for the community, as Jackie says. “So, why not be in a community of like-minded consumers?”
Becoming an owner/member of Green Top entails more than voting on donations. “First and foremost, you’re contributing to something that you want to be around for a long time,” Jackie adds. “You have a voice in who is helping guide the co-op from the board perspective. Every owner has voting rights.”
Plus, for a one-time $200 purchase of two shares in the co-op, an owner also enjoys weekly owner deals and owner-appreciation days three or four times per year.
Ultimately, being a part of the community is what the cooperative is: a business owned, operated by, financed by, and enjoyed by the community in which it operates. “When you have ownership in something as vital as where you’re getting your food—to be a part of that on a community level is so special,” Jackie says. “Food ties people together. When you think about your heritage or culture, there are always stories we share tied to food. We want to be a place where all that can come together.”
Honored with the nationally renowned 2019 Start-up of the Year Award, Green Top Grocery will always strive to support the people who, in turn, have inspired its inception. “We support people who want to use the land responsibly, who do the work generations before them,” Jackie asserts. “To be part of something where you celebrate those efforts together is really purposeful and it really is what drives me.”
Secret No Longer
As many residents have fled from Illinois over the last several years, Bloomington-Normal has instead grown. Thanks to what Jackie refers to as “insulators” like State Farm, Country Financial, the universities, and now Rivian, there is not only an influx of new people calling the area home, but there is also a regular turnover of temporary residents.
With so many new people residing here, Jackie and the many owners of Green Top Grocery are ever more focused on not only keeping their co-op operating but they are dedicated to seeing it thrive, as well.
On May 5th, Green Top Grocery celebrates its sixth year of operation. “We have an amazing rejuvenation right now,” Jackie says. “We’re on a big push to get our name back out there, help people learn who we are, where we are, and to no longer be the best-kept secret in town.”
Green Top Grocery is located at the heart of Bloomington, Illinois, at 921 East Washington Street. If you are interested in becoming a member of this community-based, community-built cooperative, please stop in, give them a call at (309) 306-1523, or visit them online at www.greentopgrocery.com.