For the past 11 years, the Dorchester community has patiently awaited the opening of a neighborhood food cooperative. This summer, the wait will be over, according to John Santos, the general manager of the Dorchester Food Co-Op at 195 Bowdoin Street, soon to be operating as Boston’s only community and worker-owned grocery store.
The facility’s goal is to challenge the traditional food system by nourishing, employing, and reinvesting in the neighborhood. The store will offer produce, pantry staples, household goods, and prepared foods while supporting local farmers and producers. In addition to aisles full of healthy items, the co-op will offer memberships, community spaces, outdoor seating, a living wall, and a cafe.
Santos joined the co-op last November as its general manager. A native of Guam, he grew up on the East Coast, and currently lives in Providence. He boasts of more than 45 years of experience in the food industry, most recently with the Urban Greens Co-Op Market in Rhode Island, which became popular in 2019 when the pandemic took a toll on regular grocery stores, as supermarkets could not depend on their warehouses.
But the co-op did not rely on these distribution systems. Instead, Santos used his pickup truck to gather goods from multiple sources, which allowed the co-op to keep its shelves stocked.
As the Providence co-op succeeded during Covid time, individuals in Dorchester were looking to start a business in the neighborhood. After hiring an architectural firm to design their site, they visited the Providence location.
“They came down and saw our operation and then they interviewed me. I talked to the architect about how to use the space more efficiently and how to set up the aisles and different systems that were unfamiliar to a co-op, but I had seen in my career elsewhere,” said Santos, who has worked for supermarkets such as Whole Foods and Tropical Foods in Roxbury.
In 2022, he had decided to step away from Urban Greens and when he was again approached by the Dorchester team, he was persuaded to take on the project in Boston.
“This is a very, very aggressive board, they have been super active in raising money and raising awareness about the co-op,” said Santos. “These are people that were completely dedicated to bringing good food into this community and the opportunity to be an owner in a local business.”
While Santos has held management positions for the last 30 years, running a co-op is much different from a normal store, he says. “I’ve been the general manager for four non-co-op retail supermarkets. And, my responsibility is sales, profitability, and staff management. It’s pretty much limited to that in a regular environment. In a co-op environment, you’re wearing a different hat. You’re not only doing those things but you also have a much greater commitment to the local community” – like ensuring that staff comes from the neighborhood and represents the diverse population of Dorchester. Workers speak Haitian Creole, Portuguese, French, Spanish, Somali, English, and more all of which are displayed both in and outside of the store.”
While many things have gone well for the co-op thus far, challenges continue to delay the grand opening. “We’ve got some construction issues in the supply chain for electrical components to power the facility. There’s a real possibility we’re looking at August as an opening rather than the end of July,” Santos said in an interview with the Reporter.
Even though the site has not officially opened there are already over 1,500 members, a number, says treasurer Jenny Silverman, that is instrumental to the store’s success.
“One of the things that’s really important to do is to gauge community support and start finding members of the co-op, so that’s what we did. We were able to sell our memberships, which is a single-time $100 fee, and that buys an equity share of the co-op,” said Silverman.”
Silverman has lived in Dorchester for more than 40 years and has played a role in the establishment of the store. She noted that residents had the idea to create a co-op space years ago because they often had to leave the community to find healthy and affordable food. This meant that people without proper transportation had to settle for whatever they found nearby.
“We deserve to have a beautiful store here in our community,” said Silverman. “It’s important to spend our money here rather than spending in places where the money is flowing outside of the community.”
In addition to money being reinvested into Dorchester, Silverman hopes the store will have a positive impact on the health and well-being of Bostonians in the long run.
Sarah Assefa, another board member, wants the same. She lives in Dorchester and is a coalition organizer at the Coalition for Worker Ownership Power. While her work with the Dorchester Food Co-Op is entirely on a volunteer basis, she sees the business model as transformative. “Too often food is done as a business and profit, but this is for the people,” she said.
Assefa believes that food is a form of medicine, and that people are what they eat, therefore they should eat high-quality local food. She is pleased by her community’s ability to come together to solve the issue of food accessibility and is especially thankful for Santos’s knowledge and experience.
Santos likewise takes pride in working for an organization that is owned by the community and reflects its values. “I’m grateful,” he said. “I’m 62 years old so I don’t know how much more time I’m going to be doing this thing, but I get to bring everything I’ve learned to Dorchester.”