‘In it for the long haul’: Prairie Food Co-op gets ready to build Lombard grocery store

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the definition of locally-sourced products.

The produce section will go in the front, frozen meat in the back and dry goods in the center aisles.

But this will be no ordinary grocery store.

DuPage County’s first community-owned, full-service grocery store is finally becoming a reality.

Prairie Food Co-op hopes to move forward with construction of its flagship grocery store in a Lombard shopping center as early as next month.

It’s a milestone some 12 years in the making. Along the way, a legion of volunteers raised funds, commissioned market studies, held countless meetings and educated people, wherever they could, about what a co-op is and what it is not.

“It’ll be so nice to walk into the store,” said Kathy Nash, who with her husband, Jerry, co-founded Prairie Food. “It's going to have such a different feel, and we’re working really hard to make it feel special and unique.”

As the Nashes make clear, getting the store up and running is only the beginning. Prairie Food aims to become a one-stop shop for customers, a vibrant place that will revitalize the Eastgate Shopping Center.

A rendering shows the proposed exterior of Prairie Food Co-op’s grocery store in Lombard. Courtesy of 845 Design Group

But here’s the key: Prairie Food has more than 1,800 owners and counting. Each ownership share costs $200 per household.

“That’s the beauty of the cooperative business model, in my opinion, because we’re not operating to make a profit for anybody,” Kathy Nash said. “We literally, by law, have to either take the profits to increase the services that the store offers or give it back to owners as dividends.”

And while owners will get certain perks, anyone will be welcome to shop in the store — an alternative to large, cookie-cutter chain grocers.

“There’s no incentive to send our money outside of Lombard,” Kathy Nash explained. “And that’s why co-ops are such powerful economic generators, because the money really does stay local.”

On top of that, Prairie Food customers will be supporting local farmers.

Prairie Food takes root

When the couple lived downstate, Kathy Nash shopped at Urbana’s Common Ground, a cooperatively-run grocery store stocked with locally sourced, organic foods.

“I really loved shopping there,” she said. “You got to meet the farmers, the food was mostly all local, and you just felt good about where your dollars were going.”

The family moved to Lombard in 2009 and assumed there would be a thriving co-op scene in the Chicago area. In reality, there was no suburban version of Common Ground at the time.

“We complained about it for a few years, but then we just finally decided to do it,” Jerry Nash said.

Undeterred, the couple started its own co-op movement close to home.

“You've got to have the patience to do it right. We’ve seen other co-ops want to take shortcuts and want to do it quick, and doing it quick just won’t get your doors open,” Jerry Nash said. “You’ve got to really be in it for the long haul.”

The couple is well-suited for the project. She’s a systems engineer.

“It comes very naturally to me to do things in a methodical fashion,” Kathy Nash said.

Her husband is the more creative one, in charge of Prairie Food outreach. That sometimes means dispelling the misconception that they’re opening a health food store for Birkenstock types.

“The past few years, actually, we’re seeing people finally understand that Prairie Food Co-op is made of people who are serious, who followed a plan, and aren't just some idealistic hippies who mean well, but don’t know what we’re doing,” Jerry Nash said.

Prairie Food is made up of owners from Lombard, Glen Ellyn, Downers Grove, Villa Park and communities in between. Co-ops also are democratically organized: Owners elect a board of directors to oversee operations and finances. After a nationwide search, Prairie Food found its general manager — its most important hire — in August.

“We just want to provide as many people with as much locally produced, sustainably produced food as possible,” Jerry Nash said during an annual owners meeting last April.

Prairie Food clearly defines locally sourced as within a 200-mile radius of the store, but would also include all of Illinois. Co-op events have featured food from Rustic Road Farm in Elburn and Jake’s Country Meats in southwest Michigan.

“Not everything will be local,” Kathy Nash said. “People still want to buy citrus and bananas all year round.”

Co-op structure

Prairie Food will have an assortment of products, a grab-and-go section and real people working the checkout lanes. A sit-down cafe will be a spot to have a cup of coffee or attend a class. Over the years, even before securing a space of its own, Prairie Food has held workshops on canning vegetables, meal planning and backyard chicken raising.

“A big part of co-ops too is engagement with our community,” Jerry Nash said.

The co-op has to manage expectations — and supply chain issues — but the Nashes are optimistic the store could open later this year in the Eastgate Shopping Center.

“We still need to make a profit,” Jerry Nash said in the owners meeting. “We still need to compete with all of our local conventional grocery stores.”

  Co-founders Jerry and Kathy Nash tour the Prairie Food Co-op shopping center space in Lombard. The layout of the store will look a lot like a conventional grocer, but it will be focused on local, organic and sustainably grown food. Brian Hill/

Prairie Food estimates the cost of opening the store, including staffing and equipment, at around $4 million. The co-op has been awarded an $807,000 state grant and a $750,000 federal grant, totaling $1.56 million, to help make it happen.

“We had a capital investment program where owners could make a loan to the co-op or buy what’s called preferred shares, which has a payback period with interest,” Kathy Nash said. The “community itself has invested over $1 million, and then we have a bank loan that’s in underwriting right now that will be for another $1 million.”

The store will have boatloads of parking, visibility from Westmore-Meyers Road and ample room for outdoor seating and bike racks. The shopping center space totals 7,860 square feet, of which about 75% is retail. Even better, it’s located next to another type of co-op: Ace Hardware.

Though they don’t have the buying power of a major grocer, food co-ops artificially can lower prices on bread and other staples, but put higher prices on beauty products. Prairie Food also is mindful of its pricing strategy.

“How do we introduce local, sustainable, organic foods to people at a price point that is acceptable, but also educate people … if we’re serious about sustainability and ethical animal treatment, we do have to pay a little bit more because it costs a lot more to do things that way,” Kathy Nash said.

The co-op also purposely chose a Midwestern, not a Lombardian, name. The Nashes hope to see “more Prairie Food Co-ops down the road.”

“Once people see how special this store is, there will probably be more outreach from people to try to get one of these in other communities,” Kathy Nash said. “My personal goal is to just have this expand.”

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.