In 1972, Lexington ate differently.
The idea of getting your food out of bins seemed strange in a society where such practices harked back to dusty old-time general stores. The idea of becoming a part-owner of a grocery cooperative was like wearing a George McGovern T-shirt to a Richard Nixon rally.
Nobody knew much about quinoa or minimal processing or the idea of eating food grown close to home, and eating carob rather than chocolate marked you as a strange, probably granola-crunching bird.
Into this environment Good Foods Co-op was born, its members meeting in living rooms to divide bulk shipments. The co-op's first formal store was on Mill Street; followed by one on Ashland Avenue, where members had to scrub oil off the floor of the former auto service garage before moving in; then Short Street and Woodhill Shopping Center, before it landed in 1986 in the first of two sites on Southland Drive.
Owning their store
When she moved to Lexington in 1977, Claire Carpenter became a co-op member.
"A food co-op was one of the things I was going to track down, to find a social community of like-minded folks," she said.
Carpenter did even better than that: She met her husband when they served on a co-op planning committee.
As she became more involved, "I became more interested in the idea of whole foods, natural foods, foods that were minimally processed."
The co-op operates differently from a buyer's club such as Sam's Club, where members pay an annual fee and are allowed to shop for discounted items.
At Good Foods, "owners" pay a one-time refundable $200 "investment." In return, there are owner discount days, a discount on their first purchases, discounts for buying by the case, reduced tuition on classes, discounts at local businesses and a vote on co-op initiatives. It's like buying stock with benefits.
Over the years, Carpenter has gone from being a supermarket shopper who bought incidentals at Good Foods to a shopper who buys mostly at Good Foods, getting only a few items elsewhere.
Good Foods has always thought outside the mainstream grocery store aisle. The chances it has taken — including locating on Southland Drive and hiring a general manager who started her co-op career in Phoenix but had no broad managerial experience — have helped Good Foods become a Lexington tradition.
"I had only managed two people in my whole life and I couldn't read a financial statement," said Anne Hopkins, the store's general manager for 21 years. Her first food co-op was called the Food Conspiracy in Phoenix, where she cut cheese.
Celebrating 40 years
Forty years later, the grocery marketplace is more crowded and specialized.
At Good Foods, in addition to organic produce and items for special dietary needs, there is a popular café that features a hot bar, where a daily feature is the tangy, signature Good Foods kale. A vegan version of corned beef and cabbage was offered last week for St. Patrick's Day.
The co-op also has a dietitian on staff, and it offers store tours and classes on healthy eating, tastings and a kids club featuring free organic produce.
The organization aims for 10 percent growth in sales each year, Hopkins said.
It recently signed up its 6,000th owner, and it operates out of a 12,000-square-foot space.
That's not comparable to the 125,000-square-foot megastores that Kroger operates in Beaumont Centre and on Richmond Road, but Good Foods does not sell furniture, small appliances or jewelry.
"Competition makes us better, and it makes us stronger, more agile," said Danielle Dove, marketing manager.
Because the co-op is owned by a group, Dove said, it gets more immediate feedback from its members about what they want and does not have to go through a corporate bureaucracy.
The store responded when its owners wanted a bigger meat selection, more beer, additional seating in the café and a better bakery, Hopkins said.
"That's what we go after. It's more than just sales for sales' sake," she said.
Growth is good
Hilary Baumann runs Fascination Design, a graphic design business, and is president of the Southland Association community group. She remembers visiting her grandmother's house nearby when the co-op "used to be a little tiny shop."
"And then it moved to the end (of a strip of stores on Southland Drive), and they started growing and growing and growing."
She said Good Foods is not only a draw to the Southland Drive retail corridor but a good corporate citizen, using its members' suggestions to give small donations to area organizations.
When people visit Southland Drive, Baumann said, "They'll go to the co-op, the farmers market during the summer, then to Winchell's or Crossroads or maybe The Ketch."
The added traffic isn't just from Lexington, she said.
"I know people who are from Versailles who drive in from Lexington to shop there," Baumann said. "I have seen people at the checkout who say, 'This is our one-month trip.'"
Barry Zalph comes from Louisville to shop at Good Foods. His wife's late parents lived in Lexington, so he got in the habit of shopping there after losing his Louisville co-op.
"Good Foods is particularly well run and has been over the years," he said. "... We don't buy much in the way of prepared foods, other than some good organic dark chocolate, but really most of our foods come from Good Foods."
Zalph buys extra-firm tofu, flour soy milk, preserves, peanut butter, herbs and other staples at the co-op, he said.
In addition to a wide variety of organic produce and food items, Good Foods supports products made in Kentucky by more than 250 area producers and farmers, said Dove, the marketing manager.
The co-op bought almost $1 million in wholesale goods from local producers in 2011 — from soap to eggs — and its customers pay enough to give those producers a living wage, Hopkins said.
"They're willing to pay what needs to be paid to keep farmers on the farm," she said.
And as Carpenter noted, customers are now able to shop in all grocery categories at Good Foods.
"We've got a co-op mall going here," Hopkins said. "There's so much market in Lexington. We haven't even tapped it."