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Despite the odds, Durango Natural Foods turns 50 years old in March

Even through tough times, the store has been about community
Shoppers check out at Durango Natural Foods cooperative in 2000. The co-op will turn 50 years old in March. (Courtesy of Durango Natural Foods Co-op)

It takes a village.

That’s the mentality of Durango Natural Foods cooperative employees.

The co-op started in 1974 in a 300-square-foot room in the 700 block of Main Avenue. DNF operated on an all-volunteer basis to bring fresh organic goods to Durango, using an old fishing tackle box as a cash register.

A few years later, the co-op would move to a slightly bigger location in an alley near Seventh Street and East Second Avenue. After experiencing growing interest, the co-op made one final location change to its current spot at 575 East Eighth Ave.

“Many of the founding owners are still active in the co-op, and over time our ownership has continued to grow,” said Marketing Manager Ryan Waldman. “Currently, more than 2,000 families and individuals share ownership of the co-op.”

On March 29, the food co-op will celebrate its 50th birthday.

Durango Natural Foods in 2023 at the corner of College Drive and East Eighth Avenue in Durango. In 1973, the store opened in a small unit in the 700 block of Main Avenue. (Courtesy of Durango Natural Foods Co-op)

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the grocery store, known for its rainbow-colored exterior in South Durango.

In 2019, the store was on the brink of shutting down. In 2018, it was reported that sales dropped 18% and staff members attributed the slide to the 416 Fire and construction at the time, but sales continued to fall.

Former board member and DNF volunteer Jules Masterjohn said is was a rough period for the co-op. Poor financial management led to substantial debt, and board members were forced to terminate the general manager at the time.

The debt amounted to $150,000 to vendors, $213,500 in mortgage debt and a $70,000 line of credit. The co-op’s financial problems were also heavily exacerbated at the time because of the emergence of Natural Grocers at 1123 Camino del Rio.

“It became clear that our expenses were outstripping our income,” Masterjohn said. “In other words, we couldn’t drive enough people to come to the co-op.”

This led Masterjohn to take over as general manager for about three months. She and the rest of the DNF team began working closely with the National Co-op Grocers Association to get the nonprofit’s margins organized.

Members of the NCGA advised that Durango Natural Foods also hire an interim general manager. That led to the hiring of Lucinda Berdon, who Masterjohn credits much of the co-op’s revival to. Masterjohn would resign after training Berdon but remains a regular shopper at the co-op.

A Durango Natural Foods Co-op employee stocks shelves in 2000. (Courtesy of Durango Natural Foods Co-op)

Because the co-op was buried in debt, a vote was scheduled to decide whether to shutter operations.

Through a stroke of good faith, one member lent the co-op $75,000 to keep it going. The vote on whether to close the store was then canceled.

And as 2019 progressed, the store started to recover and now appears to be as strong as ever.

Masterjohn said the co-op has been important for the community, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said the pandemic changed the way people looked at going into certain businesses.

“I think people felt a little safer in there,” she said. “These are just my opinions, but I believe the pandemic was a positive thing for the co-op.”

DNF was one of the first grocery stores in Durango to offer grocery pickup services to help people socially distance.

“I think that also really helped people believe in Durango Natural Foods,” Masterjohn said.

Today, the co-op is considered by some to be representative of Durango’s culture with a dedication to environmental sustainability, support for local growers and collaboration with community nonprofits.

Recently, DNF has been involved with Four Corners Slow Money, a nonprofit that offers 0% interest loans to agricultural industry workers.

Since late 2019, the organization has granted $101,910 to 12 local farmers and food entrepreneurs. When customers shop at DNF, they are given the option to round up their final purchase to donate to the cause.

“In order to have a formidable business model with sales, you need a loan to get there,” Waldman said.

Masterjohn said the concept of a co-op is rooted in democracy, and that is the reason it is important to the community.

All of DNF’s profits go back into the grocery store. Waldman said many of the goods at the co-op are grown at small farms.

Durango Natural Foods Co-op is seen in 1998, before the building was painted. (Courtesy of Durango Natural Foods Co-op)

“The co-op gets to serve as sort of an incubator, which is something that we talk about all the time and I feel wildly passionate about,” he said.

Even though the co-op was looking down the barrel of a potential closure in 2019, it has rebounded and now has close to 2,200 member owners.

For many, the co-op has become a grocery hub for the neighborhoods near East Eighth Avenue. Waldman credits the co-op’s resurgence to the community and co-op members.

“It’s a really special thing,” Waldman said. “If I was going to credit it to anything, I would say it’s community resilience. It’s the staff’s ability to hunker down and find the passion.”

The store will host a birthday party event March 29 to commemorate its long history.


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