Early Collective Stores and Distributors

Historical Essay

by John Curl, Part Three of an excerpt from a longer essay “Food for People, Not for Profit: The Attack on the Bay Area People’s Food System and the Minneapolis Co-op War: Crisis in the Food Revolution of the 1970s”

The Food Conspiracy was not the only place to get organic produce in Berkeley in the early 1970s.There were also three collective stores, Westbrae, Ma Revolution, and Wholly Foods. Like almost all counter-institutions, they began with a small number of people, visionaries or social entrepreneurs, who drew a larger group around them. In the early period, the three stores interacted a lot and shared resources at times. There was enough space between them, so they served different neighborhoods. Of the three stores, Ma Revolution was the most political in terms of connections with the broader movement for social justice. The other two stores primarily promoted natural and organic foods, while making a living for the workers. Westbrae and Ma Revolution also spun off what were probably the two earliest natural foods wholesale and distribution companies on the West Coast.(13)

Westbrae Natural Foods store on Gilman Street was started by Bob Gerner and Kristin Brun in 1970. The early store ran as a collective, experimenting with democratic work and decision-making structures. However, after a while the collective structure didn’t work for them, and they reverted to a partnership, which they had been legally all along. Westbrae natural foods wholesale and distribution company spun off early in their history.(14)

Berkeley Natural Foods.jpg

Berkeley Natural Foods was the successor to Westbrae Natural Foods, also founded by Bob Gerner, this one in 1981.

Wholly Foods was at the corner of Shattuck and Ashby. It was more of a hippie store than the others, according to legend started with money from pot sales, had no notable politics beyond those of natural and organic foods, and lasted the shortest time.

Ma Revolution Natural Foods was started in 1971 by Aaron Michael Kruger and Kathleen Fusek. They began by selling natural foods (as they were defined then) and their own brand of carrot and orange juices in a tiny space on Telegraph Avenue, then moved across the street into a larger storefront at 2525 Telegraph. A collective in concept from the beginning, by the time the new store opened they had at least a dozen members. Their mission statement was simple: “Food for people, not for profit.” That became the mission statement of the People’s Food System as well.

Kruger was also a founder in 1971 of Altdisco (Alternative Distributing Company), along with Paul Stone and Ken Hammermesh. Altdisco was a pioneer in the growing natural foods wholesale industry, and operated as a collective throughout its history, although legally a partnership. They moved foods north from the Los Angeles and San Diego regions to the Bay Area and on to Portland and Seattle, doing drop shipping to small food stores all along those routes. Always undercapitalized and hanging on by its teeth, Altdisco suffered from some risky business decisions and went bankrupt in 1975-’76. But at that time Ma Revolution was flourishing and had joined the Bay Area People’s Food System.

While no corporate supermarket stocked organic produce, the old Berkeley Co-op supermarkets began carrying it in 1970. Organized on the Rochdale system, Consumers Cooperative of Berkeley, with several stores, had been a pioneer in nutritional education and food activism ever since its founding in the 1930s. In 1971, they opened a specialty Natural Foods Co-op on University Avenue, which featured “organically grown foods, diet specialties, salt-free products, natural beauty aids, certified raw milk, natural cheeses, fertile eggs, [and] bulk products.”(15)

Other food-related collective businesses were located in Berkeley. Collective enterprises doing food service were the Swallow Restaurant Café (located in the University of California art museum), the Juice Bar, and the Brick Hut. The Cheese Board, a retail specialty cheese shop, founded in 1967 by Elizabeth and Sahag Avedisian, became a worker cooperative in 1971 when they and their six employees converted it by distributing equal shares in the business among all the workers and equalizing wages.(16)

The Natural and Organic Food Movement

“The social lesson of soil waste is that no man has the right to destroy soil.”
— FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace (17)

The modern natural and organic food movement goes back much further than the 1970s. Farmers since time immemorial have used organic methods. The New Deal promoted farming techniques that we would call organic today. The 1938 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture, entitled Soils and Men is a manual on organic farming still in use today. Meanwhile, British scientist Albert Howard was investigating the management of soil fertility through composting and demonstrated the connection between healthy soil and plants’ ability to fight off pests and diseases in An Agricultural Testament (1940). During World War II twenty million Americans planted Victory Gardens, which were almost all without chemicals. At that same time, the early 1940s, chemicals first began to be used in significant amounts in commercial American agricultural production. In response, in 1942 J.I. Rodale published the first issue of Organic Farming and Gardening magazine, which became enormously influential in the following decades.

Chemical farming increased considerably in the 1950s, and in response came increased consciousness of the herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers and other dangerous substances being inserted into the food chain. Many foods were by then highly processed, with added white sugar, chemical preservatives and stabilizers. Along with consciousness of this development came increasing demand for organic and natural foods. Hundreds of “health food” stores appeared in the United States during the 1950s, but they were primarily focused on vitamins, minerals, and other dietary supplements, and many did not even handle produce. In 1966 César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and others launched the United Farmworkers Organizing Committee, and through strikes and marches began to publicize the harm that corporate farming methods and pesticides were causing farm workers.

In the mid-1960s, the organic and natural foods industry began to emerge nationally. Distributors often grew out of stores. Besides co-ops and collective-related stores, several social entrepreneurs played key roles, and deserve credit. In San Francisco, in 1965, a year before the Diggers staged their first free food giveaway, Fred Rohé opened one of the first natural foods stores in the United States, New Age Natural Foods in the Haight. He followed that with Good Karma Café natural foods restaurant in the Mission District, New Age Distributing Company in San Jose, and Organic Merchants natural foods trade association. In 1966 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Aveline and Michio Kushi opened the first Erewon store, selling macrobiotic and natural foods, and Paul Hawken turned the store into a successful business. In 1969, under Bruce Macdonald, Erewon became arguably the first natural foods wholesale and distribution company in the United States.(18)

In the following months and years, many natural foods retail stores grew into distributors: Eden Organic Foods (1969, Ann Arbor), Food for Life (1970, Chicago), Westbrae and Altdisco (1971, Berkeley), Essene (1971, Philadelphia), Laurelbrook (1971, Maryland), Shadowfax (1971, New York), Tree of Life (1971, St. Augustine), Janus (1972, Seattle), The Well (1973, San Jose), Ceres (1973, Colorado Springs). In 1971 Fred Allen, West Coast field editor of Organic Farming and Gardening, initiated the earliest organic certification program in California. Gail Haczela of the Berkeley Food Conspiracy is also credited with contributing to the early beginnings of certification. Barney Bricmont and five other organic farmers founded California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) in Santa Cruz in 1973, a mutual assistance and organic certification organization. In 1974 the Oregon Tilth certification agency was founded.


13. Interview with Kathleen Fusek, recorded May 13, 2011. Also Interview with Max Weinryb, recorded May 6, 2011. Much of the information of the early years of Ma Revolution and Altdisco comes from these interviews.
14. According to another version, the original founders of Westbrae were Gerner and his sister, with Brun acting as treasurer when they filed their first papers. In the late 1980s, Bob Gerner and Kristin Brun sold Westbrae Natural Foods (the food company) to a group of investors. In 1997, it was acquired by Hain, a national corporation. Gerner, however, returned to manage the original store, under a changed name, The Natural Grocery Company, with branches in Berkeley and nearby El Cerrito. These two popular stores have become employee-owned enterprises, retaining Gerner as manager. (El Cerrito Patch, “The Natural Grocery Company”)
15. Robert Neptune, California’s Uncommon Markets, (Richmond, CA: Associated Cooperatives, Inc, 1971), 51.
16. Bay Area Directory of Collectives 1977, (Berkeley: Collective Directory Group, 1977-1985); “Cheese Board,” Directory of Collectives, 1980-81.
17. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Soils and Men, Yearbook of Agriculture 1938 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1938).
18. In 1981, Erewhon Trading Company filed for bankruptcy. Reorganized in 1986, it merged with U.S. Mills, which distributes their line of cereal products. Erewhon Natural Foods Market remains a very successful store in L.A.

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