Across the street from Kilmainham Gaol, there is a shop with green crates of lemons, kumquats, turmeric, leeks, and turnips on shelves outside the front door.
At the back of the shop, next to a ceiling-height shelf loaded with herbs and spices, Andreea Bolbotina arranges little bottles of kefir in a refrigerated case.
Bolbotina does this every Friday, for four hours. Stacking shelves is her favourite – she likes to make things look “tidy and pretty”.
She’s been volunteering at the Dublin Food Co-op for five years and has been a member for eight.
After a tumultuous year, the co-op had to leave the space it had occupied for 11 years in Newmarket, Dublin 8, and find a new premises.
But now the co-op is back on form, managers say, and they have plans to expand – with a bulk-buying service.
The Summer and Beyond
The co-op is about to launch their “click and collect” online shop, where members can buy things in bulk and pick them up from their warehouse in Park West.
“That should be off in two to three weeks,” says Aoife Hammond, the co-op’s general manager.
Co-op secretary Sam Toland says one of their main priorities at the moment is growing the bulk-order side of the business.
“We’re also keen on seeing another food co-op on the north side,” says Toland. “We have hundreds of members on the north side who travel to us, and we’d love to see one there. But it needs a critical mass of people who want that to happen.”
“For the first time in a really long time, it feels like a really positive growth. That’s important because it’s been going for 36 years. It’s hard for an organisation to keep the momentum,” says Hammond. “We’re on an upward trajectory.”
If there was a demand in future for bulk-buying clubs around the city, “we could service those with monthly deliveries to individuals, homes, or community centres, and people could run their own buying clubs as part of the Dublin Food Co-op”, Toland says.
The Seikatsu bulk-buying club system is popular in Japan. Established in 1965, members of the club organise into groups of households, order food collectively, and operate democratically.
“It’s like a giant bulk-buying club system, and we were inspired a little bit by them,” Toland says.
There’s one other bulk-buying group in Dublin, and one in Bray, too.
A Very Difficult Year
“We had a very difficult year from December 2017,” says Hammond.
When they first moved into Newmarket, there wasn’t much around.
But then, in 2014, rents started picking up. By 2017, they knew they had to find a new space, and the search was “discouraging”, Toland says. Instead, they decided to buy.
They raised €60,000 through a combination of member loans, a GoFundMe campaign, and selling lifetime memberships, Hammond says. Through that, and loans from Community Finance Ireland and a credit union, they were able to buy the space.
“It was a great show of community from members,” she says.
They moved to the new shop in Kilmainham back in November.
“It was a really hectic first month,” says Hammond, whose role ranges from the day-to-day running of the shop, to making sure the co-op follows its mission statement, to dealing with human resources issues.
Inside, across from the the zero-waste bins of beans, rice, and nuts, a customer is checking on her order of chia seeds.
Staff member Leah Butler is at the till. She remembers staying up until 4am before the new shop opened for the first time.
Butler says the new shop seems busier, especially at weekends, and now it’s open seven days a week, rather than six. “It’s a different vibe, more urban.”
At the back of the shop, there are large refill jugs of eco-friendly cleaning products and a basket of packaging-free loo rolls. Near the front, there are bins of rice, beans, nuts, and other things – too many to list.
“We’re moving towards packaging-free as much as we can,” Hammond says. The focus at the new shop is on sustainability and zero waste.
Small Shop, Big Community
The new shop is smaller than their one in Newmarket.
But “Just because we have a small shop, doesn’t mean we have a small community,” Hammond says.
Since the new premises doesn’t have a community space, they use places nearby. There are members’ meetings in the cafe next door, induction meetings at the Buddhist centre up the road, trainings in the community college, and events in the Inchicore Social Club.
“We’re trying to take advantage of all the spaces and getting to know the local community as well,” Hammond says.
Before the move, Hammond says she worried about losing long-time members.
“It took a little while for people to warm up to the idea of a shop in Kilmainham. But there’s been a surge in membership since it moved,” Hammond says.
Membership levels used to hover between 1,600 and 2,000. Now they have 2,870.
They have other “nice plans” for the summer. Hammond mentions a street feast outside the shop in May.
“We were in such a precarious position for quite a while, our main focus was finding a stable place. Now we’re actually able to focus on things that were important to us as a co-op,” Hammond says.