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Purple Porch Co-op couples local flavor with healthy standards

Greg Koehler’s epiphany came in the form of a can of beans.

Though they were making an effort to eat more organically, Koehler’s friends and family found their options limited by what was readily available in the Michiana area. A label on a can of beans flicked on the light bulb.

“We were getting black beans from a distributor on a monthly basis,” he said. “They were organic, but they came from China. That struck us as unnecessary. Here we are trying to be organic, but there’s this massive transportation issue.”

Thus, the Purple Porch Cooperative was born and with it came a founding principle: Eat organically, and know where it came from.

One glance at the spread in the Purple Porch’s lunch bar proves that, thus far, the co-op has stayed true to its vision.

“There hasn’t been that hub from the producer to the consumer and that’s the hole we’re filling right now.”

Kale from the South Bend Unity Gardens. Eggs from Plowshares Farm in South Bend. Granola from Gathering Grains in Niles, Mich. Soup with chicken from Hebron Farms in Vandalia, Mich.

Purple Porch Co-op’s goal is to load the shelves and freezers with meat, produce and dairy from distributors within a 60 mile radius of South Bend. Since fresh fruits and vegetables can be hard to come by this time of year in Indiana, Purple Porch’s policy is if it’s not local, it must be organic.

In its early days, the co-op served as an online system where people could place orders to local producers based on what was available week to week. On Wednesdays, people would pick up their orders at the LangLab and meet the distributors the product came from.

As demand grew, Koehler realized Wednesday nights were no longer enough. The Purple Porch Co-op opened its brick and mortar store Feb. 26 on 123 N. Hill St., just west of downtown South Bend.

The Purple Porch Co-op sells basics like milk, vegetables, fruits, frozen meals and breads. But as it has gained steam, so has the interest from local producers. A fruit preserver from southwest Michigan and a yak ranch owner from Argos recently approached the co-op.

“And now we have yak on the shelves,” assistant manager Myles Robertson said. “There’s a lot of local food production and it has been happening for a long time, but there hasn’t been that hub from the producer to the consumer and that’s the hole we’re filling right now.”

Eat organically, and know where it came from.

Because of the selective nature of the store and the guidelines its contributors must meet, Koehler realizes Purple Porch’s prices will rarely be competitive with the likes of a chain store like Martin’s. But he knows the co-op can offer something better than a lower price.

“Some of that has to do with the product itself,” he said. “It’s just a quality product and it’s going to cost more. Sometimes we can be competitive with the local products. We’re very intentional about keeping the margin lower on some of those products.”

But what makes the co-op more than just a grocery/cafe hybrid that sells local products? For one, the store is governed by member-owners. Those who buy in get an equity share, voting rights in meetings and a say in what types of products the Purple Porch Co-op will carry. Members also get in-store benefits, like 10 percent off purchases once a month.

“That user input is a big thing that you’re not going to get with a regular grocer store,” Robertson said.

As of March 26, the Co-op has 410 member-owners. Recently, members adamantly pushed to maintain the tradition of bringing suppliers in on Wednesdays to meet with shoppers.

Koehler says he hopes the Purple Porch Co-op can expand into the one-stop resource for people to get their eggs, milk, butter, snacks and even their yak meat. In the meantime, he’ll help manage the living, breathing organism as it changes with each season and each fresh crop of local food.

“I like the fact that it evolves,” he said. “Since day one, it has evolved. We’ve made intentional changes about where we are, about how we do things.”

Purple Porch Co-op
123 N. Hill St.
South Bend, IN 46617

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