Ethical Eating Endures at Open Produce

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Submitted by Lauren Makholm

For most people, the end of college brings not only a release from the pressure of academic excellence, but also an anxiety about what to do next. Freedom from the rigid structure of schoolwork can seem as constricting as it is liberating. Such was the case for Andrew Cone, who graduated from the University of Chicago in 2006 with a math degree and a desire to have a positive impact on the world around him.

"We wanted to be awesome. We wanted to do something really awesome," said Cone, looking over my shoulder at the street outside, "I wanted to be part of people's lives."

Cone and his partner, Steven Lucy, AB '06, opened Open Produce in 2008 in an attempt to bring ethics back into modern-day food consumption.

The store began with two goals: transparency and fairness, and still attempts to live up to each goal every day.

After Cone graduated, he worked various jobs. He worked as a freelance computer programmer, and a programmer in a U of C lab. He worked at a proprietary trading firm, where he was treated well and paid well.

"I found myself feeling very anxious though, being anxious about the direction my life was going because I just didn't see where it was ending up, because there were these people who were my bosses, you know, very intelligent people, successful people who I got along with. But despite all that I just didn't really see myself as wanting to have their life."

Discontent and unrest led Cone to speak seriously with Lucy about changing careers.

"We felt restless. The restlessness that you're not building towards something you're going to be proud of.

In the talks that followed, the idea of Open Produce grew from an idealistic banana importing company into a real storefront on 1635 E. 55th St. A notice on the window asked customers what hours they would like to see for the new store, and the interior came alive in yellows and greens.

But, why food? Cone, a good University of Chicago student, used philosophy to explain.

"Voltaire or somebody said, about going to the bathroom, it's the one unifying experience of all of humanity because all of humanity experiences it basically the same. Well, you know, we can't go into business doing that. So, food is also a fairly universal experience, except that some people eat better food than others, or different food but nonetheless, the act of eating is sort of a fundamental human experience."

Cone and Lucy strove to bring an encyclopedic set of knowledge and an air of transparency to food buying in a new and innovative way.

"We have a generation that feels more than any previous generation entitled to know things. We believe, 'information should be at my fingertips.' That becomes an expectation."

The movement to know where one's food comes from is much like the movements toward fair trade items, organic items, or vegan items, Cone explained.

"I try to buy fair trade things, I try to stay vegan," he explained, "And generally, I try to have my consumption patterns reflect the ethical changes in the world I want to see."

Despite the dream-like ethical optimism that surrounds Open Produce, operations have been less than perfect.

"Well, we've lost money so far, I can tell you personally on my 2009 taxes, I filed a $25,000 loss. My net income was negative $25,000, including having worked some [other] jobs," Cone said.

He works other jobs, such as tutoring math at Columbia College, to bring the store's debt down.

Cone estimated the debt at around $9,300 to the store credit card, and about $40,000 to his father, who loaned Cone and Lucy money to open the store.

"Yet, we have never taken money from the store we hadn't already put in and it's not clear when we will and if we will. It could be a labor of love."

But Cone, a self-proclaimed young optimist, stays positive by looking backwards and forwards.

"These are some numbers that are really important to me," he said, "I can tell you that last year in February, I believe our average daily gross was about 580 dollars. This year, I expect it to be about 1,075 dollars."

He also sees possibilities for the future in order to make Open Produce more stable and profitable, such as beginning to accept food stamps or acquiring a liquor license. Food stamps, he says, would probably increase the daily gross by 50 to 200 dollars, while a liquor license would make Open Produce the only licensed store east of Lake Park and south of 51st Street.

Although there are many numbers involved, especially when talking to a math major, it is clear that Cone's focuses are ethics and good food.

Open Produce prides itself on interesting and unusual produce. Early customers to the store remember hearing Cone's excited voice as they walked in, asking them to try a new fruit or vegetable. Longans, relatives of the lychee; grapefruit-like polmelos; and honey crisp apples from Washington State are just a few favorites.

And though ethics are often rigid, Cone admits to the necessity for small compromises.

"If you want to stay in business there's a limited domain you have to express your own ethical problems," he said.

"It's one thing to not want to be excessively capitalistic or materialistic and say I'm going to make all the money I can," he laughed maniacally, "but it's another to say, you know, we need to survive."

Although Cone follows a vegan diet, and does not agree with eating meat on account of the unethical treatment of animals, Open Produce has begun to sell small quantities of meat.

Open Produce has also lost some of its transparency due to difficulties in accounting.

"We just realized that keeping track of what we paid for everything and then writing it somewhere was a major accounting headache and time is scarce when you're running and operation like that, you have to pay for labor..."

"We have not forgotten about the goal of transparency," Cone insists. "It is important for my own psyche to believe that I have not sold out."

There is one major area in which Cone and Lucy have stood firm, and this is pricing. Rather than prices ending in .99, as they do in most supermarkets, all of Open Produce's prices end in .00 and include tax, so customers always know what they're paying.

"For Steven and I this was a very important ethical point. I really feel very strongly that it's very important to be honest with the customer. Even if we can't always meet our goal of being completely transparent about everything, telling the customer everything we might want to tell them. For me, it is very important that nothing I do is the slightest bit misleading, and I think it's hard to argue that ending prices in nine isn't a misleading thing to do."

Cone insists that despite the increased revenue that uneven prices might bring to the store, which is badly in need of increased daily grosses, he will not budge on this issue.

"I just wouldn't feel good about it anymore, you know?"

For now this imperfect experiment in ethical living continues on 55th Street, east of the tracks, and even if Andrew Cone and Steven Lucy do have to close up shop one of these days, they have a lot to show for it. Cone mentioned humility, boldness, and money awareness as a few gained traits, but he's also gained something else.

"The first person we hired was Beth," he said, smiling, "Who became my girlfriend-- and I'm now engaged to [her]."

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bestere said:

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gregorcj said:

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