Rachel Cromidas: February 2010 Archives

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]."

Submitted by second-year Alison Howard and first-year Charna Albert

At the Woodlawn Collaborative Open Mic Night, they don't take no for an answer. At least not if you don't want to offend Travis, the 64-year old, white-braided and bearded life force behind this monthly event.
Travis himself is enough entertainment for one night. In fact, right after we got there, he announced free pizza and grape juice and then promptly took off his pants. Underneath, all he had on were a pair of white tights but any unseemly bits were soon covered by the red, sheer double-breasted cape he soon put on.

And then his noise band performed.

We'll back up. The Woodlawn Collaborative Open Mic night is the brainchild of a coalition of students and Woodlawn community members, and takes place in a Church on the corner of 64th and Kimbark once a month (the next one is March 19th.) Last Friday, we decided to check it out. This is a part of town that will provoke a "you be safe now" from the SafeRide driver, but don't be intimidated; just be smart. It'll be more fun in a group anyhow. It will also be more fun if you come in with an open mind and probably a song or two, or maybe some beat poetry. At the event itself, participation was low but spirited. Which leads us back to the noise band.

As the night began, Travis informed us that his noise band would be opening. This consisted of 15 minutes of... well, noise. It was kind of an acid trip, if you're into that sort of thing. Wearing latex gloves adorned with plastic flowers, Travis shook a gigantic piece of sheet metal and screamed unintelligible, yet most likely profound words into a microphone set on echo. Six minutes in, our hippie friend from San Francisco screamed, just to be heard over the music, "this is so cool!" If you are less of a hippie, this may not be for you, but never fear; there is more to Open Mic night.

One of the highlights included a group of UChicago students who Travis referred to as "the Phoebes." They, however, insisted that they had no name, and that their lead singer, who signed them up, was just named Phoebe. Basically all you need to know is that their version of "Like a Prayer" was played with a cello, a trash can, a violin, a guitar, a keyboard, and a combo fork knife and empty wine bottle. They were awesome.

If you're intrigued (as you should be) note that this event is free and open to the public. It's definitely worthwhile if you're looking for a venue to practice your creative talents... and your creative tolerance. We're for sure coming back with this beat poem: Don't judge us, and we won't judge you. Also, the first two lines can be attributed to my good friend Teddy.

This poem should be read aloud, with two people alternating each line.

Cheez Whiz
Gee Whiz
Stop it

Start over.

(Repeat as necessary. But probably not as long as Travis's noise band performance)

Here's a short piece about the Communtiy Service Leadership Training Corps: a group of 20 first-years and 20 second-years who travel around the city conducting service projects and learn about urban issues non-profit administration while there at it! They've recently visited the Gary Comer Youth Center and Jane Addams Hull House garden.

by second-year Julia Pei, for the University Community Service Center Newsletter

Officially, the Community Service Leadership Training Corps (CSLTC) is a "two-year intensive service and leadership training program run by the University Community Service Center". However, the 20 first-year students who are selected annually to become a part of CSLTC would agree this modest description doesn't do the program justice.

During their first year, students engage in weekly issue sessions on various areas of service and participate in related, biweekly service projects in the Chicago area. During their second year, students use these experiences and discussions to focus on a year-long internship with a nonprofit organization or community service RSO on campus.

However, CSLTC is much more than a group of people gathering to discuss service and leadership. For many, CSLTC becomes a unique and close-knit community as dynamic and organic as the individuals who comprise it.

On Tuesday nights, CSLTCers arrive early to meetings to catch up with friends. Conversation is not only governed by their shared interest in service but also by the personal connections they have forged. It is out of this unique group dynamic, bursting with passionate and engaged individuals that something wonderfully rare and influential evolves.

Fourth-year Hannah Taber, one of the three program coordinators this year, reflects, "I was very excited to work with CSLTC this year because of the enormous contribution that it has made to my education and overall experience at the University of Chicago." All three of the current program coordinators, Prakriti Mishra, Aviva Rosman, and Hannah Taber, are former CSLTCers.

Beyond the current CSLTC coordinators, many other CSLTCers maintain close relationships with the University Community Service Center. Of the twenty current second-years, five are current UCSC program coordinators. Many CSLTCers have also founded community service RSOs including UChicago Mentorship by Correspondence (UMbC), International Volunteer Initiative (IVI), and Global China Connection (GCC). These groups all grew out of the collaboration of several groups of current and former CSLTCers.

Perhaps such a close-knit and multidimensional group dynamic is driven by the wide range of majors and interests that the group represents. Beyond the expected public policy and political science majors, the current second-year group also includes computer science, English, economics, interdisciplinary studies in the humanities, biology, and anthropology majors. CSLTCers' interests within service are just as diverse, ranging from refugee work to domestic violence to environmental sustainability.

Perhaps CSLTC is driven by the fact that it is still a young program directed by three program coordinators per year who all leave their own footprints on the program. Perhaps it is driven by the passion and enthusiasm of the individual CSLTCers.

Or perhaps, as second-year Swagateeka Panigrahy reflects, it is driven by the mere simplicity of the program. "What I love is that CSLTC doesn't make too much of itself. At first, it may seem like a group of people who get together for service, but it quickly becomes a collaborative and diverse environment where you really begin to work through the consequences of service and your place in it. That's why these bonds are so strong."

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Submitted by third-year Michael Carwile

I'm going to be direct and to the point - go to the Garfield Park Conservatory.


That means you, you student at the University of Chicago, you owe it
to yourself to get out there. It's simple, get on the Green Line, get
off at the stop called Conservatory. You'll see the thing from the
platform, you can't miss a 184-acre greenhouse. For all you folks
living in B-J and the new dorm, the 63rd and Cottage Grove stop is
half a mile a way. That's just half a mile you have to walk to get to
a land that's a perpetual seventy degrees. When the wind is freezing
your face off in February, the Garfield Park Conservatory is seventy
degrees and full of palm trees. When you're stuck in the slush and mud
in March, the Garfield Park Conservatory is seventy degrees and full
of palm trees. When it's April and still nothing is green outside, the
Garfield Park Conservatory is seventy degrees and full of palm trees.


Just so you know, the northern end of the natural range of the palm
tree is the South of France. And unless you're studying abroad in
Paris, you won't be going to the South of France any time soon. So get
yourselves out to the Garfield Park Conservatory!