The organic food movement was big back east when Fiore Iannacone first moved to Tucson about 50 years ago.
So when he went to the quirky-cool Fourth Avenue shopping district and discovered the newly-opened Food Conspiracy Co-op, he thought: “Wow, this is everything I’ve been thinking about.”
It was a tiny paradise of fresh, local, organic foods. That was not long after 1971, when Food Conspiracy had just opened. Half a century later, the co-op has endured downtown development in fits and starts – sluggish revitalization of aging buildings and a growing crop of housing catering to college students.
Now, the old Arizona grocery store is about to see its own evolution: An expansion project that promises to maintain the community-centered vibe Iannacone first fell for when he moved to Tucson, add more veggies, plus more social justice in food sustainability and a new neighborhood hang-out spot.
“We’ll continue to be an anchor in the community … an important piece of Tucson’s identity,” he said.
The Food Conspiracy Co-op, in the historic Fourth Avenue neighborhood of Tucson, specializes in grocery and wellness products that are organic, natural and local. It’s a rare find statewide and among the longest operating food co-ops nationwide.
In the consumer co-op model, about 5,000 people own the store. They have each bought a share of the collective business, they share in the profits, and they vote on business decisions, said co-op communications coordinator Andrea Buttrick. They choose a lot of products made by locals, Indigenous people and people of color, helping to build a more inclusive economy.
The project relocates and expands the parking area one block to the east and adds a new entrance for cars on Third Avenue, next to the Tucson High School stadium. There will be no changes to the existing front entrance with its signature brick-red clay-tiled tower.
A pathway will lead from the back parking lot to a large canopy shading a new entrance, expanded produce shopping area, courtyard seating, and an outdoor stage for live music and cooking demonstrations.
Inside the store, there will be a more open shopping space with better flow for shoppers, a hot bar and salad bar, and cash registers at both entrances. In all, the project is expected to add 2,000 square feet of shopping space to the existing 3,800-square-foot area.
Numerous sustainability features were included in the plans, like electric vehicle charging stations, rooftop solar, raised-bed gardens with edible plants, fruit trees, rainwater collection tanks, and extra bike parking.
New wall space will mean a new neighborhood mural, in true Tucson fashion.
A groundbreaking is planned for 10 a.m. Thursday, May 5. Construction is expected to take 8-10 months.
Food Conspiracy has been a part of historic Fourth Avenue for about 50 years, long before there was a Whole Foods. And co-op shoppers and owners have wanted this expansion project for about 50 years, too.
Food Conspiracy is now one of the oldest food co-ops in the U.S., Iannacone said. It’s also one of the few in Arizona. Phoenix Food Co-op is just getting started as a buyers’ club. The Sierra Vista Food Co-op opened its doors in 2011 after a years-long push to expand into a building.
Local food cooperatives remain more popular in northern states but have spread to 38 states nationwide, generating $2.4 billion in sales, according to the National Co+op Grocers, which is a co-op umbrella for co-ops. It’s still a small part of the $717 billion grocery industry in the U.S., but has grown in popularity in the pandemic as need and inflation have spurred greater mutual-aid and collective community-building.
Iannacone has been shopping at Food Conspiracy since the beginning. But he didn’t become one of the collective of co-op owners until about 15 years ago. His commitment to the shop he fell for decades earlier grew, and he started volunteering as a board member about 13 years ago.
He’s a romantic about Food Conspiracy’s roots but he’s eager for growth that will serve a new generation of Tucson families.
“It’s a great project for our community and for the co-op,” he said. “I see us expanding the selection of our products, continuing to network and support local business, and promoting the health and well-being of our members and our community.”
Fourth Avenue growing pains
Swift change has come to the Fourth Avenue district in recent years.
A streetcar line now connects the downtown area to the University of Arizona campus. Massive student apartment projects sprouted, following the boost to the transit system. A flood of college students are making the increasingly urban core home.
And more apartments that will further increase density downtown are on the horizon.
This moment sees the avenue shifting with a mix of modern buildings and tattered-but-beloved old buildings.
The transition isn’t without growing pains. Some longtime residents like Tucson City Council Member Steve Kozachik have questioned the dense development. But preserving a neighborhood food co-op with 50 years of life in the community is a welcomed change.
Expanding the co-op is “a wonderful project that’s going to turn previously unusable space into space customers can use — and it completely fits the vibe of the Avenue, unlike some of the student housing projects coming in,” Kozachik said.
Downtown Links, a massive road project to provide access to downtown from Tucson’s south and east sides, could bring more people to the Fourth Avenue district to shop too, said board member Iannacone.
With all the new development, it’s important that the co-op continues to be a quirky-cool and vibrant part of the community that honors its ties to the past, he said.
“Otherwise, we’d be just like every other city,” Iannacone said.
The brick co-op building was likely built in the 1930s and contributed to the official heritage status of the National Historic District on Fourth Avenue.
The co-op has felt some of the pressure from new development, Buttrick said, but also tries to see it as a way to educate new shoppers and help change their mindsets by welcoming them. Some parents of college students living in the modern apartments have bought ownership stakes in the co-op for their kids, she said.
“We want to be good, thoughtful, respectful stewards of this land, and we can do that as a co-op,” she said. “We’ll hold the ground with much more strength and rootedness.”
The Conspiracy continues
The co-op was in Tucson long before other national chain stores like Natural Grocers or Sprouts.
When the co-op started in 1971, organic food was becoming more popular and more expensive.
The Food Conspiracy was originally a buyers’ club, where buyers bought organic produce in bulk and sold them. At the beginning, there was also a system of exchanging food to labor. Someone could help at the store and earn groceries.
“It was always about food accessibility,” Buttrick said.
Then the store grew and hired a staff and elected a board.
The expansion project has been in the works since November 2019, but the store’s many owners have been asking for a back entrance for decades, Buttrick said. There was always talk of expansion, a second location, or moving altogether.
Once the city started charging for parking on Fourth Avenue in 2016, there was more pressure. But they thought of the generations of co-op families who depended on and supported Food Conspiracy. They knew they had to preserve their home and give back.
“It’s critical that we sit in this hub in this neighborhood,” Buttrick said. “If we moved, we would leave a significant gap for people who want access to healthy, affordable food.”
The current parking area is tiny, inaccessible and inconvenient. “People had to schlep their food products” around the block, Iannacone said.
About 10 years ago, the store bought parcels on the neighboring block to the east, he said.
Store leaders became worried the store was both beloved and overlooked. The store hadn’t changed much over the years. It was time to develop a new reputation.
So in 2019 the board tasked the new general manager, John Glennon, with finding a way to make expansion feasible.
Then came the pandemic. Buttrick said the co-op didn’t have the same product shortages as other stores because they have many local suppliers and products could get to the store quickly and safely. Co-ops around the nation saw similar success.
Sales have grown since 2020. During the shutdowns, the store closed its café but added curbside pickup, welcomed people from the new housing projects, and worked on staff culture to improve hospitality and education about products.
When they add a shady courtyard for music and food-movement lectures, “we’re going to be the community gathering space that this downtown and Fourth Avenue neighborhood deserves,” Buttrick said.
Iannacone makes fresh juice at home every day. He’s looking forward to the co-op’s expanded produce area the most.
“But it’s not just about food,” he said. “It’s about supporting social justice and being a part of something.”
Iannacone remembers moving to Tucson nearly 50 years ago. He’s seen the city change. The co-op remains. So does the spirit of working collectively for the community.
He imagines families of all ages and college kids at Food Conspiracy, sitting under the trees listening to music, learning about growing food in the raised vegetable gardens and keeping the co-op thriving for at least another half a century.