Co-op Dayton: Developing Cooperative Businesses That Meet Community Needs

by Jeshua John, on May 23, 2024 at 3:17 PM

For nearly ten years, Co-op Dayton has been training and seeding worker-led cooperatives, including a community-owned grocery cooperative, Gem City Market, which opened in a food desert.

Co-op Dayton is a nonprofit organization founded in 2015 that focuses on developing cooperative businesses that meet community needs in Dayton, Ohio.

The organization was started after the city struggled to recover from the economic downturn in 2008 and the subsequent departure of many businesses and manufacturers that moved their work to less unionized states or abroad.

Co-op Dayton leveraged their award from The Workers Lab and other funding, raising more than $7 million for construction and startup costs needed to open the Gem City Market, a cooperative grocery store located in a food desert and owned by its workers and customers.

Co-Op Dayton also launched its Co-Op and Social Enterprise Incubator program, which focuses on cultivating cohorts of co-operatives to address and alleviate community challenges. We recently caught up with co-founder Lela Klein to learn more about what Co-Op Dayton has been up to and what’s on the horizon for this dynamic organization. 


How has your organization changed or grown since the investment?

Back in 2019, we supported worker cooperatives and cooperative businesses with the general goal of incubating and accelerating businesses that met the needs of our community, which had been so disinvested since the 2008 financial crisis. At that time, we were really supporting co-ops one at a time, and our big focus was on launching Gem City Market, a co-operative grocery store in a food desert here in Dayton.  

We wanted to formalize our practices to support more than one project at a time, using a cohort-based incubator, and The Workers Lab helped us with that. The first year we launched that was the first year of the pandemic. We started the first cohort in December 2019 with 10 incredible teams—half cooperatives and the other half social enterprise businesses. We used The Workers Lab funding to help many of them pivot due to the pandemic. Most of these businesses needed more technology and more access to high-speed internet, given the move to remote work. 

We had a ton of lessons learned in that cohort. Six of our businesses graduated—three went on to become cooperatives, and one went on to become a social enterprise. Since then, we’ve run an annual incubator and hired staff to run that program. We’ve solidified our practices and curriculum to offer more support to more than one organization at one time. We’re more systematic, and as a result, we have four viable cooperatives in our network with more in our pipeline. We opened our worker-led and community-owned grocery cooperative, Gem City Market in 2021, which will be majority worker-owned, and is Black serving and Black-led and also uses other co-ops to supply some of its food and products. 

We’ve had some huge ups and downs, including a driver- and restaurant-owned cooperative we launched during the pandemic to support small, independently-owned restaurants and restaurant workers. We ran that for 11 months, and it served the needs of keeping hundreds of thousands of dollars of sales in the local economy, as well as keeping some small businesses afloat and some restaurant workers employed as drivers during the shutdown and its aftermath. But we ultimately closed it down when restaurant customers returned to dining rooms and our sales dipped too low to be sustainable. Overall, we’ve seen tons of growth and there have been lots of lessons learned, including how to take advantage of timely opportunities. 

What are you focused on today? And what are your top priorities as an organization now?

We work at the intersection of worker needs and community power, and we are focused on creating businesses that serve our working-class community. We have two areas where we see a lot of opportunity for growth: value-added food manufacturing and small-batch manufacturing and customization. 

On the value-added food manufacturing front, we are investing in expertise that can help small businesses create a lot of good, valuable jobs. As one example, we are working with a worker-owned indoor mushroom-growing facility. We got involved when it was just a husband-wife team working out of their home, and we’ve been able to support them as they’ve grown into their own manufacturing facility that includes seven worker-owners. Beyond growing mushrooms for Gem City Market (and other grocery stores), they’re now making tinctures, seasonings, and more. We see this is an area where we can create a lot of good, valuable jobs, and there is the added benefit that there is a lot of demand in the community for local food systems support/food sovereignty. 

On the small-batch manufacturing and customization side, we’re working to create a worker-maker-owned maker space that caters to customization and small-batch manufacturing. The idea is that worker-makers can co-own tools they might not be able to afford on their own. We currently have a proto-type lab that about 25 people, or micro-entrepreneurs, are sharing and we’re securing a larger place for them to continue growing. 

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What do you want potential donors to know about your work?

Donors should know that we believe in solidarity, not charity. We will rise as a community because we built the businesses and infrastructure and own it ourselves. Donors and funders can help spark and support new ideas, even the playing field for under-resourced founders, but we are ultimately focused on creating cooperatives that can be self-sustaining. Communities like ours need to understand that. What we’re doing doesn’t look like traditional 501(c)(3) work, so we’re looking to partner with the Funder ecosystem that cares about worker power and investing in workers. Rebuilding worker power in our community will rebuild the social contract and civic engagement, reconnecting people to their sense of economic power. 

It all has to start with worker power as a new model to replace the old social contract that ended when big employers divested from our community. Our work was born as a way to find hopefulness and power in a time of despair—Dayton never recovered from the 2007-2008 financial crisis and is one of the poorest cities in the nation. So we are talking really explicitly about solidarity and mutual aid—and it’s a balm. We’re also focused on this in all our communication: solidarity and connection. If you’re looking for those things, we’re here and ready to partner. 

What advice do you have for new innovators trying to help workers?

Place-based work is so important. There’s important work that can happen nationally, but if place-based work is in the cards, you should do it. Worker-led innovation will pay dividends. Think about ways you can go deep instead of broad—listen to workers and your community and do the real work of making connections. 

Topics: Design Sprint| Learning Hub