Durham Co-op Market off to a good start

Brothers Kareem Macharia, 7, and Naim Macharia, 6, enjoy free grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup at the Durham Co-op Market's "Neighbor Day" on Saturday, Sept. 17. The co-op opened in April 2015. (Staff photo by Rachel Herzog)

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon at the Durham Co-op Market at 111 W. Chapel Hill St., and the yellow picnic tables on the shady square outside the store are full.

Kids and senior citizens alike line up for free grilled cheese sandwiches and creamy tomato soup in small styrofoam cups. Young couples chat over local beer, and people of all ages clap and sing along to “This Little Light of Mine” as Winston-Salem based bluesman Big Ron Hunter strums his steel guitar.

The co-op opened a year and a half ago, and despite its unique location in Durham’s older West End neighborhood, General Manager Leila Wolfrum said it’s been nothing but successful.

“It’s not the area that co-ops have traditionally started in,” Wolfrum said. “This is a much more diverse community, both an economically and racially diverse community, and that, for us, was really exciting. We felt like if we were going to serve Durham, we should serve all of Durham.”

The store celebrated its second annual “Neighbor Day” with free sandwiches, cheap beer and live music on Saturday, Sept. 17, but every day it’s a place to find friends — and affordable food. Though gourmet items have prices to match, Wolfrum said the store tries to keep prices low on pantry staples like milk, beans and rice.

“Our philosophy is, the more you need it, the more affordable we want it to be,” she said. “We figure, if you’re here to get fed, we want to feed you.”

The store’s co-op status means anyone can buy a share of the company and be a part of governing it, but you don’t have to be a member to shop, attend events and hang out. The store’s mantra, “Everyone Welcome” is painted in big white letters over the front doors.

Three-dollar dinners take place every Thursday, which attract about 500 people each week for a meal and music from local artists. September’s Thursday evening offerings include Thai curry with chicken, loaded sweet potatoes and chili con carne.

“We certainly see a lot of our neighbors; we’ve hired a lot of our neighbors,” Wolfrum said.

When the co-op first opened, she said, sales were nearly double what was projected. That meant some reorganization, and adding more staff, but Wolfrum said it’s been a rewarding experience. More than half of the staff live within a mile of the store.

“It is good food,” co-op member Darrion Smith said of store’s offerings. “That’s the point — it’s gotta be good food.”

Smith said he likes that the food is fresh and local, and that there’s a strong community atmosphere. He said he’s seen the neighborhood surrounding the co-op become better-developed in the past year as well.

The co-op was a welcome addition to the neighborhood, Smith’s wife, Sharon Smith, said, especially in an area that used to have limited access to fresh produce.

For local drummer and videographer Ken Moshesh, the co-op is a crossroads — a place where he can get inexpensive food and free wi-fi to work on his laptop, and also where he can start conversations with other artists.

“This needs to be spoken about more,” Moshesh said. “It caters to the community and always has some kind of activity that is designed to help people.”

Durham residents enjoyed live music and free grilled cheese sandwiches at the Durham Co-op Market’s second annual “Neighbor Day” Saturday afternoon. The co-op opened in April 2015.

Durham residents enjoyed live music and free grilled cheese sandwiches at the Durham Co-op Market’s second annual “Neighbor Day” Saturday afternoon. The co-op opened in April 2015.