Ozark Natural Foods started out as an idea. Cecelia Hitte, who’d recently moved from Berkley, CA to Fayetteville, was familiar with co-ops in California. She was looking for healthy and moderately priced alternatives to what was then available here. She started writing letters to suppliers of organic foods that could be purchased in bulk. She eventually wrote 100 letters! Ten people attended a meeting on October 4, 1971, at the home of Jerry and Marietta Price, who’d recently moved to Fayetteville. The idea of a member-run Ozark Food Co-op was considered. A second meeting, at a church on Maple Street near the U of A campus, drew 20 folks who bought $5 “life time” memberships in the new coop. Cecelia was the first (volunteer) manager. The first food order amounted to about $200 and was placed by 25 dues-paying members. That order came in early November 1971. There was no store as such. The co-op functioned as a buying club and food was stored on the enclosed back porch of one member. Folks dropped by to pick up the beans, rice, and other things they had ordered. In this way, Ozark Food Co-op, and what would grow into Ozark Natural Foods, was off and running.
In a short time the original co-op had grown enough that a back porch was inadequate and a retail space was needed. The back section of the newly opened Highroller Cyclery, 322 W. Spring, was available and Cecelia Hitte organized the first retail space there. The Co-op continued to grow, as did the bike shop, and soon it was obvious that the Coop needed its own space. An old warehouse on West Avenue that had once served as storage for railroad freight became our next retail location. The Co-op prospered at the West Street location under the management of dedicated people like Steve Winkler, Mike Meyers, and the team of Roy Monkie, Arthur Proteau, and Dan Kelley. Managers at that time were paid $5 per day but got free food and a place to sleep in the loft or on the roof of the Co-op. There was no cash register, and members checked themselves out and made their own change from the money drawer. Members were also required to work several hours each month at the Co-op.
In December of 1974, John Newman became manager. In 1985, we took over the lease from Rainbow Earth Natural Foods on Rock Street, where Tracy King, Janice Ward, Ea Ruth, Martha Nacol and Tim Fannon managed the store. At this location, the Co-op began its transformation into a full-line natural food store, and our paid staff grew.
In 1993, Ozark Natural Foods moved to Dickson Street, and in December of 1994, Nancy Armstrong became General Manager. Dickson Street was a time of great prosperity for the Co-op. During the next seven years, the amount of customers and owners continued to grow, until Dickson Street became too small to hold Ozark Natural Foods.
In November 2000, Ozark Natural Foods moved once again to its current location at 1554 North College Avenue, inside the Evelyn Hills Shopping Center. While the move was desperately needed, not every detailed was planned. During the next six months, most of the owner equity accrued over the previous seven years was spent, and the co-op found itself in serious financial trouble. Nancy Armstrong resigned as General Manager, and Alysen W. Land took over operations. John Newman, previous general manager and now financial consultant, was hired to facilitate a financial turn around. With John Newman and Finance Manager Will Bayley’s help, Alysen began the difficult task of saving the co-op. The size of our staff was reduced, and labor hours were brought under control. Staff benefits were reduced, our creditors were advised of our situation, and we began the long climb out of debt. Within six months, the Co-op was once again on its feet, though just barely.
The next four years saw Ozark Natural Foods grow steadily. Under the leadership of Alysen Land, the co-op experienced its largest growth ever. Ownerships achieved an all time high, sales have been excellent, and patronage refunds have been distributed three years in a row. 2005 was such a financially successful year, that the Co-op paid out not only its normal patronage refund, but also retained earning from 1998 and 1999. Owner equity lost during 2000 has been mostly replaced.
The first forty years Ozark Natural Foods has existed have been exciting, filled with great achievements and diverse opinions. The community that is Ozark Natural Foods has always come together through adversity to succeed. The next forty years should prove no different.