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The West End Well: Grocery store meets community building

By Jared Davidson on September 22, 2014

The West End Well is many things. From the outside it looks like a normal grocery store, its stoop adorned with all manner of fruits and vegetables to entice the hungry passerby. But it is so much more than a simple grocery. A step inside reveals a space that is devoted half to produce and boxed foods and half to tables and chairs. Most days, these chairs are filled with patrons of The Well’s café, which serves local, fresh, organic food. But at other times, The Well transforms into a place for community meetings, for concerts and events or for teaching sessions. So, while it can be said that The West End Well is a grocery store that focuses on local, organic food, it is also a community event hub. And while to some it may seem odd to combine the ideas of community building with food vending, to the people behind the West End Well, it makes perfect sense. The events, the café, the education, and the grocery are all united by a single idea: relocalization.

“This whole movement of relocalization is about helping a community find within itself the resources it needs for a vibrant life,” said Bill Shields, West End Well board member. “Culture is a part of that.”

The Well is built from the ground up to be a community institution. It is designed to allow the surrounding community express itself and, in the words of Shields, “find nourishment,” whether that nourishment is food, learning, or arts and culture. The Well recently opened its doors at 969 Wellington Street, and will be holding its Grand Welcoming celebration the weekend of September 26th through 28th. Bill Shields and the rest of the board members are hoping that the community will come out on those days, both to sample the various foods, courses, and entertainments The Well has to offer, and to offer their input into what, ideally, will be a reflection of the community’s own aspirations for itself.

Since The Well was conceived as an extension of the surrounding community, its co-op model makes perfect sense. It is a co-op that anyone can buy into for the price of $50. Often, co-ops will attract members with discounts or other short term benefits—not so here. Instead, co-op members become co-owners of The Well. This kind of arrangement welcomes members into the fold, letting them take part in AGMs and giving voice to the community in a way that other co-ops do not.

“This is an invitation to have a say, to influence the place,” said Shields, adding that all decisions regarding The Well will be made by community members. “It’s at the human scale, rather than a corporate scale.”

The Well is an organization that, beyond anything, hopes to adapt to the needs of the community. Shields told me that they had initially planned to open a restaurant with a farmstand in front, but the community swayed them to focus on the grocery instead. “The community made it very clear,” he said, “They don’t need another restaurant in this neighbourhood.”
And part of that adaptation is The Well’s push to make healthy food more affordable to people with lower incomes. To do so, they are working with Somerset West Community Health Centre and Parkdale Food Centre to provide options to the lower income families in the community.

But, Shields admits, offering healthy organic food at lower prices is something that will not happen easily or quickly: “That’s going to take a lot of learning, a lot of ingenuity, a lot of creativity.”

The Well is already making headway toward offering organic, healthy food at lower prices, thanks to the fluid incorporation of its café. Run by Jacqueline Jolliffe of Stone Soup Foodworks, the café allows The Well to recoup some of the costs incurred by a typical grocery store by using food from the grocery that is not selling. According to Shields, approximately 20% of typical grocery store cost is incurred through spoilage, something The Well can largely avoid by turning that about-to-spoil food into café menu items. Through this process, they can reduce loss from spoilage from 20 to 10 or even 5 percent, which helps them keep costs down.

And so, while The Well is a many things, it is primarily an extension of the community, its goal to fulfill the community’s needs, like lower-priced healthy food. It will be interesting to see how it adapts and changes with the fluctuations of the neighbourhood, but meanwhile, we can all enjoy some good produce, café food, learning and entertainment at this multi-purpose locale.

The West End Well is located at 969 Wellington St. West, open daily from 7am – 8pm. Check out its website for more info and head down to its Grand Welcoming on September 26-28th. Click here for a schedule of events.