Story by Brianna Bell

Photography by Daniel Bell

It’s a bitter cold March day in Hamilton, Ontario as I watch shoppers rush through the doors of the local grocery co-op. I heave my heavily pregnant body out of my van, and quickly shuffle through the doors. I take a moment to savour the warm air inside of the small supermarket with a big vision, excited to learn more.

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The Mustard Seed Co-operative is a little slice of heaven for local food lovers. Upon entering the front doors I’m greeted by the smell of fresh brewed local coffee. As a first time, out of town visitor to the grocery co-op, I feel instantly at home and eager to shop for unique and local food.

I notice many shoppers making a beeline to the coffee bar to grab a cup of java before perusing the fresh produce and aisles of specially sourced foods. The co-op serves coffee made by Vintage Coffee Roasters and Coffeecology, both local and ethical Hamilton roasteries, and Guelph’s mega popular Planet Bean.

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I’m more interested in the donuts displayed beside the coffee, which I soon learn are one of their top selling items in the store, made from scratch and in small batches by Hamilton’s Donut MonsterI eventually find George Qua-Enoo, the Marketing and Community Engagement Coordinator at The Mustard Seed Co-op. I’m eager to ask questions and learn more about this fascinating grocery store.

I’m curious to know the story behind the store, and how it grew as a dream into a tangible business.  George shares that five years ago a group of like-minded individuals gathered and began brainstorming ways to provide easy access to fresh and local ingredients and support local farmers. They wanted to create wholesome meals using ethical foods that used sustainable agriculture, and soon the idea (once as small as a mustard seed), was born.

An online fundraiser was started, and successfully raised enough funds to turn the idea into much more. It took two years to raise funds and find a location for the store, but three years ago The Mustard Seed Co-op opened its doors.

“It wasn’t a difficult concept to get people excited about. The community rallied together to get the store ready,” shared George.

The Mustard Seed Co-op is passionate about supporting local, whether local farmers, coffee brewers, or bread makers. George said that the vision has grown to make The Mustard Seed a one-stop shop for all grocery needs, not just fresh items.

I was curious about the word Co-op – was it simply a buzzword, or did it have meaning?George explained that the unique concept behind the grocery store is that customers are able to purchase a share in the company, for a one-time fee of $100 per household.

The $100 is used as an investment, and has a variety of purposes. The customers who purchase the “share” become life-time owners, and receive a 2% discount on everything in the store, special weekly discounts on specific products, and voting privileges in the management of the business.

The idea of a community-owned local store is what makes The Mustard Seed a Co-op.

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“As a Co-op we are a community of like-minded individuals. We serve the community, and the community is able to voice their opinion or concerns as members [owners]. Everyone is valued. We aren’t a corporate one-tier company. We allow everyone [owners] to have input in the direction of where the Co-op is going,” said George, explaining the concept a bit more. Despite the ownership concept, anyone can shop within the walls of the grocery store, you simply don’t have access to the same level of perks as those who pay the one-time $100 fee.

Besides the fact that The Mustard Seed has some very unique practices, it really is like most grocery stores. George explained that the vision has been to offer a variety of products in the store, all ethically-sourced and produced as close to Hamilton as possible.

“If we support local businesses we help to support our local economy,” he explained. Items available include a variety of fresh and organic produce, frozen meat, breads, cereals, bulk foods, and dairy products, as well as a variety of canned and pre-packaged foods. Although in the past the store was considered a Health Food Store, the plan has been to move away from that categorization.

The hope is to make all community members feel comfortable to walk through the doors of The Mustard Seed and have access to the whole and healthy foods available.

“We also offer workshops that cater to families that are wanting to learn life-skills, and at a very low cost,” George added. Some recent workshops have included a class on making winter soups, growing your own indoor microgreens, and cooking with wild foods. Each day the store grows in popularity, adding new members and new products, and expanding its vision along the way.

Before I left the store I purchased a few items myself, and found that I was most excited about the Vanilla Bean Monster Donut I bought. I didn’t even leave the parking lot before digging in, promising “just one bite”, since the donut really lives up to its monster namesake. A few moments later I was licking my fingers, not sure how exactly, but I had devoured the entire donut. Now I understand why these small batch, hand-crafted donuts are such a hit, and I’m craving more.

To find out more about The Mustard Seed Co-op visit their website and Facebook page.

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Brianna Bell is a Guelph-based writer, where she lives with her husband and two children. You can find her work in The Globe & Mail, the Guelph Mercury, GuelphToday and Chicken Soup for the Soul. She enjoys writing about alternative lifestyles and meeting people who are making an impact in their community. You can connect with Brianna through e-mail at briannarbell@gmail.com.
Daniel Bell is a Guelph-based freelance photographer who enjoys the outdoors, spending time with family, and reading.