Happy anniversary! Harmony Foods Co-op is celebrating our tenth year in our Irvine Avenue location and we are so fortunate to be here and so thankful to the Bemidji community for all the support through the years. We began as the Bemidji Buying Club in 1976; the Harmony Cooperative Grocery came into existence in the spring of 1977 and arrived downtown as the Harmony Natural Foods Co-op in 1991. Arriving in our current Irvine Avenue location in 2011, we boast such amenities as a dine-in deli with hot bar, educational programs for children and adults and a fully-certified commercial kitchen. As the only downtown grocery store in Bemidji, we always work to remain cognizant of our role here both for the community and within it—we aim to truly embody the principle that everyone is welcome. As Bemidji has grown from a small northern town into a bustling regional hub, Harmony has grown with it—and as our community marches further into the next century, with all the growth, challenges, and changes it brings, we are proud to be a central part of it—in every sense of the word. We’ve come a long way, and we’re still just getting started!
Having been a part of downtown Bemidji for 44 years, we can’t help but love it here. The “Land of 10,000 Lakes” and the mighty Mississippi headwaters provide some of the most beautiful scenery and wildlife in North America. Skiing, snowmobiling, and ice fishing in the wintertime; swimming, boating, hiking, and (more) fishing once the weather warms up – the Northwoods has been the favorite vacation spot of generations for a reason. We have a fantastic local arts scene, summer community theater, live music at the waterfront and in the pub, and a renowned symphony orchestra. It’s not just civic pride, though. Shopping at the co-op isn’t just about eating delicious food, it’s about spending your money in a way that most positively impacts the people around you. We are fortunate enough to have a fantastic network of local growers and producers, and they're important to us on a number of levels.
Local food is:
better for the environment. It makes sense—products that aren’t shipped as far don’t take so much fuel.
better-tasting. Produce that doesn’t travel far can be picked close enough to the point of ripeness that it’s perfectly ready right when you need it. That means the fruits and veggies can get ready the way they’re supposed to—on the vine, in the sun and fresh air!
better for the community. These are our friends and neighbors—literally! For every dollar spent at the co-op, a thousand dollars goes back into the community. We pay our farmers for their produce, they can pay their bills and employees and suppliers who can then do the same, and that money will recirculate throughout the local economy.
Bemidji is located on the Mississippi River at the crossroads of three Ojibwe Indian Reservations: White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake. According to historical records, the Ojibwe made their way to Minnesota based on an Ojibwe prophecy that urged them to settle in “the land where food grows on water”, referring to a main staple in the Ojibwe diet and something Harmony has been selling on our shelves since the 1990’s: wild rice. The Ojibwe people continue to hunt and fish, make maple sugar and syrup, and harvest wild rice. Harmony has been fortunate enough to develop lasting relationships with native-owned businesses in the area so that we can continue to bring the knowledge and stewardship of the Ojibwe culture and land into our business and onto our shelves in the form of walleye, fruit jams and spreads, wild rice and wild rice pancake mixes, and fresh harvested maple syrup. As a locally owned cooperative we celebrate the history of the diverse cultures around us that have shaped who we are as a community, particularly the local food system, ways of sustainable living, and respect for the land. Harmony has been pleased to expand the Ojibwe Language Project, which aims to reaffirm Bemidji as part of the traditional homelands of the Ojibwe Nation and recognize the Ojibwe people as an important part of the Bemidji community and an important part of Harmony Co-op; we are continually working to expand our vocabulary and add onto our current library of product and directional signage in both Ojibwe and English.
(On that note, it’s so hard to pick a favorite product, but we do admit to a particular fondness for Red Lake Nation Foods’ wild chokecherry jam. The name Chokecherry came from the bitter and astringent taste of the ‘bird cherry’, belonging to the rose family native to North America; the fruit was a staple for numerous Ojibwe tribes across the North American continent, and when sweetened, make an excellent jelly or jam. Fun fact: when Red Lake Nation Foods bought MN-owned Minnestalgia Foods in 2020 to expand the selection of MN fruit preserves, Red Lake Nation Foods used our community kitchen as their production kitchen while theirs was being updated. We literally got to be a part of one of our favorite foods!)
Whether you ask a longtime employee why they stick around or a new applicant why they’re interested, the answer often includes “the people who work here”. Harmony staff feel like we are making a difference in the world by working at Harmony. We feel that empowerment in the workplace benefits everybody, maybe most especially the employee -the more a staff member is expected and empowered to do their job, the stronger the desire to do that job well. The fact that we have a structure that supports communication via management and operations team meetings, department meetings, and internal communication logs keeps all staff moving in a positive direction in alignment with the Co-op’s mission. We take our jobs seriously, but we have a lot of fun while we're at it!
We’re unique, from the bright green paint and giant wheat sheaf outside right down to the organizational structure of our business. Harmony has a state certified Commercial Kitchen that we lease out to local community members like the local fire department and area schools for fundraisers as well as to local food entrepreneurs like food trucks, caterers, and other local businesses who need a second kitchen. We also provide an array of educational classes in the Kitchen utilizing the expertise of our community, such as Pickling classes, Bread baking, Keto cooking, Gluten free cooking, etc. Since COVID, we’ve added virtual classes to our roster, so we’ve actually been able to grow our community education curriculum! (Fun fact: Bemidji Brewing Company got its start in Harmony’s Community Kitchen, the first Brewery in the U.S. to begin in a food co-op! Bemidji Brewing beer is now ubiquitous in liquor stores and restaurants across Minnesota and the upper Midwest. Their storefront is now just a stone’s throw away from Harmony.)
As exciting as it is to see how far we’ve come and even now how much we’re always working to improve, the future of Harmony Co-op looks even more amazing. While the COVID-19 pandemic put a temporary pause on some things here, we pivoted and adapted the way we do best. Our education program went on Zoom for the duration, which gave us the opportunity to start our own YouTube channel and broadcast our classes worldwide, while our Co-op Explorers kids’ program became a take-home activity bag program; however, our favorite storewide events like the Harvest Fair had to wait. Thankfully, we may not have to wait much longer! Our hope and plans are that we will be able to celebrate our Harvest Fair this fall in 2021. This event is a showcase and celebration of LOCAL…locally grown food, locally produced products, as well as local chefs who know how to bring all the best local components together in a “local” recipe-dish to sample! We are proud to be a part of this vibrant community and we can’t wait to celebrate again soon!