Open Source Groceries: Two University of Chicago graduates bring transparency and fresh fruit to 55th Street

Six months ago, Andrew Cone was working at a hedge fund and making bank. But he was bored. As the recent University of Chicago grad puts it, “I’m not really into sitting in front of a computer making money based on abstractions.” Now, jittery from lack of sleep and sporting a greengrocer’s apron, he paces around his new store and chats up the curious folk who wander in. Open Produce, Hyde Park’s newest (and quirkiest) produce mart, has been open for business for about a week.

Restless for a stimulating project and relatively wealthy from stints in the knowledge economy, Cone and his partner, fellow UofC grad Steven Lucy, kicked around ideas. Initially, they half-joked about starting a railroad company in order to re-ignite the American rail age. Cone eventually toned down this “trademark delusion of grandeur,” as he calls it, to the next closest thing: importing fruit in a boxcar. The pair thought that if people were made aware of the nefarious record of some of the large fruit companies, they wouldn’t mind paying just a tad more for ethical alternatives. As they found out, importing things is really complicated and requires loads of start-up capital. Opening a store actually turned out to be a lot cheaper.

“People are willing to walk, at most, a quarter mile carrying bags,” says Cone. “East Hyde Park is the highest-density area around, and no grocery store is within a quarter-mile of the big buildings. There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with Treasure Island…it’s expensive, it lacks a connection to the community. We saw that as a huge vulnerability.”

Of course, moving from opportunity to reality involved big challenges, like figuring out all the legal and financial technicalities of running a business and bringing the building up to code. Cracks had to be filled, lead paint painted over. Plumbing problems. Permits and installation costs. $4000 mops. Hiring competent eye candy.

“Having the balls to spend money and make investments that will really pay off in the long term has been the hardest part,” Cone muses. The build-out of the past month has been particularly grueling. “We’ve had all sorts of volunteers… a lot of friends have put in lots of hours painting, doing research, coding, providing moral support. This sounds tacky as hell but this really has been a sort of communal effort.”

AAlready a respectable amount of fresh vegetables line the tiny, pastel-colored retail space. There is standard fare along with more exotic pieces such as sugar cane and passion fruit. And more is on the way: Cone continuously seeks out requests, so expect the store’s selection to evolve in step with its customers’ preferences. This flexibility and close contact with the community reflects the store’s commitment to openness, while the organic and local produce embodies its focus on sustainable food production. Rounding out Open Produce’s idiosyncratic take on social entrepreneurship is an attempt at near-total transparency–and, hence, accountability.

The store’s name is a nod to the open source movement, reflecting Cone’s and Lucy’s background as programmers and computer nerds. It also evokes their philosophy: in addition to being a cooperative approach to developing software, open source promotes the idea that information wants to be free, that people have a right to know about the things that affect them.

“The Internet has enabled a sense of entitlement to information. My generation likes to ask, ‘Why can’t I know that?’ We’re very skeptical when people say something is secret or confidential,” Cone remarks. “In fact, the ability to hide things is the crux of immorality. It’s the public’s inability to know and to critique that allows for corporate and governmental abuses, etc.”

These views are the foundation for their business model. Cone and Lucy are betting it’s possible to run a fully transparent business, because they see transparency as an asset rather than as a serious liability. “The liability incurred by being open is canonically overstated. I don’t believe that confidentiality is as important to most businesses as the dominant paradigm would have it.” The idea is that transparency, in the long run, will foster a sense of trust in the customers while making them feel involved with the business, and that this will translate to handsome profit margins. But the practice should also have social impact: Cone and Lucy hope it changes people’s expectations of how a grocer, or a company, ought to operate, and that this pushes them to demand change.

To achieve this transparency, Cone is implementing some innovative and possibly risky measures. In-store signs proclaim an item’s place of origin, price, and wholesale cost. This means the owners are going to be honest about how much they’re marking up. Eventually, the signs will display everything that is known about the product, including distance traveled (relevant for calculating greenhouse emissions), treatment of animals, and, when applicable, pesticides used. Secondly, Cone and Lucy will run Open Produce through a wiki, letting the public, and it’s competitors, know what they’re up to. Business plans, inventory, financial data, distributors, and real-time sales data will all be online. Lastly, Cone has been keeping a colorful blog about the experience of getting the store up and running. Moving forward, will serve both as an informal mouthpiece and as a forum for interaction with customers

In a contemplative moment, Cone unpacks his long-term goals: “I want to make enough money to live and to pay my employees decently. I want the business to still exist in five years. I want this to serve as an example of how a business can run. I want it to be a city on the hill. And then I want to take my experience doing this and do things that matter in the bigger world.” 1635 E. 55th St. Thursday-Tuesday, 11am-11pm; Wednesday, 4pm-8pm. openproduce.org