Leo Sanders would probably prefer to remain incognito as he peruses the aisles of Seward Community Co-op in south Minneapolis, filling his reusable containers with freshly ground almond butter, mushrooms, broccoli, kale and sprouts, grass-fed butter, fresh bread, sheep's milk yogurt from Vermont and dates from California.
But as Seward celebrates 50 years of service this month — making it the oldest co-op in the Twin Cities — many supporters point out that Sanders deserves a shout-out, too.
The trim 72-year-old vegetarian (who's never been to the gym, preferring to ride his bike or walk) has been connected to the co-op's many iterations for nearly as long, first as a customer in the late 1970s, then serving in many management positions up until his retirement in 2017.
Now he's once again a happy regular customer. If he finds on his retirement income that it's a stretch to buy those fresh dates, there's no way he's shopping elsewhere. He'd just "go back to work" at Seward, he said.
They'd certainly have him.
"Leo is the definition of the kind of young people who started co-ops," said Liz Liddiard Wozniak, a former Seward human resources manager who worked with Sanders for more than 20 years.
She credits Sanders with helping to create a "safe and respectful" workplace culture back in the day, including instituting training of employees. "I cherish all the things we did together," she said.
Current general manager Sean Doyle agreed. "Leo has always been a lovely and constructive leader, with incredible positivity for the co-op business model. He's devoted a good part of his life to helping it become the successful community-owned business that it is." Doyle noted that Seward grew out of the North Country Co-op (NCC), which was founded in 1971 in a building owned by Augsburg University. NCC traced its origin to an informal "people's pantry" that was located in the People's Center on the West Bank.
A few months after NCC opened, a group of co-op enthusiasts took over a small convenience store nearby at 22nd and Franklin Avenues, and Seward Community Co-op was founded. In 2009, Seward moved to its sunny and spacious flagship on E. Franklin and Riverside Avenues.
In 2013, the co-op opened a second store, called the Friendship Store, on 38th Street and S. 3rd Avenue. The two stores employ more than 250 people. Seward was the first unionized supermarket in the Twin Cities to guarantee a $15-an-hour wage to its employees. Today, more than 22,000 households cooperatively own the business.
Those facts matter deeply to Sanders, who lives with his wife, Karen Grabau, in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis. The youngest of four, he grew up in North Dakota in a family "steeped in co-opness," with a father active in the state Farmers Union.
He moved to Minnesota in 1977, shopping at the original Seward co-op (frequented by "hippies, neighbors and college professors," he said), and working temp jobs. Back then, he recalled, the concept of "fair trade" was gaining attention — "a recognition that industrial farming was killing the planet," he said.
He started working at the co-op in 1981 before leaving in 1985 to return to school to become a drug counselor. He returned in 1998 to help with the building of the new store, serving in roles from HR manager to facilities manager to developer of training materials until he retired.
He always worked a four-day week for reasons that might lead the rest of us toward some self-reflection:
"I've always liked the idea of working fewer hours," he said, "and earning less money to have the freedom to get to a doctor's appointment or grow a garden."
He's got admirable clarity about where his money goes, too, even on his fixed income. "I spend more on groceries than anything else," he said. "Eighteen percent. But the co-op is where I get produce from farmers I've met in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota — farmers who grew up with Seward."
Plus, there are always those funny stories — at least, funny in the retelling. In the early 2000s, he recalled, an intoxicated vendor turned off all the lights and, unwittingly, all the power to the building as well. All the coolers were shut off for two hours before anybody got wind of it.
"We called everybody to come in," Sanders recalled. "We had to unload all the coolers during a March blizzard."
They also had to give many thousands of dollars' worth of food away. "I was a little miffed that people gleefully benefited from our loss," he said. Fortunately, they had insurance.
Sanders remains as proud of the co-op today as he was when he was a younger man. He's thrilled by the sheer volume of young people who have started farms to grow and sell produce, something that was "unimaginable" 45 years ago.
"The Twin Cities are the epicenter of the co-op movement," he said. "It's about integrity."