Illinois food co-op named "Best Small Business in America" by sustainability company

Sugar Beet Food Co-op is a neighborhood source of local, sustainable and healthy foods. [photo: Co-operative News]Sugar Beet Food Co-op is a neighborhood source of local, sustainable and healthy foods. [photo: Co-operative News]Sugar Beet Food Co-op is a neighborhood source of local, sustainable and healthy foods. [photo: Co-operative News]Sugar Beet Food Co-op, a community-owned grocery store near Chicago, has been named Best Small Business in America by sustainable waste and recycling company Rubicon Global.

Rubicon launched the prize to celebrate Small Business Saturday, celebrated across the United States on November 25, and had shortlisted 10 of the companies it works with for the $10,000 prize.

“Small businesses are the fabric of America and we can think of no better example of a successful, environmentally conscious company than Sugar Beet Co-op," Rubicon said in its announcement. 

Sugar Beet Food Co-op was founded in 2012 in Oak Park, a town outside Chicago, to offer “a full-service, co-op grocery store that would provide a neighborhood source for local, sustainable, healthy foods and a way of connecting farmers and producers to their customers.”

Since then it has worked with other local groups to organize food learning and sharing events, and runs a Food For All program for families with limited means to buy healthy goods.

For the competition, Rubicon, which works with small business customers to find new efficiencies in their waste streams and to develop new ways to reduce and recycle waste, asked entrants to list the challenges they’ve faced and overcome to make the business successful as well as socially and environmentally conscious.

“It’s exciting to win the top honors, but the most touching part was the huge groundswell of support for Sugar Beet—many folks commenting and sharing on social media, talking about how great they feel the co-op is," said Lissa Dysart, marketing manager at Sugar Beet. 

She added, “I think Sugar Beet has succeeded in creating a unique, mission-based business that truly is rooted in the community. Whether it’s knowing our customers and producers by name on their visits here, or the ability to respond to specific requests and feedback, Sugar Beet is able to capitalize on the best parts of being a small business.”

Dysart said the co-op chose Rubicon as its waste handler because of the company's stated purpose to “create a new waste and recycling model that nourishes life.”

“Some people may not consider it a very sexy topic, but when we got our new compost dumpster from Rubicon, we were so excited about it we shared it on social media, with an overwhelmingly positive response,” she added. 

Sugar Beet Co-op’s work, which helped it win the award, includes fostering small producers’ products, reducing its waste stream through composting and diverting compost to a local goat farm and donating a nickel to an area organization every time a customer declines or reuses a shopping bag. 

It also runs an annual food-centric edible garden tour in the area, hosts monthly food, book and clothing swaps, and has a bag-sharing tree at its entrance for customers to pick up or drop off bags when shopping.

“Our scholarship program for our sister nonprofit to encourage kids to learn about cooking food and where it comes from, and our recently started discount program to support healthy food accessibility for people currently receiving public assistance, are all elements of what we do at the co-op to help foster that community, and it seems like it’s working," Dysart said. 

Atlanta’s Grubbly Farms, which uses waste in its work breeding insects for animal feed, came second at $2,000, while vegetarian food firm NoBull Burger, from Charlottesville, Virginia, finished third and will receive $1,000.

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