The organizers behind the Mustard Seed Co-op grocery store will take the next big step towards realizing their dream at a public meeting Thursday evening. It’s a labour of love six months in the making.

The dream: a cooperative, not-for-profit grocery store in downtown Hamilton that is owned and controlled by its members. The next step: getting those initial members to sign up.

'The more choices and the larger the critical mass of local food options, the better it is both for the consumer and farmers.'—Hamilton Farmers Market manager Donna Lee Macdonald

The group is hosting an event at 7 p.m. at the Central Branch of the Hamilton Public Library to launch its membership campaign. For a one-time, refundable household fee of $100, members own a share of the co-op and are treated to special deals, discounts and workshops. They also are given a vote in how to co-op is run.

The group is hoping for 400 members in the first month of the campaign and 800 by the time the store's doors open in May 2013.

"It’s been amazing to see the groundswell of support," Graham Cubitt, one of the founding members of the co-op, said. He noted the group has attracted hundreds of followers on Facebook and Twitter.

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Crystle Numan (right) guides the Mustard Seed Co-op's Sourcing Action Team through a workshop to help identify the key attributes of the food the organization plans to offer at the store. (Courtesy Mustard Seed Co-op)

With a focus on local, sustainable food options and a hope for a downtown location, the co-op seems at first glance to be in direct competition with Hamilton’s farmers market, but that’s not how Cubitt sees it.

"We think it could be complementary," he said. "I grew up as a farmer and I know we were always looking for more places to sell our produce."

Hamilton Farmers Market manager Donna Lee Macdonald agreed.

"The more choices and the larger the critical mass of local food options, the better it is both for the consumer and farmers," she said. "It’s a win-win situation."

Membership drive

Cubitt and the other members of the Mustard Seed team hope they’ll be able to lure the first round of members Thursday with their event featuring live music, a spread of local food, t-shirts, buttons and, appropriately, mustard seedlings for members to take home to plant.

Along with memberships, Hamiltonians who want to support the initiative can provide loans —starting at $1,000 and ranging up to $200,000 — to get the co-op off the ground.

Once some investments start rolling in, the group plans to hire a general manager and staff to run the store.

The members, including the founding members like Cubitt, won’t turn a financial profit. The co-op will use funds to run the store, including paying staff and fair trade prices for produce.

"The idea is not to maximize profit, but maximize value to our members and our community," Cubitt told CBC Hamilton.

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The Mustard Seed team has held several events over the past few months to promote the idea of a grocery co-op in Hamilton, including this summer information session at the Hill Street Community Garden.

Meaghan Makins is a co-owner of Hamilton-based all-natural snow cones business Sweet Ice. Makins says she’s planning to become a member at the launch Thursday night. Growing up in a small town, Makins remembers going to neighbours’ farms to buy eggs and honey, so the concept of having access to fresh, local food in an urban setting appealed to her.

"As a member,  I’ll get to vote on what kind of food and farmers we bring into the store. As someone who is passionate about knowing where my food comes from, that’s important to me," she said.

She was also intrigued by the opportunities members will have to take part in workshops, such as urban beekeeping, and the chance to source ingredients for Sweet Ice.

"Not having to think about where it comes from and being able to trust that it’s ethical and local is comforting to me."