chris dilley header 1

Chris Dilley

What is your official title?

General Manager of the People’s Food Co-op.


What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?

Good question. I spend time in the store just looking at the condition of the store and checking in with everyone. I try to look through the eyes of the customer as they are walking through the store. I spend a lot of time communicating with the staff that works at the Co-op along with our managers, and I do a fair amount of work by email. A lot of my job is financial management and people management.


Any upcoming events we should watch for?

I think for 2015, we’re continuing to figure out how to serve the community better in terms of access to good food. There’s some stuff coming up at the Farmer’s Market. In 2013, we took on managing the Farmer’s Market, as you’ve heard from Chris Broadbent, and that effort and energy has been awesome for us and the community. Our goal is to create access to food that is healthy for people, healthy for land, and healthy for the economy; that’s our guiding light, and the Farmer’s Market taking that on has been huge for us. So, we’ve got some stuff going on there, but unfortunately it’s not stuff we can share yet; it will be very fun and exciting, though, so stay tuned!

As far as the store, I think we are just continuing to get better at connecting with local farms. I did some math recently and in 2014 we increased our local purchasing by over $100,000 to $550,000, and that is all within 100 miles. We want to continue supporting the community, and we want to talk about it more!


Can you tell us about your background/passion?

I have a degree in anthropology, cultural and linguistic anthropology, from Michigan State. I moved to Kalamazoo right after graduating as a place to stay for about nine months before I moved to China, because that was my area of interest in anthropology. What brought me to Kalamazoo is that I had a group of friends here; I lived in China for a few years, but always came back to Kalamazoo.

That cultural and linguistic anthropology interest turned into living in China and teaching English and Humanities, but living in China is what led me to my interest in food. When I returned to Kalamazoo, the Co-op was a place where some of my friends worked and I really enjoyed coming to. I did some other work here – I was a graphic designer for four years, and I did in-home care for folks with developmental disabilities, but my interests and my friends all really revolved around the Co-op.

When I was done with graphic design, I started serving on the board of the Co-op, and after a few years the position of Manager came up, so I applied for that. I have been the manager for 11 years, but volunteering several years before that as well.


What do you love most about Kalamazoo?

I love that Kalamazoo is the right size for me. It’s big enough where I feel like you can go out and do something and be anonymous-ish and not necessarily see everyone you know, yet it’s small enough that I can choose those pockets where I can be around the people I know. And, it’s small enough where you can get traction with ideas that I think is harder to do in bigger places. We also have a generous community financially that puts money into things like the arts and theater; it’s just rare to find that in another community our size.


What do you think can be improved about Kalamazoo?

I’m really active, and the Co-op is active in anti-racism work, so recognizing the limitations that we have in our community and understanding privilege, and white privilege; it’s a national issue, but I feel like Kalamazoo has cultural history around racism that we need to work hard to address and lift it up. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s so important for us to understand and bring it to the table.


What have you been jammin’ to recently? What’s on the iPod?

I really like guitar a lot, so I like singer/songwriters, like Damien Jurado – he’s a great guitarist and singer/songwriter.


How do you take your coffee?…or do you?

I don’t drink coffee. We have this Bhakti Chai at the store in bottles that’s really freakin’ good!


Any good books you’ve been reading?

I do enjoy reading. Some of the stuff I read is junk. Something that I’m reading now that I’ve gotten a lot of out is a series of books called A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business; it’s by Ari Weinzweig, one of the owners of Zingerman’s. He has three books, and the one I’m reading now is called Managing Ourselves; it’s all the things we need to do to be a good manager by taking care of ourselves. We use a lot of Zingerman’s stuff, and have trained our staff on a lot of their principles. The stuff is just really solid so we try to get all of our managers to read it and talk about our expectations of each other and how those expectations get greater as we become better managers.


Can you talk a little about the food culture in Kalamazoo and how you’ve seen it evolve?

It’s evolved greatly. I’ve been in Kalamazoo for 21 years, and when I moved into town, I knew the Co-op was here, and I knew Food Dance as far as locally sourced food. To me, that evolution in local sourcing in our food culture has been huge. 20 years ago it was so minimal, and 14 years ago we founded Fair Food Matters; that was at a time when you could count on one hand, in my opinion, the interesting food things that were happening that were about connecting with your grower. Now, there’s no way I can keep up with all of the things that are going on with local farming.

Last year at the Farmer’s Market, we worked with 170 community based food businesses. Isn’t that amazing? There’s just a lot going on. Caring about where food comes from, and the stories behind it and the people who are doing it are helping it change and evolve.


Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?

Mainly what I do outside of the house is eat. I have a four and a half year old, so my go to spots right now tend to be the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, the Kalamazoo Public Library, and the Air Zoo – those are the big three. If I have a minute to myself, I think food-wise, Rustica is a place that Lucy, my wife, and I like to go a lot. And a place to chill out is the Black Owl.


If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?

Chill out, it’s going to be OK. There will be more days. People who are important to me have given me that advice over the years.


What is your dream for the future of the Co-op?

There’s lots that can play into that. I feel that the vision and mission that we have to create access to food that’s healthy for people and the the backbone of the Co-op. I think I have a vision that’s a little bigger than that. I want to see more of the community served by businesses that are owned by the community – the cooperative model. I love food, but I’ve learned that I love cooperation more. There’s something about the opportunity for people to relate to each other as we are solving our own needs and problems through cooperation. I love the cooperative housing stuff, the credit unions, but there is a ton of stuff we can be doing in this community taking that approach.


What advice would you give to other parents who are trying to teach the value of locally sourced food to their kids?

The thing that’s come into my mind, really comes back to relationships. I think it’s helping my son have authentic relationships and asking for what he needs and wants that builds trust with people. To me, that extends into everything, but I think food is where that comes from, and it’s important to get to know the people who are growing the food we’re eating.


Do you have a favorite kind of food?

We are coming up on Chinese New Year, and one of my favorite foods in the world is dumplings, the half-moon shaped ones – you can pretty much fill those up with anything and they’re going to be good. I also really love eggplant.


Chris, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Keep up with Chris and People’s Food Co-op on facebook. Also, be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.