The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the pandemic saved Glut, an odd, beloved Maryland food co-op

A customer at Glut in Mount Rainier, Md. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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On March 5, 2020, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced the state's first cases of a new coronavirus. Eleven days later, just back from a vacation and facing an alarmingly bare fridge and pantry, I went to Glut, the worker-run food co-op in Mount Rainier, Md., where I live. The tiny store was packed — and panicky. No one was wearing a mask; officials were still declaring that masks were for health workers, and where could you have gotten one anyway? A few feet apart, breathing directly in each other's faces, as one does in Glut's tight confines, I spoke to Chris Doyle, the co-op's longest-serving worker. "We're all going to get sick," he said, visibly terrified.

I left shaken and scared — for Glut’s future, for its workers, for our society’s ability to function through what was to come. But one detail from the shopping trip boded well for my beloved store: I’d spent $188.94 — the most I’d ever dropped on a food shopping trip. In the year since, I’ve made many more such trips. So, apparently, have lots of others. As much of the economy has struggled, Glut, the grocery store that defies economic reason, has thrived — at least for now.

In the early days, says Doyle, Glut was about cheap, healthy food and left-wing politics. Founded in 1969 by some D.C.-area peaceniks aiming to undercut food distributors, the operation moved in 1971 to a storefront on the main street of Mount Rainier, then a working-class inner-ring suburb. Doyle joined in 1976. “It was so anti-profit, if we had $200 extra we sent it down to the CCNV,” he recalls, referring to the activist group Community for Creative Non-Violence.

Over time, most worker-run co-ops converted to more conventional management structures, or simply folded. As Glut workers realized they were in it for the long haul, they scaled back charitable donating and raised their prices to give themselves living wages and benefits. Glut is a “not-for-profit charitable trust” managed by its workers; the collective that runs it has always operated on consensus, without any board or big boss calling the shots. Not having a boss is, in fact, partly why free-spirited workers like Doyle have stuck around so long.

“I could have gone and done things that pay better,” says Ziah Ayubu, who has worked at the store since 2000. “But I like the freedom I have. I have other things I need to do, like play music” — with his reggae band, Proverbs. “I don’t have to go to a supervisor and ask, ‘Can I take off next week?’ ” (It turns out many Gluttons have other jobs. Doyle is a carpenter, and another longtime staffer, Nikki Thompson, works in a University of Maryland biology lab.) Still, consensus decision-making can cause challenges. Getting everyone to agree to fire low-performing employees has been, at times, a drawn-out and agonizing process.

I became a Glut regular when I moved to Mount Rainier in 2007, drawn by the city’s reputation as a rare D.C.-area hippie haven. Already an aficionado of granola-slinging food co-ops, I was still startled — in a good way — by how little the store, unlike others of its ilk, seemed to want to mimic Whole Foods Market’s polished, uncluttered style. (Whole Foods is owned by Amazon, whose founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) Glut has long declared itself “Still cheap, still funky.” Bins of bulk nuts, grains, beans, dried fruits, teas and spices occupy close to half the shelf space. Crates of locally grown fruit or buckets of nuts sometimes crowd the floor by the cash registers; spilled bulk oils and honey pool on a wooden shelf in the back. Meat and fish are verboten. Workers maintain a shelf of discounted past-prime produce for the thrifty or food-waste-obsessed shopper.

Glut also challenges too-common stereotypes that “natural” foods are for an elite, mostly White clientele. Based on my observations over the years, people of color are likely on any given day to make up at least half of both workers and customers, reflecting the demographics of the surrounding communities. Staff go out of their way — sometimes far out of their way (like New York City) — to stock shelves with products from more than 250 small, often minority-owned suppliers, and to cater to vegans, locavores and other niche eaters.

Countless times, I’ve walked into Glut feeling tense and mentally wrapped up in work or life dramas, wanting to just grab my items and go. A few minutes of being immersed in the smells of herbs and coffee and the sounds of reggae or go-go music chill me right out; on occasion, I’ve even caught myself dancing by the produce. By the time I get in the checkout line, if I have to wait while staff look up a price or explain to someone ahead of me the health benefits of black seed oil, that’s okay. I’ve been reminded to go with the flow, to be here now. “It’s a strange and special place,” says Thompson, who started at Glut in 1988, giving her a medium-length tenure among collective members.

Not everyone appreciates the store’s strangeness, of course. I’ve encountered people, even in Mount Rainier, to whom Glut’s continued existence is an offense, sparking periodic rants on the neighborhood Facebook group and email groups. “People either love us or they hate us,” Doyle says.

By any economic logic, Glut should have closed years ago. Since I moved here, Yes Organic Market, Mom's Organic Market, Whole Foods and Costco have opened within a few miles. Natural food distribution has consolidated, making it nearly impossible for a small, independent store to get a good deal. According to Doyle, annual sales at Glut fell 40 percent — to just $1.5 million — from 2000 to 2019. That year, the need for long-overdue repairs forced the proudly self-sufficient staff to hold a fundraiser.

Then the pandemic hit. The dining half of the food industry shut down almost overnight, the food system seemed on the verge of collapse and everyone suddenly wanted apocalypse-ready pantries. For many, Glut’s bulk bins went from a charming anachronism to a lifeline. Even as tight spaces stoked fears, sales boomed. The staff re-raised their wages from $11.50 — the county’s minimum wage at the time — to $14.50 an hour (plus health insurance): danger pay.

Doyle, Ayubu and Thompson agree: The pandemic saved Glut. While the peak has passed, sales of purportedly health-enhancing foods like elderberries and sea moss remain robust. “People are trying to get items that they think are going to help their immune system,” Ayubu says. “We sell quite a few of those things.”

No one, however, could tell me what I really wanted to know: What comes now? As our lives again turn hectic and harried, will shoppers continue to tolerate the sometimes maddening idiosyncrasies and inefficiencies of a place like Glut? And as old-timers like Doyle edge toward retirement, will young workers emerge who are similarly willing to sacrifice professional status and money to keep a special place going?

Such questions worry me. But I know I need to embrace impermanence and enjoy the here and now. As long as Glut lasts, there will still be at least one haven for me and my fellow weirdos.

Gabriel Popkin is a journalist in Mount Rainier, Md.

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