The survival of Sevananda, Atlanta’s only co-op grocery store

How the 45-year-old Little Five Points mainstay weathered a changing city

Sevananda has faced shifting challenges in its 45 years.

Photograph by Christina Anton

On a bright Sunday afternoon, Damany Felder is filling a small plastic bag with rosemary, standing alongside his adult daughter, Ymaghe, in the produce department of Sevananda Natural Foods Market in Little Five Points. Felder, who describes himself as an herbalist and lives in the West End, has been shopping here for nearly two decades. “They have what I need,” he says simply.

He prefers the cozy, community-minded market—with its vegetarian hot bar, alkaline water selection, and grind-your-own peanut and almond butter station—to Whole Foods, which is roughly seven times the size and about a mile and a half away. “If it ain’t broke,” he says, “don’t fix it.”

As Atlanta’s lone grocery store cooperative, and one of only a handful of vegetarian ones in the nation, Sevananda has endured nearly 45 years of change and some occasional conflict, both in the neighborhood and among the co-op’s member-owners and leadership. But the challenge these days is different than those Sevananda has faced in the past. Though sales have risen in recent years, the store’s predominantly black board members, shoppers, and employees say they need to connect more with the residents of nearby, and predominantly white, Inman Park and Candler Park—particularly the newcomers who might be more familiar with the Publix on Ponce or the “Hipster Kroger” down Moreland. “We have all this great stuff here, and the community doesn’t even know,” says general manager, Ahzjah Netjer Simons. “Or people might have felt they weren’t welcome.”

Less than a mile away, attorneys Brian and Veronica Roof are hanging out in Springvale Park with their two children in strollers, feeding the ducks wheat bread from a plastic bag. Seven years ago, the couple bought a historic home just up the street in Inman Park. The Roofs say they don’t like shopping at Whole Foods because of the traffic. Instead, they drive to Publix to fill their carts with organic dairy, fruit, and meats.

Asked if they’ve heard of Sevananda, Veronica, who’s pregnant with the couple’s third child, shakes her head no. Brian asks: “Where is it? Is it across from Savage Pizza?” It is. “I’ve never been there. I know it exists, but I don’t know much about it.”

“We have all this great stuff here, and the community doesn’t even know.”

Sevananda arrived at a critical time in Little Five Points’ history—a time when Atlanta was going through the inverse of the transition it’s experiencing today. Beginning in the 1960s, with the federal desegregation of public schools, white families were fleeing intown neighborhoods for the suburbs. By the early 1970s, Little Five Points, once a thriving commercial district, was falling into disrepair—and activists were fighting an eventually successful battle to keep a proposed highway from plowing through the neighborhood.

In 1974, Ananda Marga, a Hindu socio-spiritual organization and yoga society, wanted to invest in Little Five Points, which was earning a reputation as the bohemian homebase to the city’s ragtag counterculture movement. They launched Sevananda, which means “the joy of service” in Sanskrit, as a bulk food–buying club for organic produce and herbs. “They were concerned about food and the conditions of our world, so they wanted to make a difference,” Simons says.

Within a few years, Sevananda morphed into a vegetarian, independent food co-op, one where member-shoppers help make decisions about how the store is governed.

“We were very small in the beginning days,” says Marshall Rosenblum, who joined the co-op in November 1979. “At first, the market was comprised simply of working members and a manager. Folks would work three hours a week at the market for a 30 percent discount off buying items like coconut oil and tahini that sat in big barrels in the store. It was self-serve, bring your own bag—a hippie version of a buying club.

“There was always this countercultural, alternative, back-to-nature kind of thing going on in Little Five. And we were the food aspect of that.”

At the time the co-op formed, similarly modeled markets were opening across the country, founded by young idealists drawn to the nonhierarchical nature of such enterprises. By the 1980s, when many Atlanta neighborhoods became inundated with chain stores, Little Five Points had become an “economic anomaly,” according to the 2010 book The Highs and Lows of Little Five; its unusual concentration of independently owned retailers included three record stores, two bookstores, three coffee shops, vintage and new-age boutiques, and a community radio station: WRFG 89.3 FM. (Most are still there.) Visitors ranged from punk rockers to gutter punks, runaways to curious suburban teens.

In the 2000s, as residential real-estate values escalated in Inman Park and Candler Park, change arrived inside Sevananda as well. While the neighborhoods surrounding Sevananda remained mostly white, the leadership and staff of Sevananda shifted to mostly black.

The co-op entered what Simons calls a “period of turbulence” between 2009 and 2012, when there were lawsuits and picketing over a power struggle between leadership and the co-op’s member-owners regarding whether to sell alcohol and meat (the co-op does not). “We almost went under because of it,” Simons says. “You saw sales go down as a result of people not being happy anymore and people not feeling we were living up to our mission.”

A new board was elected in 2014 and helped return the focus to the co-op’s democratic origins. Simons became general manager two years ago, with the goal to ensure that members had a voice and that the market was part of the larger community. “Otherwise, you’re just like another store,” she says.

Simons also is focusing on improving customer service and inclusivity, and says she’d like to expand the market’s private-label products and launch online ordering and delivery. Sevananda is rebounding, she says, even in a marketplace with other natural-food options. Though, sadly, there are fewer stores solely devoted to natural foods, following the closure this year of 42-year-old Rainbow Foods in Decatur, on the heels of the 2014 shuttering of 21-year-old Return to Eden on Cheshire Bridge Road.

Last year, the co-op’s sales were $9.2 million, up from $8.5 million in 2017 and $7.9 million in 2016. Still, the co-op needs to better connect with its neighbors, according to Simons. Many of the original co-op members, including ones who restored the nearby dilapidated Victorian homes in the 1970s, have died or moved away. The median price of a single-family home in Inman Park and Candler Park now tops $700,000 and $600,000, respectively. Those new homeowners are largely unaware that Sevananda is a cooperatively owned business, says Jennifer Ohme, a consultant to the newly formed nonprofit Little 5 Points Alliance. For them, Sevananda remains a secret a little too well kept.

“That it’s a member-owned market makes it a top selling point,” Ohme says. “When they stumble upon Sevananda, it can be empowering.”

This article appears in our August 2019 issue.