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$5 Dinner

by Michael Tomaloff, Kitchen Supervisor

It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and I am witnessing a very earnest and, at times, rather intense conversation about hot dogs: coins or slices? How thin? How many? What does a spoonful weigh? This can mean only one thing: we’re on the cusp of another Willy Street Co-op’s $5 Dinners. This happens to be late February, and on the menu is a repeat of the popular mac and cheese bar, with or without hot dogs (and mushrooms, and bacon, and broccoli...), and thus the team knows the ins and outs of this one, and now is an opportunity to refine and revisit the decisions made before the first go ‘round of mac back two months ago.


We make meals for up to 500 people, so it comes as no surprise that a lot of planning goes into these dinners, and deciding on the menu is just the tip of the iceberg. Raw ingredients must be ordered; production needs to be planned; equipment must be secured, transported, and set up; and the event must be staffed. Of course, the staffing might be the easy part, because so many people who work here want in. If you were in line last month you may have been served by the General Manager, the head of Human Resources, our Finance Director, the Production Kitchen’s rockstar cooks (literally, they’re all in touring metal bands), or any number of other Willy Street Co-op characters who were eager to help out. You see, the $5 Dinner is near to the very heart of what the cooperative movement is all about, and that is something you feel when you’re on the serving line. It’s a great feeling.

The nitty gritty

In case you’re not familiar with the $5 Dinner, I’ll fill you in. Every third Thursday Willy  North hosts a special dinner open to all. Follow the signs in the store to the cashier that’s set up just for the event, pay $5, receive a to-go box and join the line. Our staff fills it up with the entree of your choice, a side dish or two, and a cookie, and you’re set for supper. You can take it home to enjoy, or have a seat in the Commons and eat right at the store. Past offerings have included pasta fagioli, tamales, a baked potato bar, tacos, pizza, and of course mac and cheese. 


So what is the origin of this new tradition? I checked in with General Manager Anya Firszt who initially heard about the Durham (North Carolina) Co-op Market’s Three Dollar Dinner, which they serve every Thursday, and thought that would be just the thing for Willy North. Every week is pretty ambitious, and three bucks isn’t a lot to work with, so we tweaked it and do it our own way. We grew the menu a bit, and thus was born our monthly $5 version. Our menu and method may differ from Durham’s, but the goal is the same: building and growing community while providing a healthy and affordable meal. The added traffic in the stores and growing ranks of Owners is certainly a welcome benefit, but the good of our community is most certainly the goal.

It has been quite a while since I had the opportunity to pitch in on the line at the $5 Dinner, but that doesn’t mean I have missed out on those positive cooperative community-building vibes. In fact, you don’t have to punch a clock at the Co-op to get a taste of that; all you need to do is get your $5 Dinner box filled, and rather than walking out the door with it, park yourself at a table in the Commons (or in the warmer months, the patio) and soak up that energy right then and there. It may get a little crowded, someone’s kid may drive a fire truck over your foot, and it might get a little noisy, but that crowd is your neighbors, those children are the future of the Co-op community, and that noise is the music that is made when people of good will and warm hearts get together to share a meal and conversation. 

Join Us

If you’ve not been to Willy North for the $5 Dinner, I hope you join us for one soon. Community, nutrition, quality, value, inclusivity, and fellowship are among the core values of the Co-op, and the wider cooperative movement. Those things don’t happen without you, and no matter who you are, there will always be a seat for you at Willy Street Co-op’s table.