So Stewart and Vonderplanitz created a private food club where, for a $25 annual fee, members "lease" the land and livestock directly from a farmer. Then, members pay an additional service fee attached to each grocery item, which they say covers the cost of transporting each food item from the farm to Venice.

The pair reasoned that they didn't need to obtain a license from state or local agencies because they weren't technically retailers. In 2004, Rawesome opened on Rose Avenue in Venice. "We're just a place where people come to pick up the products they already own," Vonderplanitz said.

The L.A. County Public Health Department didn't see it that way. Vonderplanitz said that in 2005 the agency told Rawesome staff they needed a food-business license. Vonderplanitz said that he objected in a letter, and that the county never replied or followed up. (County officials declined to comment.)
Five years passed. Rawesome now boasts 1,600 members, who battle for street parking every Wednesday and Saturday when the club is open.

Squeezed between a coffee shop and a vintage guitar store, Rawesome looks from the outside like a forgotten storage unit. A tiny club sign hangs on the 10-foot-tall corrugated fence that hides the windowless storefront.

But inside, the shop is bright and airy, a bohemian farmers market surrounded by burnt-orange walls and a white tarp roof to keep out the rain. Boxes of coconuts and ginger from Hawaii sit nestled next to crates of California squash. Labels identify where each bite of produce was grown: onions from the Viva Tierra farm in Harlingen, Texas, and King's Crown Organic farm in King Hill, Idaho.

The members — a mix of tattooed young people and middle-aged executives in Italian shoes — chat as they head to the walk-in cooler in the back. It is jam-packed with meat and dairy. Ziploc bags are filled with chicken, beef and pork. Many don't have an expiration date. The other side is stocked with Amish buttermilk ($7.95 a quart), Amish cream cheese ($12.75 a pound) and whole milk ($8.59 per half-gallon).

Agencies that participated in the raid on Rawesome included the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Investigators confiscated the club's computer and 17 coolers packed with, among other things, 24 bottles of organic honey, 10 gallons of raw whole milk and two bottles of raw cane syrup. Stewart said the health department slapped a closure notice on the club's front door that said it was "operating a food facility without a valid public health permit."

The health department, district attorney's office and the FDA declined to comment, citing the pending investigation. The state Department of Food and Agriculture, which was the agency of record on the search warrant, said it continues to work with the district attorney's office.

Co-op members are undeterred. Four days after the raid, Rawesome reopened its doors. The shelves were restocked. They have remained so ever since.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the line stretched halfway down the block. A stern young man in baggy cargo pants and sunglasses guarded the entrance, checking drivers' licenses. Lela Buttery, a Rawesome volunteer and professional biologist, handed out legal waivers to sign.

One woman, digging into her green grocery bag for a pen, asked, "You guys got shut down last week?"

"Yes," Buttery said.

"That's nuts," the woman replied. "You're not going to stop, right?"

Buttery grinned. "Can I see your membership card?"

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com