Concerns about the unsustainability of the conventional food system have promoted interest in alternative food networks (AFNs), which are typically conceptualized through their differences from conventional food networks. Real-life AFNs, however, tend to show some similarities to the conventional food system. This hybridity has caused some criticism, but also, increasingly, calls for a more open examination of AFNs. Indeed, AFNs can be seen as relational to and shaped by the prevailing food system, for example the expectations the conventional system has promoted among consumers. In this paper, through a multiple case study of nine alternative food retailers, we examine the negotiation of acceptable practice in AFNs and the challenges encountered in trying to do things alternatively. We employ convention theory, which encourages a view of action as socially negotiated and situational, and acknowledges plural legitimate notions of worth in guiding and justifying actions. Our findings show a plurality of ideals in the domain of AFNs and a complex navigation between the retailers’ own expressed ideals and considerations and perceived consumer expectations. The retailers’ justification of actions highlights several areas of tension in AFN practice, helping also to understand the challenges in adopting sustainable practices. While responding to consumer expectations sometimes involved adopting more conventional practices, the retailers also challenged consumers on certain issues. Our findings also show how even market-oriented AFNs may take radically alternative courses of action. The study supports the broader argument for examining all food networks in an open way, focusing on actual sustainability outcomes.