New market co-op aims to add variety, strengthen Portland’s local food economy

Posted Jan. 06, 2014, at 5:30 p.m.
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan speaks at the opening of the Portland Food Co-op's new Congress Street location.
Kathleen Pierce
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan speaks at the opening of the Portland Food Co-op's new Congress Street location. Buy Photo
Farmer Christine Pompeo (from left), Portland Food Co-op board president Daniel Ungier and board of directors member Claire Houston stand in their new Congress Street location.
Kathleen Pierce
Farmer Christine Pompeo (from left), Portland Food Co-op board president Daniel Ungier and board of directors member Claire Houston stand in their new Congress Street location. Buy Photo

PORTLAND — In a city with an embarrassment of food riches, what’s one more market?

“We have a lot of great restaurants and farmers markets, but this is the missing piece,” Mayor Michael Brennan told a crowd assembled in the future home of Portland Food Co-op on Monday.

After years of hopscotching between storefront and warehouse, and acting as a buying club, the member-owned cooperative is leasing 5,000 square feet at 290 Congress St. for a public market.

When it opens in September, Portland Food Co-op will add 20 jobs and sell produce and goods from more than 100 Maine farmers and producers.

The market will be located in a strip mall currently anchored by a Rite-Aid and owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. The lease terms were not disclosed.

The new market is touted by local food advocates as essential to maintaining a healthy food system.

“This is a way to revitalize the economy in a just, fair way,” said Sam May, a board member of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, who spoke at the event.

The co-op has 616 member-owners who have equity in the business. Membership comes with a one-time $100 investment. Owners pool their money to buy goods from a network of Maine farmers. Without a storefront, they have kept a low profile. Since its inception in 2007 members have been searching for a space. A physical presence will help them expand their reach and strengthen the buy-local movement, they say.

Though companies such as Whole Foods Market and Hannaford Supermarkets sell local products, community-owned markets keep their prices competitive because they are not solely focused on making a profit.

“Our goal is not to maximize profits. We are after the triple bottom line, which is financial, environment and community,” said Rachelle Curran Apse, project manager for the store front. “We will have a wider variety of local food, wider than all of the competitors.”

They plan to carry local, natural and organic products from meat to ice cream to coffee to beer and wine.

This fall the co-op received approval for a $330,000 loan from the Cooperative Fund of New England and launched a campaign to recruit more members. They hope to attract 800 more for a total of 1,400 members to ensure the store’s success.

Total startup costs for the co-op, which operates “somewhere between a nonprofit and a for-profit,” said Curran Apse, is $1.25 million. They have raised just less than $500,000 from the fund and membership loans.

Farmers like Sarah Wiederkehr of Winter Hill Farm in Freeport say the co-op will help their bottom line, too. When the market opens, she anticipates selling more cheese and yogurt and adding new items to her retail line. “The way it’s set up now is not sustainable,” she said of the buying club. “This will give us more visibility.”

By offering a bounty of local products in a full-scale market, the co-op can do more than please city dwellers. Brennan rattled off a statistic of which he is not proud: Maine “imports 80 percent of our food and that makes us food insecure,” he said.

The market will help provide “healthy food and reduce our carbon footprint and make us food secure,” said Brennan, who recently became a member.

The co-op can also play a role in the city’s campaign to serve locally produced food in public schools. It’s now 30 percent and when the co-op opens, he hopes that number will jump to 50.

Though tiny by supermarket industry standards, Portland Food Co-op will have an impact in the marketplace.

Michael Norton, Hannaford Supermarkets’ director of external communications, views the co-op as a competitor, but says the more local food is touted, the better.

“Development of the local food economy is usually good for everyone who sells fresh food. It supports people making more meals at home,” he said in an email. “It potentially strengthens the network of growers and specialty food makers that we rely on for our close-to-home items.”

Beyond sales, a co-op is traditionally much more than a store. Located in a plaza with a large parking lot, near a bus stop and between the Old Port and Munjoy Hill, “we are excited about making it a community place where people can come together,” said board president Daniel Ungier.

“It’s about strengthening and building what it means to be in Portland.”

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