PORTLAND, Maine — In a warehouse in downtown Portland, scores of people share a secret. Two nights a week, a local farm-fresh cornucopia including beets, chard and free-range chickens are packed into boxes and sent out the door.
Is it the best farmers market you’ve never heard of?
Not quite. It’s the Portland Food Co-op, and it hopes soon to be a visible part of this food-centric city.
“Maine has five co-ops. It blows my mind that Portland doesn’t have one,” said John Crane, who was the assistant general manager at Rising Tide Community Market in Damariscotta for eight years and is helping Portland open its own version. “Our mission is to be accessible. Everyone who plays a role in the natural and local foods industry benefits. All of us.”
Belfast, Blue Hill, Rockland, Norway and Damariscotta have co-ops, but Portland, the largest city in the state, has been without a cooperative grocer, where owners pool their resources to buy local, fresh, organic food, since the Good Day Market closed in the 1990s. In the next year that could change.
“I moved here in ’07 from New York City where I loved the co-op I was in,” said Rachelle Curran Apse. “I said either I will join the co-op that’s here or I will start one.”
She chose the latter.
As the co-op’s storefront startup project manager she kicked off a “ Let’s Open the Doors” campaign this month, seeking new members who were willing to buy a $100 share and tell two friends.
“We are moving so fast right now,” said Curran Apse.
So far it’s a numbers game. They have 450 members that pay a one-time fee. They need approximately 1,400 to rent a storefront, rehab a space and open a market. The co-op is in negotiations with a landlord and organizers hope to announce a location in four to eight weeks, said Apse.
“The plan is to open the doors next fall,” she said. “This leap will be gigantic.”
In September, the co-op received approval for a $330,000 loan from the Cooperative Fund of New England. That will need to be matched by members, Curran Apse said.
“We are a third of the way there.”
Though called a co-op, the organization currently acts like a buying club. Members order food and supplies online every week. On Wednesday and Thursday nights, their goods are waiting for them. Three hours a month, they volunteer to staff the warehouse. Some owners are investors only, who support the vision of a storefront. Now they have a concrete timeline.
“We are confident with no question, we will reach the folks in the next six months to bring in new member/owners. We will raise the funds to have the capital to open the store,” said Curran Apse.
Though less visible than a retail co-op open to the public, Portland’s version has had an effect since it incorporated in 2008.
Last year 61 percent of its products were purchased from local producers. “We have direct relationships with farmers,” said Tim McLain, the co-op’s operations coordinator.
Mushrooms come from Oyster Creek Mushroom Co. in Damariscotta, fish from Port Clyde Fresh Catch and produce is delivered from the Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative. A rotating crop of farms across the state are also in the mix.
“Opening a store would attract a wider audience,” said McLain, who is looking for a location that’s “neighborhoody” and pedestrian and bike-friendly with parking. “We are mission driven.”
Exiting the warehouse last week with a giant box of Pepper Jack Cheese Nut-Thins and a 10-pound sack of black turtle beans, Claire Houston was all smiles. She paid 10-25 percent less for her favorite foods. As a board member, she appreciates the discount, but says the store will “provide a presence that this space doesn’t have.”
It will be a gathering spot for people committed to eating local. And that, beyond discounts, makes members feel better.
“When you are participating in building a sustainable culture, it adds value to your food,” says Irit Altman of Portland, helping out at the co-op last week.
Because owners have a say in what goes on the shelves, they are not profit-driven, like a corporate grocery store.
“As a co-operative the sole purpose is to meet the needs of our owners,” said Curran Apse. “They [larger markets] talk about local, but you don’t see it. We are supplying small farmers, we want to build the local food movement. We want to sell their stuff. It’s a space outside a farmers market that doesn’t exist.”
Despite their strides, not every member thinks a storefront is a slam dunk.
“It will be very difficult to get members,” said Gail Wartell, a University of Southern Maine administration specialist, picking up her healthy larder this week. “People have to buy in. It’s a commitment. A lot of people have a hard time making a commitment.”
For information about the Portland Food Co-op, visit portlandfood.coop.