PORTLAND, Maine — Belfast, Blue Hill, Rockland, Norway and Damariscotta all have a co-op. Up in The County, the town of Houlton opened a member-run co-op store this summer. But Portland, Maine’s largest, foodiest city, has been without a cooperative grocer, where owners pool their resources to buy local, fresh, organic food, for almost twenty years.
That is about to change.
In a storefront in Congress Plaza, teams of carpenters cut planks of wood for custom cabinets. Lights gleam overhead, and refrigerated shelves, soon to hold local meat, fish and dairy, line the walls. Located in the India Street neighborhood, the 5,000 square-foot home of Portland Food Co-op will be teeming with fresh food and customers when the doors swing open in the next few weeks.
“I am just so overjoyed with the level of engagement and involvement by the community,” said co-op board member Rachelle Curran Apse. “The outpouring of support and enthusiasm exceeded our expectations.”
Last October, the co-op kicked off a Let’s Open the Doors campaign, which raised $1.6 million to turn the buying club, where members pick up local produce and natural goods in a warehouse twice per month, into a storefront for all to support the bounty of the state and beyond. With a dedicated retail location at 290 Congress St., they can do much more.
A demo kitchen is being built for cooking and wellness classes. A 24-foot bulk wall dispensing grains, nuts and dried fruit anchors one zone. A full-scale cafe will offer grab and go breakfasts, soups, coffee and sandwiches. Locally grown produce, harvested meat and fish get top billing.
“The fundamental mission is to build the local food movement by having as many relationships with farmers and food producers as possible,” said Curran Apse. “We are shooting for in the hundreds.”
The co-op will stand out for many reasons, not the least of which is a giant parking lot and proximity to growing pockets of the city such as Munjoy Hill and easy access to Route 295.
The business startup opens a new door for emerging food, health and beauty entrepreneurs.
“We are at an advantage point to be able to support the local community by emphasising local producers,” said general manager Kevin Gadsby, who has 20 years experience in the natural foods industry. “If we have a product on the shelf from a more conventional vendor and we can source it with a quality local product that exceeds that value, we will do it. We will put it on the shelf and see how the community responds.”
To transition from a warehouse buying club to a thriving storefront takes deep pockets. Funding was generated by member/owner loans, the Cooperative Fund of New England, the city of Portland and private and public grants, said Curran Apse.
During the drive, Portland Food Co-op went from 450 member-owners last fall to 1,400 this spring. They expect to reach 2,000 before opening day.
“We are nearly there,” she said.
Scouring the city for the right space, the best scenario was right under their noise. The Portland Food Co-op store is directly across the street from their headquarters. Construction began this summer on the space owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which wanted a community-minded tenant.
“Rent in Portland can be crazy,” said Curran Apse. “As a startup, we can’t pay the prices. They were really interested in us because of our relationship with the community. We are able to afford it and are not paying premium.”
Still in a food-centric city home to Maine’s only Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s, how can a new food startup stay solvent?
Success will be measured by community, not commerce.
“Profitability of the co-op is not us making more revenue; it has everything to do with supporting the producers. When our members know we are profitable, really what that equates to is more support for producers in Maine,” said Gadsby. “It’s the triple bottom line in co-ops — people, profit, planet.”
In the final weeks, teams are working diligently. As soon as the city issues the co-op an occupancy certificate, an opening date will be announced.
“We expect it to happen fast,” said Curran Apse, who says a soft opening before Thanksgiving is likely.
“There are hundreds of people who have invested in the co-op to see this community-funded project thrive,” said Curran Apse. “There has been incredible inspiration, and it shows the strength and success to come.”