BLUE HILL, Maine — Now that it has moved into its new home, the Blue Hill Co-op is the state’s largest cooperatively owned and operated grocery store and cafe.
For General Manager Kevin Gadsby, opening the new store at 70 South St. earlier this month — the culmination of a 15-year effort — was like winning a marathon. The co-op first acquired an option to purchase the 5½-acre parcel on South Street, where routes 172 and 175 lead toward Sedgwick and Brooklin, in 2012.
To raise the $6.4 million it took to fund the new building and equipment, the 2,100-member organization’s fundraising efforts featured $2.1 million in individual member investments and contributions, including a $281,000 donation that will fund a solar power array to be installed on the roof later this year, Gadsby said.
“The lending group rallied behind our efforts, but what was really moving to me was the local community and the way it supported our efforts through financial commitment,” Gadsby said. “It was an amazing process.”
The 7,014-square-foot space dwarfs its former home on Ellsworth Road and edges the approximately 6,000-square-foot Belfast Co-op, which had been the largest co-op in the state since it opened in 1994, said Doug Johnson, Belfast’s general manager.
The other retail co-op store generally considered among Maine’s largest, Rising Tide Co-op of Damariscotta, is also about 6,000 square feet, said Heather Burt, Rising Tide’s general manager.
The largest co-op in Maine’s largest city, the Portland Food Co-op, is about 4,000 square feet, said John Crane, Portland’s general manager and a member of the Cooperative Maine Business Alliance steering committee.
All the co-ops are dedicated to selling all forms of Maine food, health products and organics. While size isn’t everything, the Blue Hill Co-op is poised to become the largest retail sale point of Maine farm produce, Crane said.
“It could have a real, positive impact on local farm-grown produce,” Crane said. “One of our main missions is supporting the local farming community.”
The co-op’s reopening in Blue Hill is probably the biggest thing to happen with the state’s nine retail cooperative stores since five opened about five years ago. The new co-ops are in Gardiner, Fort Kent, Portland, Waterville and Brooks, although Waterville’s has closed since, Johnson said.
“It will be exciting to see what they do in terms of volumes of sales,” Burt said, adding that the relatively small population of the Blue Hill Peninsula might hinder the co-op’s growth.
“It’s rare to see a cooperative jump that much in size, but I think the store is beautiful, and their marketing and merchandising have been very solid. I am enthusiastic about their potential,” Johnson said.
Gadsby said he cannot tell yet how many more Maine wholesalers will sell products through his store. The store caters to 25 Maine-based farms — including 10 from the Blue Hill Peninsula — and other Maine-based producers. He said he has already started looking for producers from beyond the peninsula.
About 150 Maine businesses sell products through the co-op, Gadsby said, and the store’s workforce has increased from 30 to 50 part- and full-timers.
Many of the grocer’s products are Maine-made, and the co-op made more than $1 million in sales of those Maine products in 2016 and increased that figure slightly in 2017, said Gadsby, who didn’t have 2018 sales figures immediately available Wednesday.
Gadsby said he does not know what will happen with the co-op’s former home, which is listed for sale. Its lack of space limited the amount of merchandise the co-op could keep in stock, which, in turn, affected the co-op’s purchasing power when it bought in bulk.
The buildout of the South Street store is incomplete. About 488 trees will be planted there this fall. The co-op hopes to use its large cafe space to host to host community events — film screenings, open-mic nights, and beer and wine tastings. Its managers have talked about offering parking lot space to a local farmer’s market and adding more of the products it already carries, including local cheeses, meats and locally brewed beers, Gadsby said.
“This is just the beginning,” Gadsby said. “We’re just going to keep improving.”
Watch: Portland Food Co-op looks to go public