Nice article, below, with some strong numbers proving the potential of cooperatives to power Maine’s future food system! It was a long, long road beginning with the 1st meeting in March of 2006! Congratulations, Portland!
By David Carkhuff | Portland Phoenix | Nov 25, 2015
What a difference a year makes, especially in the life of a grocery cooperative.
Nearly a decade ago, the Portland Food Co-op was little more than a meeting topic among hopeful residents.
But the last year has been a doozy for the cooperative. Its retail grocery store at the base of Munjoy Hill has thrived, member-owners reported, and listeners could almost hear sighs of both relief and gratitude.
“This year, the Portland Food Co-op has exceeded all of our original expectations. … We have almost 3,500 member-owners, and we have exceeded all projections for sales and purchases,” said Portland Food Co-op General Manager John Crane.
Last Thursday, on the one-year anniversary of the opening of the cooperative’s retail store at 290 Congress St., Crane and others celebrated.
Community members have purchased more than $1 million worth of goods and foods grown and produced in Maine, Crane said. In less than a year, the cooperative has more than doubled the number of local farmers and producers involved and gained more than 1,000 additional member-owners, he noted.
The secret to a cooperative’s success is commitment, Crane said.
“It’s really about bringing the people together, it’s that common vision and deciding you want to do it. … It’s the will because there’s no guiding force behind this outside of the people who make up the co-op deciding they want to put in the time and energy,” Crane said.
Three years ago, Crane joined a buying club operating out of a little warehouse, with 400 members.
“We sat around with a space heater under the table thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had a retail store in Portland?’ And two years ago, we announced we were going to do it, last year we opened it. And to me one of the things that makes me the proudest of this venture is this community market really came from the community,” Crane said.
Today, 27 employees work at the co-op, and the business logged more than $3 million in sales this year and invested more than $2 million in Maine’s economy, organizers said.
Katia Holmes, who runs Misty Brook Farm in Albion with her husband, Brendan, recalled selling a little bit of milk at the cooperative in its early days of tentative retail sales. Since then, the organic farm has sold more than 5,000 pounds of vegetables, 1,500 gallons of milk, 1,200 dozen eggs, 450 pounds of meat and 350 pounds of grains through the co-op.
“Over this first year, they have become our number one biggest customer in sales, and I believe that’s because of the diversity of products that they offer,” Katia Holmes said.
Brendan Holmes said the “micro economy” of Albion benefits as well, as the farm has been able to hire locally to meet this Portland-based demand.
Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said the cooperative model is the most locally sourced and focused of any business setup.
“When you spend a dollar here, not only are you supporting this business and everyone who works here, but you’re also supporting all of the other local businesses that the co-op uses … and you’re supporting all of these great food producers in Maine, so when you spend money here, there’s just this great ripple of benefits that goes through the local economy,” Mitchell said.
As an example, Tortilleria Pachanga of Portland logged sales of 20,000 tortillas at the co-op, a success story for one of the member-owners.
The history of the cooperative reaches back nearly 10 years, into a past when the success of such a venture was anything but certain.
A history posted on the cooperative’s website explained, “The momentum for the Portland Food Co-op started in the spring of 2006, in response to the closure of a locally owned natural food grocery store in Portland. In 2006-2007, community leaders organized several community meetings to create a shared vision for access to local food in greater Portland.”
From 2008-2009, a leadership team built the cooperative and created bylaws, articles of incorporation and a member-owner structure, and in 2010 the cooperative kicked off its first member-owner drive, but a retail site remained a goal.
From 2008-2012, the focus on pre-order operations supported growth to over $200,000 in annual sales, the cooperative reported, with 150 member-owners filling monthly work shifts. Yet an organizing effort to start a retail storefront food co-op slowed for several years, until 2012, when leaders revisited the development of a retail space, according to the history.
In the fall of 2013, the Portland Food Co-op began a member-owner drive and fundraising program to reach 2,000 member-owners and $1.6 million needed for opening the retail store. In October 2013, Portland Food Co-op launched the Let’s Open the Doors campaign to sign up 1,000 new member-owners needed to help open the community-owned market in Portland, the cooperative organizers announced. From the launch of the Let’s Open the Doors campaign, new member-owners were signing up every day, and in about three months, the cooperative gained more than 600 member-owners, the group reported.
The Portland Food Co-op announced in January of 2014 that it had signed the lease on the space for its planned storefront location, the former space of Labor Ready, and the store opened in the fall of that year.
Each October, cooperatives all across the country celebrate the role, accomplishments and contributions of cooperatives. In the state of Maine, Co-Op Month is sponsored by Cooperative Maine.
The 2015 Co-op Month theme is “Growing Our Communities Through Cooperatives.” The goal of Co-op Month is to shed light on the many contributions of co-ops to their communities and the nation while educating the public and policy makers about the benefits of cooperative institutions in different sectors of the economy, including: housing, finance, food, childcare and education among many others.
Less than one month away! Visit the Cooperative Maine Booth! Meet folks from various cooperatives from around Maine! Volunteer for a shift at the booth! Attend one of our cooperative workshop sessions! Contact: Paul Sheridan, Cooperative Maine, email@example.com, 207-338-0350
MESSAGE FROM PAUL SHERIDAN:
Friends: Please pencil in these dates, and discuss with your board/managers…
It is certainly not too soon to be thinking about the Common Ground Country Fair, Sept 25-27 in Unity….
Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative (COMOC) is a worker cooperative connecting Maine food producers & consumers statewide & beyond since 1995.
Buy local, buy wholesale, buy cooperative, buy statewide, DELIVERED to your buying club!
With a vision emphasizing, “Access and Affordability: Local Foods on the Maine Table”, via their, “Farm Direct Delivery to Buying Clubs”, COMOC delivers regularly to more than 40 buying clubs around the state, including:
Downeast: Hancock, Ellsworth, Machias, Calais, Eastport, Dennysville, Bar Harbor, Penobscot Up North: Wellington, Orono, Fort Kent Central Maine: Lewiston, Lisbon Falls, Unity, Belgrade, Dixmont, Pittsfield Midcoast: Rockland, Islesboro, Tenants Harbor, North Haven, Bath, Brunswick Westward: Rumford, Greenwood, Cornish, Limerick Greater Portland: Portland, Chebeague, Gorham Southward: Kennebunkport, Alfred, Kittery
Call their friendly & helpful worker-owners Mon-Fri 8 am – 4 pm at: 207-877-7444
No paper tigers, Cooperative Maine members have been actively campaigning to STOP FAST TRACK!
FAIR TRADE ACTION | April 19 | I-295 in Portland, ME | action co-planned & co-ordinated by Martha Spiess & Ed Democracy | PHOTO by Ed Democracy of Cooperative Maine
You’ll be happy to know that Cooperative Maine IS among the over 2000 organizational signers of the letter sent to Congress by the Citizens Trade Campaign (CTC). If you open the PDF of the letter & scroll down to the, “Local, State, & Regional” section, you will see Cooperative Maine listed! Arthur Stamoulis, ED of the CTC, asks that groups write a cover note about why your organization opposes Fast Track and the TPP and send it in to your Representative & Senators with a copy of the CTC letter. | So, every individual & cooperative should do so! | All four members of Maine’s Congressional Delegation are expressing opposition/concern about Fast Track – to varying degrees and for various reasons. Generally, it’s just very, very bad process which is thoroughly undemocratic and offensive to common people with common sense & common decency. The thinking is that, if Fast Track gets STOPPED in its tracks, then TPP is also stopped, effectively, since it will slow the process down and expose the contents of the black box to the light of day dooming the pact.
BUT! It ain’t over ’til it’s over! So, keep fighting to STOP FAST TRACK! Or our local Maine economy will be over!
Marada Cook, of Crown O’Maine, listens to a panel discussion during a conference on business cooperatives Saturday at the Viles Arboretum in Augusta. Staff photo by Joe Phelan
AUGUSTA — Last June, 42 employees of four businesses on tiny Deer Isle in Hancock County took ownership into their own hands.
They formed Island Employee Cooperative Inc., and bought the two grocery stores, a variety/hardware store and a pharmacy that made up a business that had been owned by the Seile family for 42 years, a $5.6 million acquisition.
Mark Sprakland, executive director of the Independent Retailers Coop, speaks during a conference on business cooperatives Saturday at the Viles Arboretum in Augusta.Staff photo by Joe Phelan
Alan White talks about the Island Employees Cooperative during a conference on business cooperatives Saturday at the Viles Arboretum in Augusta.Staff photo by Joe Phelan
As the worker cooperative nears its first anniversary, profits have matched what the previous owners accomplished in their best year, but it wasn’t easy.
Initially, when Vernon Seile approached his department heads about it, the response was “Where do we sign?” said Alan White, president of the cooperative board and meat manager at Burnt Cove Market, one of the four businesses. “We had ideas of grandeur.”
The story of that conversion, which was recognized in a Denver conference earlier in the week as the largest in the nation in terms of both employees and dollars, was told Saturday morning at the Viles Arboretum in Augusta as part of the second annual Principle Six Conference.
The conference, which attracted about 75 people, was organized around “Co-operation Among Co-ops,” the sixth ofseven guiding co-op principles, which Paul Sheridan, of Cooperative Maine, likened to the Ten Commandments for co-ops.
Other sessions during the daylong networking event included cooperative governance, financing and marketing, as well as information on cooperative housing projects that create resident-owned communities.
Deanna Oliver, of Stonington, treasurer of the nine-member co-op board, had worked for the Seiles for 15 years in human resources and finance administration. Of the 65 people that had been working in the four businesses, she said, 42 signed on initially as owners in the cooperative.
“It’s a retirement plan. It’s owning your own business,” she told the audience. “It’s an opportunity. People that are baggers are now owners.” She also noted that the community has been very supportive.
There was hard work forming a board, finding a bank willing to make a loan with no down payment and gaining the Seiles’ help with some financing.
“We converted four businesses that were very well run,” White said. “The owners were very successful, and the decision of converting to a cooperative was what they wanted to do.”
Almost a year later, some problems remain.
“My struggle is how to get the owners to understand they own these miraculous businesses,” White said. Another challenge, he said, is regaining market share lost when the pharmacist left and built a competing pharmacy nearby. White asked members of other cooperatives to help, particularly when the cooperative’s pharmacy initiates a mail-order business.
Robert Brown, of the Cooperative Development Institute, which works with the Island Employee Cooperative, said that Maine is ripe for more conversions to cooperatives. He also distinguished a worker cooperative, in which the workers have governance, from an employee stock ownership plan, in which employees have ownership but not governance. The latter is tightly regulated.
He cited the Island Employee Cooperative Inc., and others like it. “You don’t just own the company passively. These are corporations. They are businesses. They must make profits.”
Brown is encouraging people to attend a public hearing by the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee at 9:30 a.m. Monday in room 208 of the Cross Building on L.D. 1300, “An Act to Create and Sustain Jobs Through Development of Cooperatives.”
An emailed note from Brown says “about half the bill is adding any cooperatively owned business to the list of eligible applicants for a variety of loan and grant funds run by the Department of Agriculture, Department of Economic and Community Development, and Finance Authority of Maine.”
“Maine has a tremendous number of small business owners going to retire in the next five to 10 years,” Brown said at the conference. Rather than putting the business on the open market, a conversion to an employee-owned cooperative would ensure the business is continued and sustainable, he said.
“We have a number of stores now that really want to pursue that model,” said Mark Sprackland, executive director of Independent Retailers Shared Services Cooperative, which helped write most of the business plan for the Island Employee Cooperative. “This model’s built for sustainability.”
The story of the Deer Isle conversion hit home for Marada Cook, of Hallowell, co-director of the Vassalboro-based Crown O’Maine organic cooperative.
The cooperative was the 2006 successor to the business owned by her father, the late Jim Cook, which began with the family’s Skylandia Organic Farm, in Grand Isle.
Today it has 15 employees.
“We pick up from food producers all over Maine and deliver it to retailers, restaurants, buying clubs and institutions,” Marada Cook said. “My father saw the conversion to a cooperative as a way to involve more employees and see continuity and sustain the mission to broaden distribution of local foods.”
Cook asked Scott Seile, the son of the former owners, how he felt about the transition from private family ownership to worker cooperative.
“I went from third in line (as owner) to one of 43,” he said. “The biggest challenge is not to have that active decision-making power.”
Want to have a sneak peak at the Co-op space? Want to celebrate Earth Day with your fellow Co-op Members? Have you been meaning to become a Member-Owner? Mixers are a great chance to do so- someone has already agreed to offer you a beer if you do! Already a Member-Owner? Come mingle and enjoy our growing community of members! Better yet, bring a couple of friends or get a few coworkers to join you after work!
This event is a BYOB potluck and that everyone is welcome.
Marketing the Cooperative Difference with Jane Livingston of Cooperative Maine
10:30-11:20am 2nd workshop session
Financing for Food Cooperatives with Gloria LaBrecque of the Cooperative Fund of New England (CFNE)
Island Employee Cooperative (IEC): A Case Study for Converting Traditional Businesses to Worker-Owned Cooperatives with Rob Brown of CDI, Alan White of IEC, & Mark Sprackland, Executive Director & Founder of the Independent Retailers Shared Services Cooperative
How can co-ops in Maine work together more effectively? Exploring creating a Cooperative Network, Association, Federation or Alliance with Jonah Fertig & Rob Brown of CDI
2:10-3pm All gather for wrap up, reports from table topics, complete evaluations
4-6pm Cooperative Design Lab Celebration – no additional admission, open to the public
Please join us following the Principle Six conference to eat good food and learn about the newly forming cooperatives emerging from Cooperative Fermentation‘s 3-month Cooperative Design Lab. Members of the cooperatives who’ve completed the program will showcase their ventures with short presentations, opportunities for questions, connecting, and revelry!
Rob Brown, Cooperative Development Institute (CDI)
Jane Livingston has worked with the cooperative enterprise sector for 20+ years, promoting and publicizing “the co-op difference” for nonprofits, cooperatives, educational institutions and publications in the US and Canada.
Jessica Pooley, Housing Program Organizer for CDI’s New England Resident Owned Communities (NEROC) program in Maine