PORTLAND — The Portland Food Co-op had roughly 15 members when it formed in 2006. Today, the buying club that provides local and organic food at discounted prices has 250 members — and a space in the city’s East End to call its own.

The co-op will host an open house at its new digs on Hampshire Street from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday.

“Our goal now that we’re here is to have more pickups and longer hours,” said Michelle Smith, who serves as the co-op’s communications coordinator. “Eventually, the goal is to have open hours when people can drop in and see what’s going on.”

To take advantage of the co-op’s access to lower-priced food and natural health and beauty products, people must become members. Memberships cost $100 and require a commitment of three volunteer hours per month. Anyone who receives public assistance can join for $10.

The co-op’s expansion was made possible by a donation from S. Donald Sussman, a North Haven hedge fund manager and philanthropist. Sussman, who is married to U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, gave the group $40,000 and a five-year, rent-free lease on its new 4,700-square-foot space, a former tobacco distribution warehouse.

Using Sussman’s gift and volunteer sweat equity, the co-op has insulated the building’s ceiling, painted walls and installed new flooring, doors, electrical service and a restroom.

“At their roots, co-ops are about communities working together to grow and prosper. This space has been transformed from an unused warehouse into a vibrant community resource, and that’s good for all of us,” Sussman said in a prepared statement.

“I’m proud to support the Portland Food Co-op and its efforts to bring the best of Maine farmers, fishermen and foragers to the tables of Portland families.”

Sussman, whose Connecticut-based Paloma Partners manages more than $1 billion in assets, is also working with Creative Portland to transform a number of nearby properties he owns into artist live/work spaces.

The co-op had been using space at the Meg Perry Center on Congress Street, closer to the West End, for its bimonthly food pickups. The new space offers more parking and a loading dock, which has greatly eased the process of unloading trucks.

Each month, the Portland Food Co-op orders $10,000 worth of goods from the Crown O’Maine Organic Cooperative, United Natural Foods, Frontier Natural Products Co-op and individual farmers and food producers.

All of the food is marked up 10 percent from its wholesale price to cover operating expenses, such as property taxes and electrical bills. Most retailers add a 20 percent to 40 percent markup on food products.

“Based on surveys we do every couple of months, we’re providing about a 25 percent discount” over retail food costs, said board member Tim McLain.

Following the traditional cooperative model, members also are owners with a say in how the organization is run. The co-op has no paid staff.

Members are interested in opening a public retail store, but McLain said the organization doesn’t want to take on any debt.

Moving cautiously should help the co-op avoid the fate of Portland’s former food cooperative, the Good Day Market. The store opened in 1970 in the West End and closed in 1997 after moving to a pricier location on the East End.

At the time of the closure, the market’s treasurer told The Portland Press Herald that the store’s demise was caused by mounting debt related to the change in location.

 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: akamila@pressherald.com

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila