September 4, 2013

Natural Foodie: Portland Food Co-op plans to open grocery store downtown


Portland's supermarket scene is about to get a new competitor. By early 2015, the Portland Food Co-op intends to open a grocery store in downtown Portland, a district dominated by Whole Foods, Hannaford and Trader Joe's.

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The Portland Food Co-op operates a members-only buying club at 56 Hampshire St. in Portland. By 2015, it hopes to open a grocery store to the public. "We want to be a resource to the community," said Rachelle Curran Apse.

Avery Yale Kamila photo


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For information about the planned store, email


The business plan calls for a much smaller store than the ones operated by the large chains, but with a full offering of organic and natural groceries, including beer, wine and prepared foods. The store will emphasize locally grown and produced food.

"We're looking for a space on or right near the peninsula in Portland," said Rachelle Curran Apse, the co-op board member who is managing the opening of the store. "We want car, bus, foot and bike access, and for it to be close to the highway. Something similar in size to the old Whole Grocer."

Apse said the co-op is actively looking for a location with up to 10,000 square feet of space, which is similar in size to Lois' Natural Marketplace in Scarborough, Royal River Natural Foods in Freeport and the former Whole Grocer, a locally owned health food store bought and shuttered by Whole Foods when it moved to town in 2007. The Whole Grocer's employees were all transferred to the new store.

Once the co-op signs a lease, it anticipates a year of work before opening the store, Apse said. A decision on the eventual location could come as early as this fall.

When Whole Foods bought the Whole Grocer in 2006, a group of roughly 15 people banded together in hopes of creating an alternative to the natural foods behemoth.

Wanting an immediate shopping alternative, the group formed a buying club, giving members discounted access to Maine-grown foods as well as products sold by the national distributors Frontier Natural Products and United Natural Foods. However, the group's goal was always to open a retail space.

"The community said we need a natural food store owned by the community," Apse said.

Portland's previous cooperative food store closed in 1997. Called the Good Day Market, it opened in 1970 in the West End and later moved to a higher-rent location in the East End. At the time of the closure, the co-op's treasurer told the Portland Press Herald the store's demise was caused by mounting debt related to the move.

In 2011, philanthropist and hedge fund manger S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, gave the Portland Food Co-op a five year, rent-free lease to a building on Hampshire Street and $44,000 to renovate it. The co-op uses the 4,700-square-foot former tobacco warehouse to take delivery of products, run member pickups and host meetings.

"At their roots, co-ops are about communities working together to grow and prosper," Sussman said in a prepared statement at the time of the gift.

Member-owners govern cooperative businesses and share in the company's profits and losses. Maine is home to a number of for-profit and nonprofit cooperatives, including small food businesses, such as the Belfast Co-op Store and Local Sprouts Cooperative Cafe, and larger organizations, such as Maine Community Health Options (one of the state's two health insurance exchanges mandated by the Affordable Care Act) and the state's many credit unions.

Since its humble beginnings in 2006, the Portland Food Co-op has grown to more than 400 member-owners, who order just shy of $250,000 in food through the co-op buying club each year. I joined the co-op earlier this year and learned about the plans for the store once the news was announced to the membership following the July 2 board of directors vote.

Before coming to that decision, the board studied the market. A volunteer team made up of local business people, managers of other Maine food co-ops and individuals from lending institutions hired Cooperative Development Services, a Minnesota- and Wisconsin-based management consulting firm, to prepare a competitive market analysis.

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