September 4, 2013

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


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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


FOR MORE INFORMATION about the Portland Food Co-op, visit

For information about the planned store, email


In the resulting report, consultant Debbie Suassuna noted "the natural food segment of the retail food industry has been increasing at a rate considerably faster than the conventional segment." Given Greater Portland's population size and demographics, Suassuna said, the area offers sufficient sales potential for a co-op despite the robust competition from nearby grocery stores.

Her report recommends the co-op lease a 10,000-square-foot retail space -- big enough to allow the co-op to stock a full range of groceries.

University of Southern Maine associate marketing professor Jeanne Munger agreed that there is room for a co-op in Portland, where there is a popular Buy Local campaign and a thriving local food scene.

"You've got a lot of people in Portland that will buy into that sort of thing because they belong to that community," Munger said. "These are the kind of places that are nibbling away at the traditional grocery stores."

Munger said the local ownership and emphasis on local products will appeal to people in southern Maine. While pointing out the high failure rate for new businesses, Munger said the Portland Food Co-op has a leg up since it already has a presence in the community and has taken the time to assess the business environment.

"If they were just plopping into the market, I'd be skeptical," Munger said. "But since they've been in the marketplace and done the market research, I think they have a chance. People have been supporting it, and that's a really good sign that they'll have a viable market."

In order for the co-op to make the leap from buying club to retail storefront, the community will need to offer additional support.

The business plan, being finalized by Chad Sclove of Portland-based Common Good Ventures, calls for launching a campaign to attract at least 1,200 new member-owners before the store can be opened. Membership costs $100.

The membership drive will be followed by an effort to get member-owners to loan the co-op startup funds. The loan amount will vary depending on the size of the space the co-op leases, but will total more than $1 million.

"Generally with a co-op, half the money comes from members," Apse said. "This is capital to get the store running. The details aren't finalized, but the loans will then be paid back over a period of time. It is truly a community-owned and created business. That's why we need to build a large base of member-owners first."

The other half of the startup funding will come from lenders. The co-op plans to apply for loans from the Cooperative Fund of New England and the City of Portland Economic Development Revolving Loan.

Assuming the Portland Food Co-op can line up financing, it will then hire a general manager who will recruit up to 15 employees. The co-op would be open seven days a week, accept food stamps and offer discounts to help low-income shoppers become members.

While members can vote for the co-op's leadership and take advantage of special member discount days, people without memberships will be welcome to shop at the store as well.

"It's very important to us that nonmembers have access to everything because we want to be a resource to the community," Apse said.

Avery Yale Kamila lives in Portland, where she shops local and writes about health food. She can be reached at:

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila


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