Chew on this

Is there a food co-op in Portland’s future?
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  December 5, 2007
FEEDING THEMSELVES PFC organizers break bread before talking turkey.

“It’s a crime, really, that the largest city in Maine doesn’t have a natural foods co-op,” says Scott Cooper, co-manager of the Rising Tide Community Market in Damariscotta. Indeed, it is counterintuitive that our liberal city isn’t home to a food cooperative, in which community members, not outside shareholders, hold the ownership and decision-making power. The lefty enclaves of Cambridge, Burlington, and Northampton all harbor successful food co-ops — why not us?

It wasn’t always like this. Portland’s Good Day Market and Cooperative first had its home through the 1970s and ‘80s on Brackett Street in the West End, and then moved in 1995 to 59 Middle Street — between India Street and Franklin Arterial. The all-vegetarian neighborhood food co-op, whose sales peaked at more than $1 million in its best year, folded in 1997 amidst financial woes.

“We couldn’t keep the shelves stocked after a while,” recalls Dan Gillotte, who worked as Good Day’s produce manager until it closed, then moved to Austin, Texas, where he currently serves as general manager of the successful Wheatsville co-op. “The debt burden was higher than we could handle ... You can’t do a project like that on a shoestring.”

In retrospect, Gillotte hypothesizes that the vegetarian principles may have been part of the turn-off to some potential shoppers. “Being more dogmatic than practical was a problem,” he says. “We isolated ourselves in a way that didn’t allow us to be as inclusive as we could have been.”

For a while, Portland’s local, natural-food enthusiasts were well-served by the Whole Grocer on Marginal Way. Then the shining megalith that is Whole Foods bought out Whole Grocer in 2005; the store closed in 2006 when a 48,000-square-foot Whole Foods opened on Somerset Street in February of this year.

It was at this point that a group of local-food enthusiasts started tossing around the idea of reviving a food co-op here — and so the Portland Food Cooperative (PFC) was born in April 2006. “The people who had been shopping at the Whole Grocer for years, supporting that local business on a regular basis, were frustrated by a lack of a viable, local option for buying groceries,” the group’s summer 2007 progress report says of its history.

For about a year and half, a core group of about 10 people has gathered at bi-weekly pot-luck dinners-cum-organizational meetings, taking slooooooow steps toward turning that frustration into a viable business that balances principle with profit.

Philosophical roadblocks
At its core, the cooperative is a business that is member-owned — as opposed to being owned by outside, often corporate, shareholders. Surplus revenues (money earned on top of operating expenses and investments) are returned to members, in proportion to their use of the cooperative; for example, in a food co-op, surplus revenue would be returned to individual members depending on how much food and other goods they bought at the co-op that year.

In theory, this system of ownership is empowering, because it affords members both quality and price control over members’ own goods and services. According to the National Cooperative Business Association, four in 10 Americans are served by co-ops today, which range in business purpose from banking associations to telecommunications to retail to childcare.

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