Chew on this

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  December 5, 2007

The larger PFC group has divided itself into several sub-committees, each tasked with specific assignments. The administrative sub-committee, for example, met recently with local certified public accountant Bob Lightfoot to discuss what financial steps need to be taken before the group can be officially incorporated; members are currently searching for a New England lawyer who practices cooperative law (food co-ops, along with all other types of cooperatives, are governed under their own complex set of tax laws). They recently hooked up with a local bookkeeper who has volunteered to help balance the group’s finances.

The communications committee is planning a community forum from 7 to 9 pm on January 15 at the Williston West Church in the West End (snow-date January 22; visitwww.can-so.org/foodcoop for more info about the forum and the PFC in general), where the existing organizers can educate interested community members, drum up enthusiasm, and do some of the investigatory work that remains unfinished. Some community surveys were distributed at farmer’s markets throughout the summer, but the group has yet to perform any kind of large-scale market study; the New England Cooperative Development Fund has offered to assist in this effort.

“Even though the co-op is far from opening its doors, we’re trying to create a membership base of people who are really educated about co-ops,” says Emily Graham, a 32-year-old school librarian who serves on the communication committee. “When we are fully incorporated, hopefully we’ll have the people to immediately pledge.”

It’s not unusual for food co-op efforts to move at this snail-like pace, says Reid, of Food Co-op 500. Consider the River Valley Market, in Northampton, Massachusetts, which broke ground earlier this year on a 17,000 square-foot facility in anticipation of an early 2008 opening. That co-op has been in the works since 1999 — in fact, the general manager has been in place since 2001, and more than 2000 members have already provided equity. The project cost is estimated at $7 million. (Reid estimates that the PFC can count on leased space costing approximately $250 per square foot.)

David v. Goliath?
The process is daunting enough, especially for a group of people largely without demonstrable business acumen — and with full-time jobs. But then there’s the hulking behemoth of Whole Foods looming in the background. Can an upstart, local organization — with a dearth of business experience among its core members — ever expect to compete against a multi-million-dollar, national corporation that is, for the most part, well-loved among its clientele — many of whom consider themselves socially responsible already?

“People love a social mission — when they’ve got the quality, price, and convenience they want,” says Kristin Majeska, president of the Brunswick-based Common Good Ventures, which offers business support to Maine non-profits. “You’ve got to be at least as good, if not better, at those three things.”

And it’s not just Whole Foods. In May, Hannaford announced it had achieved Organic Retailer status through Quality Assurance International’s Organic Certification Program — and in its effort to ride the green wave, significantly expanded its organic and natural selection. Today, Hannaford’s natural and organic products represent 10 percent of its total merchandise; the store offers 3500 such products, which range from produce to dairy to baby food. Plus, the store hypes its connection to local farmers — at Hannaford.com, Web surfers are invited to “go on a tour of Grant’s Farm in Saco.”

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