North Haven business maven and philanthropist Donald Sussman has donated space (five years, rent-free) and money ($40,000) to the Portland Food Cooperative (PFC), which will allow that organization to have its own distribution space and eventually operate as a public storefront.
The 4700-foot warehouse on Hampshire Street, just west of the Congress Street Plaza (the one with the Rite Aid and Princess Nails), will require renovation and retrofitting, and its doors will open in 2011, first as larger stand-alone spot for the co-op, which currently comprises more than 150 members and orders between $8000 and $10,000 in wholesale goods each month, and later as a retail establishment. Members have been operating out of the Meg Perry Center on Congress Street. Sussman's initial connection to the co-op was through a discussion with a member-owner.
Co-op members want to avoid making the mistakes of their predecessors at the Good Day Market and Cooperative, which operated in Portland until the late 1990s, when it was felled by debt.
"While the co-op will certainly benefit from the generosity of Mr. Sussman, we also want to make sure we have a number of other resources to support us," says Emily Graham, who serves on the PFC board of directors. "We hope to grow as a cooperative relying on the resources within Portland and our membership, to avoid having so much overhead that that cost is then turned over to the consumer."
The co-op grew out of a buying club in 2006 and has expanded over the past few years (see "Chew on This," by Deirdre Fulton, December 5, 2007). In 2009, the PFC took steps to move toward an official member-owner system, with memberships costing $100 plus one three-hour monthly shift. After an initial outreach, community response exceeded organizers' expectations.
"The PFC is uniquely positioned to fill an unmet need in Portland's food economy for several reasons," the PFC's working plan says. "Consumers seeking natural, local, and bulk items are currently limited to large chain stores or to smaller specialty markets that have high quality items, but considerably less variety and no availability of bulk items. For almost five years, there has been no independently run/locally owned natural foods store in Portland — consumers must travel to either Scarborough [to Lois' Natural Marketplace] or Freeport [to Royal River Natural Foods]."
PFC comparisons show that members save an average of 26 percent on goods they buy through the co-op, over similar items at retail stores.
Sussman, who is engaged to US Representative Chellie Pingree, has previously donated money to sustainable-food initiatives, including Slow Food USA and Maine's Harvest Fund.
Learn more at portlandfoodcoop.org.