Portland Food Co-op opens Congress St. store as membership grows

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PORTLAND — It was a week before Thanksgiving when Portland Food Co-op member Anne Riggs made her first trip to the new store at 290 Congress St.

The visit put her in mind of another holiday.

“It’s a little like Christmas morning,” Riggs said Nov. 20 at the market checkout.

Riggs, a co-op member for six years, has been selling her reusable cloth towels, napkins, wipes and other items through the co-op  for 4 1/2 years. She has bought food in bulk from the days the co-op buyers club used the former Meg Perry Center site at 644 Congress St. to distribute orders.

But now, Riggs and dozens of other shoppers were in the aisles of a 3,500-square-foot store stocked with dairy items, meats, spices, snacks, organic produce and household items, all available to the public, not just to members.

The store had a “soft” opening Nov. 19. Mary Alice Scott, co-op outreach director, said she sent out emails to members and got an enthusiastic response.

“There were 15 people in line when we opened the doors,” Scott said. A grand opening is set for Dec. 10 and will include a ribbon cutting, vendor appearances and samples, and possibly a raffle.

General Manager Kevin Gadsby, who managed the Good Tern Co-op in Rockland before arriving in May to manage the Portland store, had a clear objective for what will be provided.

“My passion is for a sustainable Maine food system,” Gadsby said. The co-op buying policy hopes to sustain local producers while supplying customers with organically grown or produced food without artificial additives.

The store opening comes as the co-op enjoys unprecedented growth. Membership was around 450 a year ago, and it has now eclipsed 2,100, Scott said. The store construction and opening was funded in part with $860,000 member-owner loans, Gadsby said.

Riggs credited Scott’s work in getting new member-owners, who pay a one-time fee of $100 to join. Scott said member-owners will likely get some discounts at the store, and a dividend based on how much they spent when the store becomes profitable.

The store approach goes well beyond members, Scott and Gadsby said, because the goal is to be a complete store for the neighborhood and beyond, while also attracting new members.

“We are looking at ways to be strategic with our pricing, and one of our goals was to be walkable,” Gadsby said.

“We want prices to be affordable to consumers, and to pay our producers and staff fair wages,” Scott added.

West End resident Jennifer Morrison works nearby on India Street, and said her first store visit came after months of anticipation.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, clutching a carton of almond milk and an orange. “I feel like I could do all my shopping here.”

Morrison said she tries to shop at locally owned markets, and was pleased to find a large selection of organic fruits and vegetables. Before leaving, she stopped at a table in the front of the store and signed on as a co-op member.

The selection is a source of pride to produce manager Michael Shepard, who said more than a sixth of the co-op’s produce is still locally sourced at this time of year.

“Our goal is to have the largest selection of organic and local produce,” he said. “I’ve been waiting to do this forever, this is my dream job.”

The store employs about 20 people, positions that were in high demand, Scott said. A job fair in October brought an estimated 150 applicants.

The Portland Food Co-op has roots that are approaching a decade old, and was incorporated as a co-op business in 2008, according to its website. By 2012, the buying club was generated more than $200,000 in annual sales and operating in a space across Hampshire Street from the store.

By 2012, the club was purchasing 61 percent of its items form Maine producers, and store customers can view a map at the entrance identifying suppliers and where they are located.

Located in the Congress Plaza at the corner of Hampshire and Congress streets, the Portland Food Co-op store is open from 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. on Sundays.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Portland Food co-op produce manager Michael Shepard prepares kale for sale Nov. 20 at the co-op store. “I’ve been waiting to do this forever, this is my dream job,” he said.

The Portland Food Co-op store at 290 Congress St. is also open to nonmembers. A grand opening is set for Dec. 10.

Idriss Kambeya rings up a food purchase for Portland Food Co-op member Anne Riggs, right, on Nov. 20. “This is kind of the ultimate, it’s a little like Christmas morning,” she said of the store opening at 290 Congress St.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.