January 7

Portland Food Co-op takes step toward full-service store

The location on Congress Street is expected to open to the public in September.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The president of the Portland Food Co-op announced Monday that the group’s new storefront will be at 290 Congress St., part of the Congress Plaza shopping center.

click image to enlarge

Portland Food Co-op President Daniel Ungier speaks during a news conference at the new storefront location for a full-service grocery store at 290 Congress St. in Portland on Monday.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

The building at 290 Congress St. is the future home for the Portland Food Co-op’s full-service grocery store in Portland.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The co-op will actually take up two leased spaces after a wall is knocked down, making more than 3,000 square feet of retail space available for selling local foods to the public. The store is expected to open in September.

The spaces being taken over by the co-op are located just across the street from the co-op’s current Hampshire Street location and were formerly occupied by a labor group and an African grocery store. The building, which also houses a pharmacy and a laundromat, is owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, according to Daniel Ungier, board president of the Portland Food Co-op.

“Our vision is for this to be a full-service grocery store,” Ungier said. “It’s going to be owned by its members and will be open to anyone in the public. Our vision is to offer a wide selection of high-quality and fairly priced local, organic and natural foods.”

Ungier said the store will employ about 20 workers and a general manager. The group will partner with the refugee workforce development project at Portland Adult Education to help fill some of the positions.

The new store is located near the India Street corridor and the Bayside neighborhood, and has plenty of parking.

“You’ll be able to get here by bus, by bike,” Ungier said. “You’ll be able to walk here. If you’re driving from out of town, or from a different neighborhood, or you want to get a lot of groceries, there’s a lot of parking, too.”

The Portland Food Co-op is about seven years old and last year had more than $200,000 in sales. It started with a core group of people who launched a buying club committed to purchasing local produce from farms and processors all over the state. The club used a model in which members pre-ordered their food and then came to pick it up.

But the group’s ambition has always been to open a storefront.

There are still some hurdles to overcome before that happens. The group currently has 616 so-called “member-owners” but needs 1,000 more before the storefront can open.

“To be a member-owner means that you make a one-time equity investment in the store,” Ungier explained. “It’s $100, and it’s not like a club membership. It’s actually an equity investment in the store. You get special discounts, and the members really drive what the store looks like and have a voice in the management of the store.”

New member-owners can sign up online at www.portlandfood.coop.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, a longtime supporter of the co-op, said he became a member-owner last week. He called the storefront project “a great new venture, a great new enterprise within the city of Portland.”

“Right now the state of Maine imports somewhere between 80 to 85 percent of all our food,” Brennan said. “That makes us very food-insecure, in the sense that every time something else happens in the rest of the country in the food chain, the ripple effect into Maine has profound more effects than other parts of the country because we import so much of our food.”

Brennan said the project would reduce the city’s carbon footprint and help fulfill a primary goal of the mayor’s food initiative – that half of all the food served in Portland’s school system be locally grown or produced.

Sarah Wiederkehr of Winter Hill Farm, a small, diversified family farm in Freeport, said her farm’s participation as a supplier for the food co-op over the past few years has been “an amazing experience.”

“It’s helped us to develop our market in Portland,” she said. “We’ve met some really great people that have become really great customers, and we’re just super excited for this expansion because we feel it’s going to be a boon for the city of Portland, for consumers.”

Ungier said he expected prices at the new store to be competitive with prices at larger grocery stores, in part because they’ll be working with some of the same distributors.

“This will really be a one-stop shop for everything you need,” he said.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:mgoad@pressherald.com

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