Middlebury food co-op unveils expanded store
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op (MNFC) sells hundreds of wholesome, organic products.
But its customers are positively thrilled with the store’s latest offering, which can’t even be consumed.
It’s more space.
The MNFC on Saturday, Jan. 6, will officially celebrate the grand opening of its newly expanded store at 9 Washington St. The celebration will recognize eight months of work that allowed the retail portion of the store to grow from 5,000 square feet to the 9,000. The many devoted customers now have more generous aisles through which to navigate their carts to new and expanded MNFC offerings, including more meat and deli products, a customer service desk, more seating for diners and two new bathrooms.
A “hot bar,” featuring warm snack and lunchtime foods, will soon be unveiled in the bigger-and-better MNFC space.
Glenn Lower, longtime MNFC manager, is thrilled with how the $3 million project turned out. And like the rest of the co-op’s more than 4,800 owner-customers, Lower is pleased the expansion was able to occur at the Washington Street site.
“We’re really excited we pulled it off in a downtown location, which was our number one goal,” Lower said during a recent interview. “Each time (the co-op has needed to grow), we think, ‘Is this the time to move out of the downtown and look for a little more elbow room?’ But we want to keep the downtown vibrant, and the co-op is very important to that.”
Indeed, the MNFC has taken on an even more important role in light of some changes in the Addison County grocery scene during the past few years.
There was the closing of Bristol’s Mountain Greens, which provided a variety of organic and locally grown foods for folks in the five-town area. Greg’s Meat Market in Middlebury shut down a few years ago, though local businessman Tony Neri is now trying to resurrect that local, independently owned supermarket on Elm Street.
Both of those store closures contributed to the MNFC gaining 150 owner-customers during the year leading up to the new project, according to Karin Mott, the co-op’s marketing, education and membership manager.
Co-op leaders recognized the need to make the store even more customer friendly. So they hired a team — led by Andrea Murray of Middlebury-based Vermont Integrated Architecture — to design an expansion plan that earned approval by the Middlebury Development Review Board. The firm Naylor and Breen of Brandon began construction last spring. A good portion of that work occurred at night in order to minimize inconveniences for shoppers. But Lower and Mott gave major kudos to customers who kept MNFC financially healthy during the construction commotion.
“Quite honestly, we expected to lose some folks during this (building) process with disruption in the store and in the parking lots,” Mott said. “But people were just wonderful. They put up with jackhammer noises and parking issues and trying to get your shopping cart out through mud. The support was just unbelievable.”
In fact, the MNFC didn’t experience a fall in sales during any month of the project, according to Lower.
“When people asked, ‘What’s the most important thing we can do to help the co-op?’ we said, ‘You can keep shopping here,’” Lower said.
Rather than pointing out obstacles, some shoppers went out of their way to hail the store upgrades as they gradually materialized. One shopper even told Mott how impressed she was with the cleanliness of the temporary porto-potties.
“They thanked us for being here and remaining open,” Mott said.
Co-op staff often pitched in to help shoppers overcome construction-related hindrances, whether it was directing traffic from the parking area onto Washington Street, or clearing debris to allow better access.
More sales space and better customer flow has resulted in the co-op adding approximately 20 positions to a staff now placed at around 100 full- and part-time workers. Newly created posts have included an operations manager and a coordinator for the newly expanded meat department.
That expanded meat-deli section has allowed MNFC officials to add a lot more variety to its chilled display cases. Mott explained that in the past, some area meat producers couldn’t do business with the co-op simply because the store’s deli section couldn’t accommodate enough of their product to make a contract worthwhile.
That’s no longer the case.
“It is nice now to be able to offer really broad offerings of meat that are coming from sources we are really familiar with,” Mott said.
The MNFC is owned by its members, who can purchase up to 15 shares in the business at $20 per share. Each member-owner has an equal vote on co-op decisions.
Anyone can shop at the co-op, though members qualify for special deals. Around 71 percent of the annual purchases at the MNFC are made by its member-owners.
Lower added that 34 percent of the MNFC’s current transactions involve Vermont products. The co-op works with around 300 Vermont companies, at this point, according to Mott.
Officials said they are always eager to work with more Addison County-based food producers.
The Jan. 6 grand opening, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., will include a variety of freebies, giveaways and raffles, according to an event flyer. Customers will also receive a free on-tap beverage (coffee, tea, kombucha or cider) with a co-op mug. Those who buy or donate a share in the business will receive a handmade “Vermont co-op” mug.
Lower, Mott and other members of the co-op community know they have a lot to be grateful for this holiday season.
“We’re thankful we got the project done on time and on budget,” Lower said.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.