GARDINER — A locally sourced food cooperative and cafe could open in a city storefront later this year, and its organizers say it’ll fill a void in the capital area.
The Kennebec Local Food Initiative, which started an online buying club in 2012, has a tentative location on Water Street and plans to open the Gardiner Food Co-op & Cafe by late summer or early autumn, said Sarah Miller, the initiative’s co-founder.
At that location, which Miller declined to divulge because a deal isn’t final, five employees, two of them full-time, would sell groceries, prepared food, baked goods, coffee and other items. The site would be open daily, sometimes until 8 p.m.
On Sunday, the initiative screened a documentary film on sustainable agriculture at Johnson Hall, the Water Street performing arts center, announcing many of its plans and fielding questions from many in the audience of around 30.
“The goal is to bring local food to the entire community,” said Veronique Vendette, an initiative board member.
As at most co-ops, the public is allowed to shop in the buying club and will be at the eventual co-op. But the initiative is trying to attract “member-owners” ahead of the opening to help fund the store.
Co-ops of this nature typically are member-owned and -governed, meaning an annual payment buys customers equity in the business in exchange for a spot on its board and certain in-store benefits, such as discounts. In the Gardiner co-op, a one-time payment of $100 buys a member-owner share. Afterward, it will cost $15 per year to retain it.
At the store, that will qualify customers for a board seat and an end-of-year dividend payout based on how much customers use the store, according to Vendette. They would buy groceries at the same price as any shopper.
Miller said food co-ops — which became popular as an alternative to grocery stores in the 1970s — are making a resurgence in Maine. The data bear that out.
The number of food co-ops in Maine is expected to nearly double this year to 11, according to MaineBiz, a Portland business magazine.
Most of the ones already open are in Maine’s southern half, but ones in Fort Kent and Houlton are starting, the magazine said. Advocates for co-ops say they keep more money in the local economy and pay workers better wages than grocery stores do.
Miller said the initiative now works with 12 vendors in Maine, and that will expand with the store’s opening. Its website says it already has circulated $140,000 in the area.
The storefront could fill a particular need in Gardiner, where Water Street Cafe, an anchor business downtown, closed abruptly in January.
City officials also have identified access to locally sourced food as a goal, with Nate Rudy, Gardiner’s director of economic development, calling it “a huge component of our economy.”
A recent draft of a Gardiner comprehensive plan calls for the City Council to establish a “local food policy.”
That would include encouraging government entities and other organizations and businesses to use locally sourced food whenever possible, attracting businesses dealing in local food to the city and reviewing regulations to ensure agricultural practices aren’t inhibited.
Miller said there are just shy of 100 member-owners now. By the time of opening, the initative wants 360 and thinks it eventually could support 900.
“We know that there is interest and excitement, so right now our job is to connect the dots and energy and excitement into capitalization,” Miller said.
At the end of the event Sunday, organizers opened up the floor for suggestions from the audience, with Miller writing them down on a board. Some suggested live music, pottery and woven items.
Isabelle Files, 15, whose mother is a member of the online buying club, suggested pancakes.
Afterward, she said her mother typically spends $70 to $100 every two weeks with the buying club, which allows customers to pick out items online and pick them up later.
Because organizers often have more than they need to fill orders, Files and her mother come back with items they didn’t order, she said. Recently they bought sausages unexpectedly.
After the event Sunday, breakfast was still on her mind.
“You can never have enough sausage,” she said.