The organizers of a cooperative grocery store and cafe in Gardiner that’s been in the works for more than three years plan to announce the future location of the co-op Saturday.

The Gardiner Co-op & Cafe is expected to open in a yet-to-be-named downtown building sometime in early spring, offering grocery items, soups, sandwiches and more with a focus on local, organic and fair trade items.

The co-op is an evolution of a local food buying club in Gardiner, Kennebec Local Food Initiative. A storefront has been a goal of the nonprofit group since it launched in 2011, and organizers announced their plan in February to open the co-op and cafe somewhere in downtown Gardiner.

The organizers are holding a celebration and unveiling of the location from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday at the Circling the Square Fine Art Press on Water Street in Gardiner. There will be live music, potluck-style finger food, a bar and updates about the progress of the co-op, according to Veronique Vendette, chairwoman of the co-op board.

An angel investor, whom Vendette wouldn’t identify, is buying a building in downtown Gardiner for the organization and will lease the space to the group, Vendette said.

Since launching the membership drive in February, the co-op has signed up close to 160 members and raised about $120,000, Vendette said. The group needs to raise $165,000 to open and has a goal of 360 initial members. The Bank of Maine has pledged to pay for the initial memberships for any employees living within a 15-mile radius of its Gardiner location, so the co-op is expecting at least another 65 members from the bank, Vendette said.


“We don’t want to fail. We want to be successful for generations to come, so you have to start with a strong base,” she said.

Co-ops are typically owned and governed by their members. At the Gardiner Co-op, members pay $100 to join and $15 after that annually to keep their memberships active. The equity payments buy stakes in the organization and allow members to vote on decisions at the annual meeting and become board members. Members also can receive dividends once the co-op is financially stable, Vendette said.

Some co-ops offer discounts for members, but Vendette said that won’t be the case in Gardiner. That model is becoming less popular, especially for start-up co-ops, she said. However, people will be able to buy at reduced prices if they volunteer at the store, just as is the case with the group’s buying club, Vendette said.

The group has partnered with Karen Benner, owner of the now-closed Sunrise Natural Foods, a natural food store that moved from Farmingdale to Gardiner in February. Benner will run the vitamin and supplement department in the store, Vendette said.

Vendette described the seven-days-a-week co-op as a full-service grocery store with a focus on products from sustainable or organic sources. Offerings will include bulk items, cleaning products, produce, meat and dairy products. There will be some local products, but the store won’t source exclusively from local producers, she said.

The cafe will feature comfort food-type offerings, including sandwiches, soups, pastries and espresso drinks, Vendette said.


To start, the store will hire six full-time and three part-time employees, she said. Organizers still are looking for a general manager to run the store. In the next five to 10 years, the store could support up to three dozen employees, Vendette said.

The co-op in Gardiner is not alone in its bullish outlook on the future of cooperative grocers. It has joined a crop of five other co-ops in the state that either recently opened or are in the process of opening, along with six established co-ops.

The city of Gardiner also is trying to focus on local food as a way to boost its economy. The comprehensive plan approved by the City Council earlier this year includes proposals to brand the city as a local-food center for the region and to develop a local-food policy to encourage organizations and individuals to use locally sourced food products when possible.

A store that sells local food, Founding Farmers Community Market, already opened in downtown Gardiner about a year ago. The store emphasizes providing local farmers and producers with high margins and has a goal of increasing the number of people who eat food grown and raised in the area.

The store had planned to close about a month ago, but a swell of local support has kept it open. An online crowdfunding campaign for the store has raised close to $2,000.

Vendette, the chairwoman of the Gardiner Co-op, said she thinks the two storefronts will be able to co-exist together. She also said she didn’t think the recent struggles of Founding Farmers are an indicator of the market for local or sustainable food in the area. The nearest co-ops are the Belfast Co-op and the soon-to-be-opened Portland Co-op.


“We see the support the Founding Farmers is receiving from people from the community at the moment. Having been open as a buyers’ club for the past three years, we know there’s definitely a need for local food,” Vendette said.

She said it’s very hard for any start-up business to succeed, especially in a downtown with a lot of turnover because of low foot traffic. But Vendette said she thinks the co-op will be a draw for the downtown and end up helping the other businesses there.

“There’s definitely a need and a desire to grow the local food economy around the Gardiner area,” she said.

Paul Koenig — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @paul_koenig

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