Brooke Andre studies a window display of flowers and produce Thursday at the Gardiner Food Co-op & Cafe at 269 Water St. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

GARDINER — Even before the spread of a new, highly contagious virus shuttered economies around Maine and the world about 14 months ago, the Gardiner Food Co-op & Cafe had hit a rough patch.

In the way of disguised blessings, the COVID-19 pandemic may be the vehicle that keeps the co-op at 269 Water St. in business.

“There’s no way we would be standing without the funding that has come through the pandemic relief stuff,” Ken Holmes, chairman of the  Gardiner Co-op board of directors, said Thursday, while sitting at one of the cooperative’s outdoor tables with Penny Moshier, its general manager.

“For a little business like us, it’s almost a generational opportunity.”

Around Holmes and Moshier were signs activity in and around Gardiner is picking up. At the north and south ends of Water Street, where the member-owned grocery store has been operating since early 2015, the final phase of a multiyear bridge replacement project is underway.

And at the historic Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center, directly across from the co-op, interior work is ongoing.

Inside the co-op, other signs of activity: Shelves being stocked, customers stopping in to pick up a few items and an order of paper products being dropped off.

Nine months ago, when Moshier was hired, it was a different story.

“Some relationships had gotten really bad due to the cash-flow issue,” Moshier said, “and I think management inexperience. We had lost most of our local suppliers because of relationship issues, and then some of the national suppliers because we couldn’t pay the bills.”

Customers buy meals and groceries Thursday at the counter at the Gardiner Food Co-op & Cafe. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

When she started Sept. 1, she brought skills she had learned running her own wholesale food business and working as the kitchen manger and, later, manager at the Sheepscot General Store in Whitefield.

At about the same time, an anonymous donor came forward with a $10,000 gift, followed by a couple of other gifts. It was enough to make payroll that week and get Moshier to see what could be done.

All told, between two rounds of Paycheck Protection Program funds other rescue programs and the gifts, the co-op was able to amass $125,000 in funds the organization had not had before. With that, most the debt has been paid down and the store’s shelves are now filled with merchandise, as Moshier has worked to repair relationships and trust.

“We’ve got cash in the bank to get through the next six or eight months, as we see if we can rebuild a business and get the customer base up to where it needs to be,” said Holmes, a former Gardiner city councilor.

As of April 1, the co-op had an operating budget and a plan that gave it about a year to achieve sustainable operations.

“Where I hope we can get it to by six months from now is more or less breaking even,” said Holmes, who joined the board about the same time Moshier started. “And if we can do that, we can emerge from the year with a decent amount of operating cash and the ability to sit down and look long term at what we can do with the business.”

When the co-op first opened, it was part of a growing food hub movement that included Common Wealth Poultry poultry processors and the former Central Maine Meats and locally produced produce. Holmes said when the co-op opened, it had promise to be the center of the local food movement — and it still has that promise.

A customer looks for locally grown items in the coolers Thursday at the Gardiner Food Co-op & Cafe. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“Mostly local, mostly organic, always fresh, always healthy.” he said. “It’s such a cool concept, and we can pull it off.”

For downtown Gardiner, the co-op’s plans are a sign of hope. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of long-established or newer businesses opted to close as other businesses, such as Jokers & Rogues Brewing, El Oso Taqueria & Gift Shop and The Bud Bar, have opened.

Melissa Lindley, executive director of Gardiner Main Street, said the co-op brings vitality to the downtown neighborhood. And its extended hours, which start this week, allow people to stop in after work, which they have not been able to do.

Beginning Thursday, the co-op is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. It is closed Monday.

“A little over a year ago, we weren’t sure about the future of the co-op,” Lindley said. “To see them working hard to regain trust and invested in our town in many ways, it’s great.”

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