Co-op asks for input on expansion

 MIDDLEBURY — A decade after its latest and most ambitious expansion to date, Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op (MNFC) officials will spend this year engaged in a long-range planning process to determine how the store might further grow in response to a steady demand for additional space and products.
It was in 2004 that MNFC built its 8,900-square-foot store at 9 Washington St. That project doubled the co-op’s retail space to a total of 6,000 square feet. The store had built a solid following in smaller, rented quarters at 1 Washington St.
While some of the MNFC’s owner-members had trepidations about the business’s 2004 expansion plan, the expansion turned out to be warranted. Pre-expansion, the MNFC was recording around $4 million in annual sales. The co-op is now doing approximately $12 million in business each year and has a very faithful member-owner base of 4,200 households in, and outside of, Addison County.
The co-op currently employs 65 full- and part-time workers. Storage space and “elbow room” are increasingly in short supply, according to Glenn Lower, general manager of the MNFC.
“We’d love to have a little more space,” Lower said on Monday.
The MNFC has throughout the years successfully expanded its Washington Street footprint as small pieces of property have become available. This paved the way for the 2004 expansion and related parking area behind it, acquired from former Middlebury Inn owner Frank Emanuel. Most recently, the co-op purchased the Addison County Automotive Inc. property near the intersection of Washington Street and Court Square. This real estate further opens up potential growth options for the MNFC on Washington Street, a downtown location that a majority of co-op members have touted through surveys as a good place for the business to stay.
“Immediately, people asked, ‘When are you going to expand?’” Lower said of the reaction to the co-op’s latest property purchase. “But we don’t want to jump to the conclusion that you should always try to get bigger.”
With that in mind, co-op officials are organizing a series of meetings to get feedback from area residents on how the co-op should respond to the increasing demand for its products and services. Co-op members have since late February been convening “conversation groups” in several Addison County towns and Brandon to take stock in the MNFC’s future. Those conversation sessions will conclude on May 3, whereupon co-op officials will use that public feedback to draft a long-term plan for the business by August. The co-op will share the draft plan with its members from September to November and ask the simple question: “Did we get it right?”
Some of the points raised at recent conversation group meetings include:
•  “I’m happy with the current variety and product selection. I hope that in the process of expansion, we don’t start to look like a supermarket. Keep the small store charm and character.”
•  “The deli and cafe area need to be re-worked. They clog up and create shopper congestion. Especially in the cash register area.”
•  “An endless product selection is unnecessary. We don’t need to have everything. Select items that meet our buying criteria, align with our ends, and can’t be found elsewhere.”
•  “If we choose to expand, be aware of the tendency to fill space in aisles with displays … We need a better balance between space and demand for products.”
•  “Growth isn’t essential to the co-op’s mission, but I’d rather see the co-op grow than to see Hannaford’s grow.”
•  “Consider a redesign from within our existing space instead of expansion. Is there a way to reorganize it to make workspace and shopper flow more efficient?”
•  “I’m concerned that we are caught in a cycle of endless expansion. Where does this stop? Let’s put measures in place now that will prevent the need to expand again soon.”
•  “Analyze our membership in terms of location demographics of our shoppers and consider developing a package that would allow interested areas of growth to have a satellite store.”
•  “The west side of the store needs more workspace, storage space, and delivery space.”
Comments from the co-op’s conversations groups can be found at co-opconversations.blogspot.com/.
Co-op officials have also released a list of “challenges” related to the current building, including a lack of room for bulk items and inventory; a shortage of bathrooms; customer congestion at peak shopping times near the check-out lines and in narrow shopping aisles; a lack of seating in the café; and a lack of space for education classes, particularly cooking classes.
Lower, like his colleagues, is curious to see where the community discussion will lead the co-op. It could lead to anything from a few changes to the possible creation of new co-ops in other nearby towns, officials noted.
“I’m open to all different kinds of ideas,” Lower said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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