Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op unveils its expansion plan

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Natural Foods Cooperative is seeking permission to renovate and expand its retail store at 9 Washington St. by around 3,000 square feet in an effort to keep pace with a steady surge in business.
The Middlebury Development Review Board took its first look at the MNFC proposal on Monday and will continue its evaluation on Monday, Aug. 8, according to board Chairman Kevin Newton.
“From my perspective, it looks like something we would approve,” he said on Tuesday.
The project is being driven by the steady growth in sales at MNFC, which began as a pre-order buying club during the 1970s. The purpose of the organization then was the same as it is now: providing members with wholesome, natural foods — many of them sourced from within Addison County.
“We’ve been growing and growing and could use more space,” longtime MNFC Manager Glenn Lower said on Monday.
This would be the third expansion by MNFC in its history. The co-op’s most recent expansion occurred in 2004, with construction of its current 6,000-square-foot facility at 9 Washington St. The co-op continues to occupy its former retail spot at 1 Washington St., now using it for administrative offices, an employee break room, meeting room and additional storage space.
But once again, success is forcing the business to re-evaluate its space needs. The co-op now counts some 4,500 member-households. It is conducting around 1,000 transactions each day, amounting to roughly $13 million in annual sales, according to Lower.
“Our sales have tripled during the past 12 years,” Lower said. “We’ve been really successful, but it’s getting crowded in the store.”
Specifically, there’s a shortage of aisle space. The bulk, seafood, deli, dairy, meat and prepared foods departments also need more room, Lower noted. Customers have been asking for another restroom and additional seating for the MNFC’s café. The co-op identified these and other needs through a lengthy public engagement process with its members.
Last December, MNFC hired a team — led by Andrea Murray of Middlebury-based Vermont Integrated Architecture (VIA) — to design the project now before the DRB. The team, which also includes Otter Creek Engineering and Naylor and Breen, prepared the plans in a way that anticipates future expansion while incorporating more renewable energy.
“We want to do this without increasing our energy footprint,” Lower said.
A graphic provided by VIA shows an addition onto the west side of the co-op building toward the adjacent Addison County Automotive building. MNFC bought that automotive building in 2013 and will raze it in order to complete the project, according to Lower.
Parking has emerged as one of the trickiest aspects of the co-op’s expansion plan, Lower acknowledged. The MNFC currently owns 60 spaces and leases an additional 30 spaces from an adjacent property owner. There are additional spots off Washington Street that customers can also use.
“There’s lots of peripheral parking around,” Lower said.
Expansion won’t come cheap, and MNFC will seek support from its member-owners to help bankroll the work. In 2004, members agreed to loan the co-op a combined total of $400,000 to help create the 9 Washington St. building. The co-op paid those lenders back, with interest, within around seven years, according to Lower. This time, the MNFC is asking members to lend $1 million, which would cover around one-third of this latest expansion and renovation project. Having to clear the Addison County Automotive property prior to construction is adding to the bottom line, Lower explained.
“It will be more complicated this time,” he said of the work.
Ideally, MNFC officials would like to see a March 2017 groundbreaking for the project, with an estimated six months of construction, according to Lower.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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