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Vermont co-op keeps focus close to home

Laurie Budgar

April 24, 2008

5 Min Read
Vermont co-op keeps focus close to home

In Vermont, a state known more for its mountains than its meals, one store takes local foods seriously: the Brattleboro Food Co-op, in the town of the same name. "We've been working really actively to promote local producers and growers," says B.J. Davis, marketing manager of Brattleboro Food Co-op. "Our philo?sophy is to buy as close to home as we can." And that means going beyond maple syrup and cheese.

The co-op highlights a different local food producer every month and sponsors advertisements for the Producer of the Month in local newspapers and on radio. The producers come into the store, demonstrate their products, and meet their prospective customers. For example, April's Producer of the Month was Bingo Granola of Brattleboro. The co-op's own "demo lady" helps each producer put together an appealing display. The store makes a point of sponsoring a diverse selection of producers, and the chance for shoppers to meet the producers often increases sales for the featured company.

"People say, 'Oh, I met that family. I'll pay an extra 50 cents to buy from them,'" Davis says. The co-op also sponsors farm dinners, at which people can enjoy food right where it was grown or raised.

The store's Buy Local Committee formed a year ago to help foment ideas and action plans for the co-op. Currently, the committee is considering percentage or dollar goals for how much should come from local food. The committee also works with a group called the Localvores who have done things like challenge participants to try to eat only local foods for a week.

It hasn't always been easy to buy good food locally, and that's why the Brattleboro Food Co-op got its start in 1975. Like many co-ops, it began as a buying club, based in a member's basement. Now it boasts more than 4,000 members, about 20 of whom are founding members.

"Part of the original club was started to get good organic food, and part of it was a social club," Davis says jokingly. In fact, two of the most influential founding members, Cliff Adler, the late vice president of Eden Foods, and Lynn Levine, met through the club and married.

During the '70s and '80s, and the "back to the land" movement, the co-op continued to grow, moving in 1987 to its current location, which was a derelict shopping plaza at the time. The new site required a team effort to be revamped.

"We had to get away from our reputation as 'too crunchy,' " Davis says. "People thought we were all dirty and wore Birkenstocks all the time."

The employees scoured the old site, leveled the floor and generally improved the premises. Then the co-op ran a two-year ad campaign featuring employees' children shopping inside the store. Eventually, new faces came in to shop, and now the co-op grows by about 50 new members a month.

The co-op continues to share the twin purposes of good food and good community, catering to kids, adults and seniors with its education outreach program. The co-op has developed a Good to Grow program, creating lessons like "A-Maize-ing Grains" and "Eating the Rainbow," available to local home-schooled children, day care centers and elementary schools. The co-op's educators are also developing a program for high school students. For adults, staff members give cooking lessons in the store's demonstration kitchen. The co-op works with members of the local senior center to help them reform their diets to be more heart-healthy. Also, co-op members can go on free tours of the store with a nutritionist.

The co-op has a caf? and deli where customers can get anything from a muffin to a roasted-salmon sandwich. Customers can peruse a health and beauty section, natural living, vitamins and supplements, a bulk section and a selection of cut flowers. The store also has a full-service meat counter, serving up the co-op's own sausage, as well as a fish section.

Shoppers who are interested in the maple syrup and cheese needn't fear, though. The store's cheese section was developed by a local legend, "Henry the Cheeseman." He passed away recently, but his legacy of popular cheeses lives on, thanks to John Ferrara, the current cheese manager. In true Vermont style, maple syrup is available by the gallon. And, veering from the store's strong local theme, the co-op offers something many people don't expect from Vermont—a serious international wine selection. The co-op's wine manager travels around the world to learn about wines and brings back the choice picks.

"We're very big on educating our managers," Davis says.

The co-op board has an eye to the future, however, and is working on a 100-year plan for development. In keeping with its local focus, the board might consider breaking the co-op into smaller stores spread throughout the area it serves so that people will not have to drive so far to get to one central location. The board is also considering an eco-friendly building for the central location.

"We serve a mainly rural, mountain community, so we want to keep things small and maintain a local identity," Davis says. "People don't want a super-huge mega Wal-Mart. The phrase we keep hearing is 'human scale.' "

Hope Bentley is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 7/p.50

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