The Belfast Co-op is an outgrowth of a grassroots effort by back-to-the-landers seeking access to good food at a fair price, a unifying story among food co-ops across the country during this period. Essential support came from pre-order natural foods food-buying clubs in the region, particularly the Friends Co-op in Liberty-Montville which realized that after three years operating as a buying club, there was more than sufficient community interest to open a brick-and-mortar natural foods store in downtown Belfast.
In 1976, the Belfast Co-op opened it’s first storefront at 16 Upper Main Street, with an old wood floor and a sizable parlor stove. Our motto “All are welcome” was born. Working out of an 800 square foot shop, our pre-order activity attracted new member-owners daily and the Co-op grew to accommodate orders from non-members as well. It was very loosely run, with a Board of Directors more committed to providing good food for the community than making money, and monthly meetings which took place in people’s homes and always included a potluck supper.
GROWING BEYOND EXPECTATIONS
The store ran in the black, with three full-time staff and many great volunteers, and attracted new member-owners daily. There were sketchy board minutes taken, occasional committee meetings, and no term limits. There was one register, an oversized bulletin board and very little produce for most of those years.
As the Belfast area and the natural foods industry grew, so did our co-op storefront. Busting at the seams with products and shoppers and with sales climbing into the hundreds of thousands, we voted to move in 1985 to our second location– a 2,500 square foot storefront at 67 Lower Main Street. On a Sunday in August of 1985, the Co-op literally rolled down Main Street to its new, sunnier location. Like its predecessor, the Lower Main Street store had a wood stove, old wood floors, member work requirements, good inexpensive food, Crosby the Cat (shared with the downtown hardware store, where he slept overnight in their window), and a friendly staff.
There was now space for produce coolers and much more, including two new registers and a play area under the stairs. After a short while it became obvious that it was necessary to buy a computer to keep up with the growing sales and requisite paperwork. We added a few coffee makers and a daily crockpot of soup, and continued to run in the black.
Growing beyond expectations, by 1990 we had begun considering another move. In 1993, after much debate and committee work, we voted to move into the current location at 123 High Street, site of the former Belfast A & P. Renovations began there in the late spring of 1993—allowing us to expand to include a deli and cafe and bathrooms for customers and staff—and we opened shop in November of that year.
In making this move, we expanded into 6,000 square feet of retail space, added basement storage, a receiving and loading area out back and full parking lot in front. We purchased the property in 1999. Following national co-op trends, we shifted from a dual pricing system (member/nonmember) to issuing an annual patronage dividend, and discontinued the sweat equity requirement in favor of selling membership shares.
We continue to grow in our current space. In 2006 renovations including new offices and installation of a walk-in cooler for our dairy and beer department. in 2007, we expanded our receiving room, followed by remodeling our general merchandise and customer service areas in 2008.
As we continue to grow and change, we retain the same goals and mission reflecting cooperative values, and providing goods and services to our member-owners and customers who visit us from three counties in midcoast Maine and beyond. With over 3,900 member-owners and nearly $8 million in annual sales, we remain Maine’s largest food co-op, as well as one of the oldest.