The Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op is uniquely situated in a small town of Middlebury, Vermont. Rather than becoming one of those places that time forgot, it has maintained a vibrant community in a place known for its natural beauty and arts and culture. This quality of life is fiercely protected by the town’s residents and honoring that was also a priority for the co-op’s members when the co-op expanded a year ago.”
“Members are deeply committed to the downtown community and did not want to leave it, even if it meant gaining more space,” said Glenn Lower, general manager. People had noticed a development trend in Vermont that had negatively impacted local communities and downtown businesses: sprawl. Middlebury residents feared that if sustainable local businesses left (or were driven out by competition) the downtown would either become boarded-up and empty or populated by tourist boutiques. Sprawl can often leave inhabitants without the core services that attract commerce and civic engagement.
The co-op’s expansion was predicated on the ever-growing need members had for contemporary grocery store amenities, including a full-service deli, seating area, local meat and produce. Finding and paying for the necessary space for downtown development was extremely difficult. Navigating these competing demands took patience and strong leadership, and Lower knew that implementing these changes would require professional assistance.
How We Helped
Lower hired Ben Sandel from Columinate to help the co-op with a member capital campaign for the expansion. Jeanie Wells, also from Columinate worked with him on organizational and internal readiness. “They were awesome coaches,” he said, and because of their assistance, he was able to support his management team with their growth in the expansion. “We went into our management retreat with the report Jeanie prepared for us, and it made a big change in our culture. We still refer to that document.”
One key outcome is to encourage the Middlebury team to gain information from multiple sources, including their peers, consultants and by taking field trips to other businesses and cooperatives. Lower shared, “I especially want to encourage strengthening the co-op-to-co-op networking because I can see how reaching out can benefit our operation—especially in our HR and marketing departments.”
“I’d rather we learn from others and not have to reinvent the wheel and have outside help with big changes. I think I’ve used half of the consultants with Columinate at this point.”