By John Tashiro, General Manager
While I still hope for a few more flurries of snow in these last weeks of winter, I’m looking forward to spring. I have indeed enjoyed an earlier sunrise and the sound of chirping birds more frequently as warmer temperatures make their way into Vermont.
A little over three months have passed since we opened the South End store (yes, we opened right before Thanksgiving) and we are feeling more settled with every day that passes. One of our most significant challenges was the hiring and training of approximately 100 new positions, especially considering the particularly low unemployment levels in the Burlington area. We have made some great progress and were delighted to finally offer our full range of prepared food services, including those breakfast sandwiches you have waited so patiently for. We continue to receive great feedback from our customers, with comments and requests ranging from directional signage and improved cart corral placement in the parking lot to continuously assessing our product selection compared to what we offer in the Downtown store. We are incredibly appreciative of your support and will continue to provide the great customer experience that you have come to expect from the Co-op.
On a related note, I wanted to make you aware of our difficult decision to forgo creating a smaller format storefront in the Old North End of Burlington (242-244 North Winooski Avenue). We plan to vacate this leased space within the next seven months, if not sooner, depending on whether a new tenant can be found. We recognize the Co-op’s connections and rich history with the Old North End as well as the limited healthy food options available. And we didn’t make this decision lightly as we creatively assessed the space to see what might be possible. The insights we gained in the process of opening and running the South End store have been invaluable as we experienced firsthand the significant resources and on-going efforts required, let alone the financial investments involved, with expansion.
At this time, we feel it is prudent to take a pause and allow ourselves time to fully settle into being a two-store Co-op. Our intent is to remain financially viable and sustainable for our Members and to continue to support the larger community, but we are very mindful with how we address the needs of those communities that have less access to healthy, affordable food options. As we look at our expansion options in the future, whether in the Old North End or other areas in or outside of Burlington, they may indeed take on different forms and services than building and/or leasing additional new locations. Our decision matrix will include an array of considerations and priorities, and we will be sure to share any future plans as they arise.
Looking ahead to March, we will be hosting our 4th Annual Co-op Patronage Seedling Grants celebration on Monday, March 19th at our South End Community Room. We started this Grant program in 2015 as a way to allow Members to donate their Patronage Refund checks to support the local food system. Each summer, a Member Grants Committee meets to discuss the applications and decide which non-profit projects to recommend for Board approval. This year, our Members are funding six projects totaling just over $30,000 (unless the total of uncashed Patronage Refund checks is greater than expected). Again this year, Burlington’s Mayor Miro Weinberger and Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture, Food & Markets, Anson Tebbetts, will be speaking at our celebration and then we’ll hear a bit more about each non-profit project.
On a final note, we have raised over $500,000 in loans and pledges with our Member Loan Campaign and appreciate all your many amazing conversations and Co-op stories. The Loan Campaign remains a very tangible way to directly invest in the growth of the Co-op and earn a fair rate of return with a business you already own and believe in. We are still accepting loans and doing all that we can by the end of this month to get as close as possible to the $1.5 million goal. If you are considering an investment, now is a great time to be in touch!
As always, thank you for your amazing support as we look to serve you, our Members and customers, and the broader community. We look forward to seeing you at the Co-op and wish you our very best!