NORWAY — For 40 years, the Fare Share Co-op, currently located at 443 Main Street, has remained afloat throughout turbulent times, multiple location changes and dire financial straits.
Lisa Moore, president of the Board of Directors, said that for the last three years, the co-op has seen a steady amount of growth and is “running in the black for the first time in awhile.”
“For a long time, our goal was to just stay in business, but we’ve moved beyond that. We’re talking about things like repairing the building and sustaining the organization, instead of saying, ‘Oh my god, we made it through another year and didn’t go bankrupt!’”
Moore said that she has served in many roles with the Fare Share Co-op since the 1980’s.
She moved to Boston in the early 80’s and moved back with her husband in 1996, where she said she got “reacquainted and re-involved with the co-op.”
Here to there
The Fare Share Co-op was founded in May of 1978, according to Ken Morse, one of the people who signed the original Articles of Incorporation for the co-op.
Morse said that prior to the founding of Fare Share, he had heard about a regional produce and grain buying club called Western Coordinated Produce, which allowed buying clubs to combine their orders into one large order and buy organic food from the New England Co-op Buyers.
He said that he and several others created their own regional buying group called Gutco.
“We’d go to Boston at 4 a.m. with a truck and pick up loads of food for everybody who made an order,” Morse said. “We’d drive back to Paris the same day, and people would come to pick it up.”
In 1978, Morse and the other founds decided to form a cooperative store called Fare Share Co-op.
It originally was open one day a week “in a barn across from McDonald’s in South Paris,” Morse said.
Moore said that the Co-op was a lot smaller in the 1980’s.
“The store later moved to the former Paris Farmers Union building (on Tannery Street),” Moore said. “We rented that space at the time, and back then, it was very small. We dealt with a lot of bulk food back then, and not a lot of produce, because we didn’t have a produce cooler.”
After many years at the Tannery Street building, Moore said the co-op decided it needed more space and found it in the form of a building at 443 Main Street.
“When David Holt was town manager, the building we’re in now was decrepit,” Moore said. “It was a mess inside and out. The town took ownership of it, but they weren’t in the business of owning buildings. They sold it to Fare Share for a dollar, but it was kind of like your uncle giving you a used car that doesn’t work anymore: ‘Here you go, now it’s up to you to fix it!’”
Moore said that she and many other volunteers “filled about 50 huge dumpsters with the stuff inside the building,” something that the co-op hadn’t been prepared for.
“It became incredibly expensive to fix the building,” she said. “It was very dilapidated and worn out. It was really more than we bargained for, but it was a very generous transfer by the town. David always had a vision that if we had a grocery store on Main Street, it would help to start revitalizing this part of town, and between 2001 and 2008, it happened. We’ve seen this street come back to life.”
She pointed to some of the other businesses that came to Main Street afterwards: The Tribune (formerly known as Books N Things), Cafe Nomad, and the Green Machine Bike Shop.
“There’s been a lot of synergy here, and the Fare Share Co-op feels like the cornerstone for it,” Moore said.
When Fare Share was first founded, co-op stores were unique, due to big chain grocery stores such as Shaws Supermarket and Hannaford’s not offering organic foods, Moore said.
“That was sort of how co-ops began,” Moore said. “People wanted organic or healthy food options, and since you couldn’t get it at Hannaford, we’d drive to Portland, pick it up and bring it back to Oxford Hills.”
Moore said that organic food has become “very mainstream,” which has led to the success of the Fare Share Co-op over the last few years.
However, she said that it was “also a weakness, because it’s hard for a smaller operation like us to compete, price-wise, with something like Hannaford.”
“That’s why we focus on local foods more now,” Moore said. “In some ways, organic has gone mainstream, and the new thing is local foods.”
The Fare Share Co-op differs from independently owned natural food stores in that the store is “owned by many, many people,” Moore explained.
“We’re a cooperative business, and there are not many of those around,” she said. “The people who pay an annual fee become an owner of the store. All of us have an equal share in the ownership of the co-op, and the co-op owns the building.”
The store is governed by a nine-person Board of Directors and run by a general manager, Moore said.
“The board monitors the organization’s performance and is in charge of the long-range vision,” Moore said.
Moore said that a big reason that the Fare Share Co-op has had a great run over the last few years is that “we’ve had a fabulous general manager in Emmy Andersson.”
Prior to being hired at Fare Share, she ran an independent natural foods store in Poland called Square Root Natural Foods.
“There was a lot of road construction going on in our area at that time, which affected our business,” Andersson said. “We ended up closing down the store.”
Shortly after, she said that she received a phone call from Fare Share’s previous general manager.
“She told me that she was retiring, that there would be a job opening for general manager, and that I should apply for the job,” Andersson said.
“I felt like what I did for work before this would help me in the general manager position, and I have a Master’s in sustainable business, so it felt close to what I’m used to doing,” she added.
Andersson said that she didn’t have a lot of experience with co-ops before being hired, but quickly grew acclimated to the way it operated.
“There’s a higher level of involvement with the customer base, and it requires a deeper knowledge of the system,” she said. “It’s been challenging, but I like that. I like to stay busy.”
Over the last three years, Andersson said that Fare Share Co-op has been able to increase its payroll by 35.6 percent, allowing her to employ two additional employees and offer higher wages, something that “benefits both customer service and the morale of the employees.”
“Our goal was always for our employees to be proud of their wages, and I think we’re working on accomplishing that,” Andersson said.
The co-op has also increased the percentage of its budget spent on local foods they offer at the store to 38 percent.
“We’re proud of that number because it shows our members that they have an impact on what we buy and offer,” Andersson said.
She said that the co-op has also installed heat pumps in the store, which replaced “an antiquated heating system.”
“We were running fossil fuels before that, which cost a lot of money and was not in line with our mission at all,” Andersson said. “It’s nice to be able to show the owners that we’re thinking about the impact we have on the community.”
More to do
Despite the growth that the co-op has seen in the last few years, Moore said that there is still room for improvement, starting with continuing to “get the word out there that we’re here.”
“A lot of people still don’t realize this place is here, even though we’ve been here for almost 20 years,” Moore said. “We want to keep trying to get the word out there.”
Moore said that the co-op also wants to “find ways to serve our community in creative ways.”
“We’re thinking about things like delivering food to people, or offering free soup all the time, or expanding our hours,” Moore said. “There are lists and lists of things that we can do to serve more people and to attract more customers.”
“We would love to put solar panels up or purchase energy through a solar farm, if anything like that happens in the area,” Moore said. “We can certainly make our building more energy efficient.”
One of the elements of the co-op that both Moore and the rest of the board are happy with is the Main Street location.
“We have no intention of moving to a different location,” she said. “We like it here. Instead, we’ve talked about other things that we can do to take us into the community, rather than waiting for the community to come here. We’ve talked about things like food trucks, or increasing our outreach.”
Andersson said that she would like to increase the percentage of the co-op’s budget spent on local foods to 40 percent, “in honor of the store’s 40th anniversary.”
“I think that’s a cool goal that would resonate with the owners,” she said.
Andersson added that she would like to increase “owner engagement,” something that Moore agreed with.
“We want to make sure the people who are owners have a real sense of the co-op belonging to them,” Moore said.
Heading into its 40th year, Moore said that Fare Share Co-op is one of “maybe six” co-ops remaining in Maine.
“A lot of them have gone out of business,” she said. “Many of the state’s co-ops are on the coast. We’re one of the only co-ops inland that serve rural areas. We’re the ‘Little Engine That Could’ kind of co-op.”
“Word is getting out there,” Moore continued with a smile. “Sales are up, up, up, energy costs are down, down, down, and we’ve had a few really good, strong years. We’re pretty hopeful that this year will tip the scales.”