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Co-op to add Wolfeboro store, grow model of collective ownership

The Concord Food Co-op began more than 40 years ago as a community buying club out of a garage.

Today, the company records about $7 million annually in sales and operates stores in Concord and New London. Yesterday, the board of directors announced the late spring opening of a third store in Wolfeboro. As people literally buy into the business, Marketing Manager Greg Lessard said more members and a new store are a sign that this structure of collective ownership has worked.

“I think the ability of the co-op to be expanding, especially in this economy, is a real tribute to the co-op model,” Lessard said.

Judy Leoni of Weare became a member of the co-op when it opened in a tiny storefront on Concord’s South Main Street in the 1990s, a little corner in the back of the building it now owns and occupies entirely. “I’m not sure what I was expecting,” said Leoni, 65.

But now she does almost all of her shopping at the co-op, making frequent trips for fruits and vegetables. Yesterday, she stood in the produce section of the 2,000-square-foot store, holding a yam in one hand.

“I shop organic,” she said. “If I can’t, I support local farmers. . . . I come in pretty often.”

Leoni is one of more than 6,700 members of the co-op, whom Lessard said all have made a one-time $100 investment in the company.

“Our membership is growing on a continuum, on an accelerated rate, and individuals are reaching out to us to take that model to their communities,” he said.

Several Wolfeboro residents approached the co-op earlier this year when the Evergrain Natural Foods Store in their town closed in December, Lessard said, and they were attracted to the healthy, eco-friendly products on which the co-op has built its name.

“These individuals were very interested in organic and local, and basically in having that available in their community,” Lessard said.

One of those residents bought the space for the store, Lessard said, and the new location is expected to open at 45 N. Main St. in Wolfeforo by May or June.

Even without a location in Wolfeboro now, Lessard said the co-op has 50 members who live in the town. Shoppers do not have to be members, but those who buy into the business receive coupons and discounted admission to some co-op events such as wellness classes. Members of the co-op will be able to use their benefits at all three stores.

Nick Schneider, assistant store manager in Concord, has worked at the co-op since 1995. His store has been renovated twice in the past 10 years – once in 2005 and once in 2012. Adding new locations is a sign a co-op can “survive and thrive,” he said.

“We’ve always been a little different than the large grocery store chains in terms of the attention that we try to give our customers, in terms of the products we stock in the store,” Schneider said.

Even though its prices make the co-op a higher-end grocery store in Concord, General Manager Paula Harris said the company has piggybacked on a trend toward healthier, more conscientious eating.

“I think that people are definitely more health conscious and they want good food,” she said.

Yesterday, Angela Shepard read the label on a package of gluten-free English muffins near the cooler in the Concord co-op, while her 6-year-old son, Michael, climbed on the cart. The 42-year-old Concord resident is looking to eliminate chemicals and processed foods from her family’s diet – “an experiment,” she said.

Shepard had only been to the co-op a handful of times and is not a member, but she said she would consider investing in the company based on how often she shops at the store.

“This seems to have a really nice variety of gluten-free, soy-free (products),” she said.

In 2009, the co-op bought the struggling Kearsarge Cooperative Grocer, turning it into the Concord Co-op of New London. Like that location, the third store will be a smaller version of the downtown flagship. Members and other shoppers at the Concord Co-op of Wolfeboro will find a similar selection of organic and local produce, dairy products and free-range meats.

And while the co-op business model is new to Wolfeboro, pastry chef Donna Love is not. Love and her husband operated a restaurant and pastry shop in the lakeside town before she joined the co-op in 2009. She will stay in the Concord kitchen, but her baked goods will be sold in the Wolfeboro co-op near her old haunt.

“She already has a very good following up there. . . . We’ll be reintroducing Donna,” Lessard said.

The former Evergrain Natural Foods Store had a strong customer base, Lessard said, and he expects those shoppers to support the co-op as it grows.

“They love what this co-op stands for,” Lessard said.

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

Legacy Comments1

Good story and I wish them luck. Collectivism seems to work well in towns where the "beautiful people" reside. Concord, New London and Wolfeboro, enlightenment at its peak.

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