Located in the heart of downtown, the Belfast Community Co-op has been serving our area since 1976.
The Belfast Community Co-op sprouted out of a grassroots effort by 70’s-era back-to-the-landers in Waldo County seeking access to good food at a fair price, which is a common story among food co-ops across the country during this period.
Essential support came from pre-order natural foods buying clubs in the region, particularly the Friends Co-op in Liberty-Montville, which realized after three years of operation that there was enough community interest to open a brick-and-mortar natural foods store in downtown Belfast.
In 1976, the Belfast Co-op opened its first storefront at 16 Upper Main Street, with an old wood floor, a sizable parlor stove and the motto “all are welcome.” Working out of an 800-square-foot shop, we served both member-owners daily and 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 patchy 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 storefront enterprise. Busting at the seams with products and shoppers–and with sales climbing into the hundreds of thousands–we voted in 1985 to move to our second location, a 2,500 sf space at 67 Lower Main Street. On a Sunday in August, 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, 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.
By 1990 we began considering another move. In 1993, after much debate and committee work, we voted to move to the current location at 123 High Street, the site of the former Belfast A & P. Renovations began in the late spring, and allowed us to expand to include a deli, cafe and customer bathrooms. We opened November of that year.
Store updates continued, including the construction of an addition for new offices in 2006, the installation of a walk-in cooler for our dairy and beer departments and expansion of our receiving room in 2007, and the addition of a basement walk-in freezer in 2011, along with upgrades to safety and building code requirements.
The Co-op joined National Co+op Grocers (NCG) in 2012, the same year a nationwide shift resulted in newly widespread availability of natural and organic foods. This year marked a downtrend in sales, resulting in negative sales growth for several quarters. There were other big changes during this period. In 2014, the Board of Directors adopted policy governance and the Cooperative Ownership Reaching Everyone (the CORE program) was established to better provide economic support and food access to Co-op owners. In July 2015, the Co-op transitioned from a three-person general management team to a single GM, and hired GM Doug Johnson.
The years 2016 and 2017 marked a period of reinvestment in the store which included product resets, new shelving with wider aisles, safety updates and margin management. The Co-op Basics program was launched, and the Co-op began to see sales rebound.
It’s important to note that while co-ops had been synonymous with “natural food stores” for their first few decades in the United States, the increase in availability of natural and organic foods means that what currently distinguishes co-ops from other grocery stores is as much about providing healthy, nutritious, affordable food as it is about providing an alternative business and economic model that emphasizes shopping small and keeping money local. One of the Co-op’s proudest moments came in October 2021, when it reached its goal of providing all its workers with a living wage (based on MIT’s living wage calculations).
At this writing, the Co-op is proud to boast over 4700 owners and $11M in sales. The Co-op also engaged in a rebranding effort with local brand agency Pica, and its updated name, the Belfast Community Co-op, to help people understand that everyone is welcome to shop here. To complement our updated name, we have an updated logo and design that combine a heart with an apple, to signal how the Co-op unites food and love. We also have a new way to describe who we are: Owned by you. Food for all.
With a 50+ year old building, the Board is again addressing the Co-op’s need for retail and structural updates that would include expanding the retail space and café seating, as well as addressing the building’s structural integrity and workplace safety. An architectural and construction plan has been developed and the Board has approved this renovation project. The Board will be launching a capital campaign in January 2023 and construction will begin later in the year. Please check back on this website, our e-newsletters, the Co-op’s social media accounts and our Rootstock newsletters for updates on the progress of our future plans and projects.
The Rootstock is the Belfast Community Co-op’s newsletter.
Each issue contains store updates, recent news from the Board of Directors, report from the General Manager, upcoming events and activities, stories, and more! Find a copy in store or download current and back issues here.
Click here to update your owner information.
The Belfast Community Co-op Timeline
Buying club moves into a storefront with the name Belfast Co-op Store, 16 Upper Main Street
Co-op files articles of incorporation
Store moves to 67 Lower Main Street (the current Green Store location)
Store moves to current location, 123 High Street
Co-op purchases the High Street building and property
Co-op installs a Catapult point-of-sale system
Co-op joins National Co-op Grocers; a nationwide shift makes natural and organic food widely accessible
A downtrend in sales results in negative sales growth for several quarters
Launch of the Cooperative Ownership Reaching Everyone (CORE) program
Board of Directors adopts Policy Governance
Co-op adopts Global Ends Policy
Co-op transitions back to a single GM
Co-op adopts a periodically adjusted wage scale
After reinvestment in the store and new management policies, sales begin to rebound
Voting for Annual Elections moves online
Senior discount is discontinued
Co-op holds first-ever owner drive, resulting in 100 new owners
Wage scale is adjusted to meet MIT living wage calculations with a starting wage of $15/hour
Rebrand launches with new name of Belfast Community Co-op and new logo and website!