CUMMINGTON -- For many regular customers and travelers on Route 9, the Old Creamery is the heartbeat of a five-town community on the eastern slopes of the Berkshires.
Part cafe, part old-fashioned general store, and most importantly, a gathering place for folks scattered through a remote, somewhat isolated region, it's about to become a co-op with some 500 "member-owners" and a board of directors helping to oversee the conversion from a traditional, private-ownership business model.
The conversion process, including a limited renovation and expansion to ease congestion and accommodate more customers, will cost $1.25 million, said Kimberly Longey, president of the Old Creamery Co-op Board of Directors. The conversion will likely occur this spring.
"The co-op concept is the next step for this treasured resource that is the heart and soul of the community," said Longey, noting that the store's customer base encompasses Windsor, Cummington, Plainfield, Worthington and Chesterfield.
On a recent afternoon, a family from Lanesborough was enjoying lunch and conversation.
They stop by at least twice a month. "It's the great food and the community spirit," said Cheryl Giulino.
"You never see anybody who's not happy here," said her husband, John Giulino. "We've been coming here as long as we can remember. It's a destination for some of us."
"One of the core values of living in a rural community is that we're all in this together," Longey said. "We rely on each other, the boundaries of politics and religion disappear because we all need to help each other."
Longey, a 25-year resident of Plainfield, pointed out that the survival of the business has "an incredible ripple effect on our little community. We have a direct impact on 100 other local businesses, including farmers and food producers." The Creamery employs seven full-timers and 19 part-timers.
The expansion plan will be "very modest, setting the stage for the sales growth essential for the business to survive," Longey explained.
Intense community surveys have been conducted, she added, "a long process with customers who think of the cafe as their living room."
Opened in 1886 as a dairy farmers' cooperative processing plant, The Old Creamery is 17 miles east of Dalton and less than 10 minutes beyond Notchview Reservation in Windsor. It became a cafe, general store and filling station 80 years ago.
For a moderate-sized store, the aisles are crammed with every conceivable grocery item, coffees, teas, beer and wine, even automotive and cleaning supplies. Bulletin boards are packed with community announcements and there's a nature-sighting board.
The decision to go co-op was the brainchild of the current owners, Amy Pulley and Alice Cozzolino, who are in their mid-50s, have put in long, six-day work weeks for the past 11 years and needed a respite to avoid burnout. They are the store's 12th owners in the last 80 years.
"The question in our minds was, how do we pass this on so the community can still have a say in what happens here," said Pulley, who pushed the idea of a transition to a co-op.
"It's no secret what our personal orientation is toward local and organic foods, creative and natural," said Cozzolino. "But our vision is to serve the entire community. We truly want everyone to feel welcome here, so we carry cigarettes, hot dogs, Oreos."
"We want people to feel this store represents who they are, so they can come here, sit at these tables and share their lives," she added, citing the store's additional focus on education, community service and entertainment.
Following the expansion, the values will remain, the co-owners emphasized. "The customers will be the same, the staff will be the same," said Pulley.
Both women, who have lived in Cummington for 25 years, plan to stay on during the transition, recruit and train two new managers, take a break, and perhaps return part-time, as volunteers or staff.
"It comes down to putting heart into it, to value every person who walks in the door, so when they walk out, they feel better than when they came in," said Cozzolino. "We're going to keep our ‘Creamery funk.'"
To reach Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 496-6247.
By the numbers ...
Here's how The Old Creamery in Cummington will convert to a co-op and expand its store and cafe, at a cost of $1.25 million:
Individual memberships: $150
Member-owners so far: 500
Member-owner equity: $75,000
Additional donations, grants: $225,000
Member-owner loans: $300,000 (so far, $100,000 raised)
Financing, multiple lenders: $600,000
Source: Old Creamery Business Plan