Berkshire Co-Op Market weighs expansion options

Thursday September 13, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON -- The Berk shire Co-op Market, which has seen annual sales spike from $1.5 million to $8.3 million over the past decade, is on the verge of two momentous decisions this fall affecting the future of the store offering healthy, natural food alternatives to its 3,500 active "owners."

The co-op’s board of directors may take up a proposal to acquire the Clearwater Natural Foods on Church Street in Lenox. For 16 months, the co-owners, sisters Maggie Sadoway, 70, and Ruth Wheeler, 61, have been seeking to sell the business they acquired in 1980.

Berkshire Co-op -- which has been described as a small-town version of the Whole Foods chain -- also will consider a major, multimillion-dollar investment to expand its Bridge Street location or build a new store nearby.

Berkshire Co-op General Manager Art Ames promised a go or no-go on the potential Lenox site by Thanksgiving.

"We’re still figuring it out," he said on Wednesday. Depending on final numbers-crunching, he will either recommend a go-ahead to the board of directors at an Oct. 24 or Nov. 28 meeting, or give up the idea.

Ames said a satellite location in Lenox not only preserves a natural foods store but also fits into the co-op’s values. But for the bottom line, it shapes up as a break-even proposition at best, he added.

Having canvassed downtown Lenox businesses about the idea, Ames depicted the reaction as "incredibly positive."

"We want to bolster and improve the downtown economy," he said.

Characterizing the co-op’s philosophy as "socially liberal and fiscally conservative," Ames said that "for all the right value reasons, we would want to be there."

Acknowledging "mixed feelings," Ames said the decision on the future of the main Great Barrington market has to be "a major focus."

The choice is whether to renovate and expand the current Bridge Street site or move down the street to the demolished New England Log Homes factory, formerly badly polluted by chemicals used in wood sealants. Ames said that location would have the added benefit of creating a recreational area along the Housatonic.

"If it works, we would have taken a blighted property and turned it into a prime destination for access to the river," Ames said. "That would be smart growth, a model for other communities, and it dovetails with our mission."

That crucial decision is also due for presentation to either the Oct. 24 or Nov. 28 board meeting, Ames said.

The estimated cost for the project, either at the current or the new site, ranges from $3.5 million to $6 million, he said, though he leans toward the lower end of the projection.

Co-op board chairman Daniel Seitz said a Lenox satellite "could support an expansion to serve our current customer base more fully. We want to make sure that’s based on careful business planning."

"It would be a small store, but it would be in line with our mission," he added, based on consumption of healthy food, including local and regional farm-fresh products, that is natural and sustainable.

The Clearwater owners, who first approached Berkshire Co-op last December, have been keen on selling the business and moving on to retirement or other options.

Sadoway acknowledged that running an independent health-food store has become more challenging since Clearwater’s best year in 1997, as competitors such as Guido’s Fresh Marketplace, Stop & Shop and Price Chopper have greatly expanded natural and organic product lines with lower prices because of their high-volume purchasing power.

She also cited Internet buying, people cooking at home less and the recession, though Clearwater had a strong summer.

"One of the tremendous advantages the Berkshire Co-op would have to compete with the supermarkets is their buying power," Wheeler said, since the store is a member of the Natural Cooperative Grocers Association, a large national organization.

Sadoway, having computed that "we’ve opened the door to our store 11,700 times," called it "a big deal if the Co-op decides to come here and if they don’t, we’ll look at other options."

Robert Romeo, who owns the building housing Clear water through his Taradale Realty Trust, said he has met with Ames several times and proposed a deal "very attractive to them in a number of ways."

"I’ve tried to accommodate whatever their concerns were," Romeo said. "It would be a hugely advantageous business for the center of Lenox. They’d be a great tenant for me and I’ll do whatever I can within reason to make it happen."


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