The Monadnock Food Co-op first began considering expanding its Keene store more than four years ago.
“It really was around 2017, we were just visibly starting to outgrow our space, and we knew we needed to do something,” said Michael Faber, general manager of the store, which opened at 34 Cypress St. in 2013. “It wasn’t immediately clear what that was.”
The co-op eventually settled on a 6,700 square-foot expansion, bringing the store to 19,900 square feet as part of a multi-year renovation. The roughly $10 million project included purchasing the property from the Monadnock Economic Development Corp., which built the original facility for about $3.5 million and previously leased it to the co-op.
The expansion — featuring larger indoor and outdoor seating areas, a new kitchen, bigger space for the co-op’s prepared-food section and greater selection throughout the store — started in late 2019, and wrapped up at the beginning of this year. With the COVID-19 pandemic, though, the co-op has waited to celebrate the official opening of the addition until this week, with a series of public events scheduled Thursday through Saturday.
“We really are about being a community hub, a community space,” said Jen Risley, the co-op’s marketing manager. “So, just to be able to celebrate together is going to make it real, and allow us to really see the difference.”
The events, billed as the co-op’s “grand re-opening celebration,” will include free live music from the Sharon, Mass.-based Willie J. Laws Band on Friday evening at the amphitheater behind the co-op, completed as part of the expansion; food trucks including The Traveling Taco on Friday and Yahso-on-the-Go Saturday afternoon; and a variety of family-friendly activities and free tastings and demonstrations from local vendors.
“If we had a celebration, we actually wanted to be able to celebrate with people, and not keep everyone at arm’s length,” Risley said. “So, [we waited] until we could do it well, and still have it outside. So it seems like a long time since the expansion project was done, but for the public, they might not even know that it’s been all completed.”
But the expansion project is no secret to co-op members Carolyn Jones of Keene and Liz Ober of Dublin — friends who caught up on a warm, sunny morning last Thursday at a table on the store’s renovated patio.
“I like it a lot,” Ober said. “... They did a great job.”
Though she said she hasn’t taken advantage of the new café much yet, Ober said the new space is even nicer than before.
“It looks more open,” she said. “I’m really impressed that they did it, and that it came out really well.”
Jones, who became a co-op member about five years ago, added that she’s amazed the co-op remained open, and finished its renovations, during the pandemic.
Faber, the general manager, said the pandemic slightly delayed the project, but construction essentially remained within the one-year timeline the store initially projected. The most time-consuming element, he said, was securing the funding, which came through a combination of a traditional bank loan, the federal New Markets Tax Credit program, and about $1.3 million in loans raised through a campaign with the co-op’s nearly 4,000 member-owners. (The loans acted as investments from the members, whom the store will repay in the coming years.)
“It did take several years to go through all those steps that were required, to put the financing in place,” Faber said.
But now, he added, the co-op is already seeing the benefits of the larger store. The co-op hit its target of $17 million in sales for the fiscal year that ended July 1, including $6 million in sales of locally made products.
“For our community, for shoppers, we’ve got just greatly expanded offerings, and we’re able to offer more healthy food choices and support more local farms and producers,” Faber said. “Our local sales are significantly up this year, thanks to the expansion and just adding more of those products into our mix.”
Risley added that the expansion has given the co-op more purchasing power, and a greater ability to pass those savings along to customers with lower prices.
“So, we’re kind of highlighting some of those price changes with new lower price tags and things like that, just to let people know that this is one outcome of the expansion that was really important to us,” she said.
The co-op also hired about 20 additional people along with the expansion, for a total workforce of roughly 120. Overall, Faber said, the co-op considers the expansion a big accomplishment.
“We’d only been open six years, but had already [outgrown the space],” he said. “And that’s really a testament to the community support for our co-op. So, to complete this project, and be able to showcase that for the community, is really important for us.”
Looking ahead, Faber said the co-op is still wrapping up some minor elements of the renovations, including a community meeting room that should be open within the next month or so. Beyond that, the store plans to add solar panels to the roof of the addition, matching the original building, and add an electric-vehicle charging station next year to the parking lot, which grew by nine spaces on the east side of the building as part of the expansion.
Ultimately, he said, the co-op will keep seeking new methods to fulfill its mission and meet the needs of the community.
“We want to continue to look for ways to serve our community and provide healthy food choices and support local producers,” he said. “We want to keep looking for ways to grow that impact.”