BARRE — Granite City Grocery may never be more than a name because nearly eight years after the idea was introduced, the cooperative’s 700-plus members will be asked whether it should be dissolved and its remaining assets donated to the Vermont Foodbank.
That isn’t necessarily the only option, but Nick Landry, chairman of the co-op’s board, said Monday the existential question is guaranteed to be on the ballot for an annual membership meeting to be conducted remotely again this year. Virtual voting is set to start on May 28 and conclude on June 18.
Citing flagging membership on an already undersized board and a changing food marketplace that has undercut the original vision for Granite City Grocery, Landry said the board’s four remaining members have reluctantly agreed to put the dissolution of the co-op to a vote.
“It basically comes down to: ‘Do we want to keep going or not,” he said.
According to Landry, there is a path forward, but it would require a significant course correction and some heavy lifting by co-op members who aren’t currently on the board, but could conceivably be elected during the upcoming annual meeting.
What was once a 13-member board has dwindled to four over the years. Two — Landry and his partner, Heather Runk — will be stepping down following the annual meeting. The other two — Landry’s father, Bruce, and Kyle Lanzit — will resign if at least five other candidates don’t decide to run for board seats this year.
Co-op members interested in serving on the board can obtain applications by emailing info@granitecity grocery.coop and then filling them out and returning them by the May 21 deadline.
Landry said five isn’t an arbitrary number. It is the number of “active member-elected board members” required under the Vermont Cooperative Statute, and while his father and Lanzit have indicated they are willing to serve another year to facilitate the transition, that isn’t an open-ended commitment. Both plan to step down after training new board members assuming at least five are elected and members don’t vote to disband the co-op anyway.
If there aren’t at least five co-op members willing to serve on the board, Landry said the elections will be scrapped and the only question on the ballot — whether to dissolve the co-op — will have essentially have been answered before being asked.
“If five people aren’t interesting in serving on the board, that basically tells us the membership is not interested in running the co-op,” he said.
Even if the effort to recruit new board members is successful, Landry said the shifting realities of the grocery business would likely require changing the co-op’s founding vision of providing a mix of affordable conventional foods and more expensive organic natural foods.
“When we started this effort, we were told it wasn’t going to be easy to open a store that offered at least 50% conventional products at a lower price point, but that it was possible, if the overall market did not significantly change,” he said.
According to Landry, wholesale prices for groceries have risen far faster than inflation and national food buying patterns have changed, with many ordering food online.
“It changes the co-op’s entire financial picture,” he said of a market-wide jump in wholesale grocery prices over the last two years.
Landry said the model once thought possible, probably isn’t any longer and the path forward for the co-op if the membership and new leadership is interested, would likely involve a market that sells organic and natural foods almost exclusively. Whether creating a Barre equivalent to Montpelier’s Hunger Mountain Co-op is viable is far from a settled question, but Landry said it is one a new board could explore along with other ways to meet the vision of Granite City Grocery without incurring the cost of opening a brick and mortar store.
If new board members don’t step up, or if Granite City Grocery’s members vote to pull the plug on the idea, the co-op will be dissolved and its remaining funds donated to the Vermont Foodbank.
Landry said the alternative — printing and mailing checks to member-owners would be cost-prohibitive. Based on current estimates, those who invested $200 to join the co-op over the last several years could expect to receive about $7 back if the co-op is dissolved.
Landry said the board agreed it made more sense to make a one-time donation to the foodbank if the co-op is dissolved.
The shifting market place is a new wrinkle for an all-volunteer board to confront if enough members decide to run and, Landry predicted, community engagement is a problem it will have to solve.
“They (prospective board members) won’t be able to do this alone,” he said, suggesting the one-year commitment of two experienced members will help, but won’t be enough.
“They will also need the full support of Granite City Grocery’s membership to restart this project of bringing a locally owned grocery store to Barre,” he said.
Unless they don’t.
If fewer then five of them opt to run for the board, or members at large vote to dissolve the co-op Granite City Grocery will never be more than a name.
Those interested in running, or who have questions about the annual meeting are encouraged to log on to
https://www.granitecitygrocery.coop/meetings for next Tuesday’s 6 p.m. board meeting.
Next week’s meeting will be the last before virtual voting starts on May 28, though the board is scheduled to meet remotely on June 8 before voting closes on June 18.