The Brattleboro Food Co-op Annual Meeting Minutes
November 10, 2021
Held via Zoom
Board members present Board President Jerelyn Wilson, Vice President Judy Fink, Treasurer Tamara Stenn, Secretary Denise Glover, and Nick Dickison. Board members absent: Joe Giancarlo, Beth Neher.
150 shareholders registered for the event and 104 individuals (including Board members, facilitators, and invited panelists) were present for some or all of the Annual Meeting.
Facilitator Nadav Malin introduced himself and asked shareholders to pose any questions using the “chat” feature.
Vice President Report: Board Vice President Judy Fink welcomed shareholders to the 45th Annual Meeting of the Brattleboro Food Co-op. She thanked all who were involved in planning and putting on the meeting and noted that of the 159+ shareholders who registered to attend, 55 are experiencing an Annual Meeting for the first time. She urged shareholders to consider board service, noting that “we’re all just regular people, who appreciate how important our Co-op is in our community, and we want to make sure our institution thrives.”
Judy introduced the seven candidates running for seats on the Board this year. She and Jerelyn Wilson are both incumbents, and they are joined by Calvin Dame, John Hatton, Michele Meulendyk, Jennifer Moore, and Johanna Zalneraitis. Their statements are available on the BFC website. She thanked Board members who recently stepped down or completed their terms (Shanta Lee Gander, Joe Giancarlo, Steffen Gillom, Beth Neher, and Tamara Stenn) and noted those who are continuing: Nick Dickison and Denise Glover.
Board President Report: Board President Jerelyn Wilson noted that the annual shareholder meeting is the one time in the year when we as the owners of the Co-op gather to hear from leadership how we’re doing and to engage together in some aspect of our work together. This year, a panel will continue our focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Jerelyn emphasized the hard work of all Co-op employees over the past fiscal year – a time with much shifting of roles and responsibilities and challenging and demanding circumstances. She noted that Sabine’s commitment to safety guided her decisions, her dedication to serving our community established her priorities, and her well-honed understanding of the financial realities of retail grocery informed complicated and often competing needs for internal and external resources.
Jerelyn reminded shareholders that Sabine will be working through the end of 2021 and that the Board is responsible for hiring her replacement. Over the last four-plus months the Board has formed a GM Search committee and hired an executive search firm as well as a seasoned consultant to support the considerable effort to find a new General Manager. We are not the only food co-op in the market for a new GM and among that group looking we are larger and more complicated than most. The Search Committee is committed to presenting to the Board only candidates that they feel have the potential to be successful at running our Co-op, finalists that meet the high standard necessary to ensure the future of our Co-op. Please stay tuned to our updates and as we have emphasized from the beginning, we are eager for your thoughtful input.
General Manager Report:
General Manager Sabine Rhyne stated that after nearly two years of operating in pandemic conditions, there have been some silver linings: We did very well financially, and have been able to repay a third of our shareholder loans, pay gainsharing to staff, and will be able to share a modest patronage dividend to all shareholders who shopped in FY21. Our current challenge is supply chain issues. She commended all staff, from buyers, receivers, stockers, IT, graphics, to accounting for coping with orders not being delivered.
She called attention to the Board of Directors: each and every one of the directors who has left the Board has contributed beautifully in their time on the Board.
Sabine thanked all of those who cared enough to put their money into this organization as equity, to keep a community economic engine chugging along, whether it was forty years ago or last week. She stated, “To own and support a co-op is a revolutionary act in valuing a local business that goes about things differently and thoughtfully to make this town, this state, and this region a truly different and magnificent place to live.”
She concluded “I am leaving the Co-op in a good place, with a solid future, a great staff, and some fine Board leaders. let’s keep this ship steaming ahead and doing good work for our community. Thank you.”
Board Treasurer Report:
Treasurer Tamara Stenn noted that it’s impressive how the Co-op has managed our budget in the face of so many uncertainties and changes, including closing Dottie’s, providing online ordering, and difficulties with the supply chain. Our net profit in FY21 was $1.47 million, which included forgiveness of a $867,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan, and was based on a sales increase of almost 10%. With our limited buying power (compared to our corporate competition), we’ve kept our gross margins at 37.4%. Sales via the Mercato online platform amounted to $122K, and our shareholders contributed over 1,000 hours to our Commitment to Community program. We also paid out over $550K in discounts, and $150K in gain share to our employees as a thank you for their hard work. She noted that many Dottie’s products could be found throughout the store, with featured stickers and tags.
Questions and Answers
Questions were submitted via the chat feature, and Nadav directed them to the appropriate person for a response.
Panelists: Tabitha Pohl-Moore led a discussion of the work of SUSU CommUNITY Farm and Zen Barn Farms. [Panelist transcript]
The meeting was adjourned at 7:45 pm.
2021 Brattleboro Food Co-op Annual Meeting – Questions and Answers
All questions were responded to by General Manager, Sabine Rhyne unless otherwise indicated.
Q: Explain a lot more about the patronage dividend. How is it determined? How much money is involved? Is it distributed? And anything else you know that could illuminate that.
A: We’re going to be rolling out all the details soon on that. The total dividend that will be declared will be $600,000. 20%of which will be paid back to shareholders in the form of patronage. It’s called patronage dividends because it’s based on your patronage. The folks that shop the most, and used the Co-op the most during the course of the year, will receive a larger dividend than those who bought only a cup of coffee during the year. Nonetheless, all Co-op owners that used the Co-op will be receiving an appreciation for their support during the course of fiscal 2021.
Q: Can you say a little bit more about where Dottie’s
A: There are sign shelf tags that say “Dottie’s Discount” throughout the Co-op. Many of the items in the grocery section are on the lower shelves, but not all. Some are in the dairy cooler, in the freezer or whatever. And are in other places. But we have tried to make them more visible. The items that people have not seen in the store, that Dottie’s used to carry, were the short-dated and damaged products. The source for those dried up. And our capacity to manage it wasn’t there so we don’t have those kinds of products in the store, but we’ve made a concerted effort to replicate every value-priced product in the store and have actually added to those over the course of the last year. They are largely from our conventional supplier, but from others as well.
(Tamara) I just want to add, I had a great meeting with John Megas Russell, who’s introduced the Dottie’s to me and the reason why [those items are] put on the lower shelves is so that it’s easier access for people to reach. So yes, the fact that we don’t have the damaged packages and the short-dated products that may explain what some people think of as the “Dottie’s” products that they’re looking for and not finding.
Q: Last fall we collected 425 signatures from people who said Dotties’ Discount Store was important to them. Will the Co-op please consider reviving it when more financially feasible?
A: [Sabine provided the following response after the meeting.] As I said in the Food for Thought articles about this at the time, I resisted making this difficult decision for several years. We tried lots of things, and finally, I felt as though it would be financially irresponsible to the owners of our business not to take this step of closing Dottie’s. Over the last three years prior to this decision, Dottie’s had produced a cumulative negative bottom line of -$74,315.
I am aware that Dottie’s had been an important part of the downtown community. I know that it provided lots of things: staples for downtown residents who cannot or don’t wish to shop in North or West Brattleboro, bargain hunting for people who shop the main store, interesting and unusual items for folks looking for the same, and generally a welcoming space for folks who are struggling. I knew that when we had to finally say “uncle” that it would look to those who assumed certain things like we were abandoning the less fortunate. But the model was not sustainable, and the situation around having a fully staffed and supplied retail entity in these current times has certainly not improved that.
Q: Am glad to see the growing number of vegan options at the co-op! Would love to see more things in the grab n go area (sometimes all it would take is replacing honey with a different sweetener).
A: [Sabine provided the following response after the meeting.] We appreciate the feedback. I have passed this on to the deli department.
Q: Will nonprofits that are Co-op members receive a patronage dividend?
A: (Sabine) I’m not sure about that. I think most of the folks that I saw on our list were human beings, so I’ll have to look at that. Update: There are a few organizational entities that have purchased equity shares in the Co-op over time, largely to lend our Co-op money when we were raising shareholder loans. If any of those entities purchased goods over the year, they would indeed be eligible for patronage on those purchases.
Q: We want to hear a little bit more about the staff bonus and how that’s worked.
A: At the end of the fiscal year we paid staff an extra dollar for every hour they worked in the store during fiscal 2021. This was done for any staff who were still employed at the Co-op at the end of the fiscal year. It was something like $150,000 in gainsharing to staff.
$15 Minimum Wage
Q: How would it look financially to bring a $15 minimum wage minimum hourly wage to our clock staff? Is this feasible?
A: It’s definitely a goal, and we’re working steadily towards that and have a plan to do so at some point in the near future, but not this year. [As for the financial impact], it’s a very difficult question to answer because the wage has to do with an entry wage, and we have a lot of people who work here who have been here for a wide variety of time, and we have pay scales that reach up quite a bit more than $15, so it would be a calculation that would have to be done across the board. I can’t really answer that question very well without a lot of analysis.
Q: Is the implication in that that you want to avoid wage compression?
A: That is a situation that we have to pay attention to, yes.
Plastic and Biodegradeable Packaging
Q: Since we’re doing so well, when will we be able to move away from plastic packaging and adopt more biodegradable packages like the ones at Putney and Springfield Co-ops?
A: Well, actually we use a lot of biodegradable packages. Most of the packaging that we have is biodegradable, with some exceptions. We just picked up some products that are in recycled plastic that can be recycled as well, so there are different products that we use for packaging. As everyone who’s interested in this topic knows, it’s a very difficult process to be able to continue to clean up as and reduce the amount of plastics that we use in a food operation, but we continue to try. We do have an added wrinkle right now, which unfortunately I’m sorry to say it again has to do with supply chain. Sometimes we have discovered that we have had products that have been replaced by our distributors, and in fact in one case it was noted by a shareholder who noticed that there was a product that was in the grab ‘n go. That was not the way it used to be, and sure enough it was a different product with a different chemical makeup, so we’re trying to keep up with that as best we can and will continue to work at reducing as much as we can.
Online Shopping and Discounts
Q: I’m sure many appreciate Mercato because of the online ordering option. From what I heard last week, there’s no capability to give member discounts through that. Which is an important perk to some, although I do not use Mercato, is it possible to round up for those who find that as incredible initiative as I do?
A: This is a complicated question also, because when one shops for another there are additional costs involved in that transaction, and in many cases online ordering includes additional costs to cover those types of services. We chose not to do that for curbside initially, when we were taking orders on the phone. On Mercato, we are not tacking on additional fees from the Co-op for providing that service. We also have not made it possible to receive your discount that way, because it’s an additional cost to provide the service. The discount would then further impact the Co-op in [providing] that service, so it’s not something that we’ve pursued for financial reasons.
Labor shortage impact
Q: Labor shortage impact?
A: I assume the full question is, have we been impacted by the labor shortage? And I think yes is the short answer. For a while there we were having real trouble finding folks to fill open positions, especially during the summer – in late spring and through the summer. We have observed over the last month, I would say, that positions are filling more rapidly now and we actually have a few departments that up until recently were never fully staffed are now fully staffed, including, for instance, the front end. We continue to have some positions open in food service, but many fewer than we were struggling with through the summer and I do say that partly to let you know how that’s been, but also to express further appreciation for our staff that did a lot of extra work to cover for all the folks that were not filling positions at that time. So it was a rough summer, but we made it through pretty well and now are happy to have pretty good situation for staffing. And we’re grateful.
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion
Q: What are some of the diversity and inclusion initiatives that were launched and promoted?
A: We’ve been working with Tabitha [Pohl-Moore] on some management team trainings, after having done our own. She just completed a staff survey to be able to craft workshop sessions with staff, we are about to figure out the best way to launch those so we can get maximum participation. When we first started this, we did a lot of self-guided work, and we worked with LaDonna Redmond Sanders to help us identify what we needed to work on. We’ve also started looking at how we name dishes (in the deli) and going through that and start to address other ways we can correct less culturally appropriate ways we are presenting ourselves to our customers.
What will you miss?
Q: (Nadav) Sabine, I think what the board members and so many of the rest of us feel tremendous appreciation for your service to the Co-op over these years. In particular through this really challenging time. I know you’re still in the thick of it and still very busy, but I wonder, if there’s anything you could already feeling like you’re going to miss the most from this role, once you leave
A: To be completely honest, I haven’t focused on that at all. And partly it’s just because there is a lot going on at the moment and partly it’s just because there will be sadness at leaving. There’s no doubt and there will be many things that I will miss. And probably the main thing that I will miss are some of my amazing coworkers and board leaders. So I feel very blessed to have been around some of the most fantastic people on the planet.