Brattleboro Food Co-op Annual Meeting
November 11, 2020
Held via Zoom
Board members present: Board President Jerelyn Wilson, Vice President Judy Fink, Treasurer Skye Morse, Beth Neher, Denise Glover, Mark Adams, and Tamara Stenn. [Note: Secretary Mary Bené stepped down in October.]
Board Vice President Judy Fink:
The 44th Annual Meeting of the Brattleboro Food Co-op began with welcoming remarks by Vice President Judy Fink. Judy thanked all who were involved in planning and putting on the meeting, and noted that this is the one time each year we all can visit together, share the state of the Brattleboro Food Coop, ask questions and prod each other to do better as a community marketplace. She shared information about meeting participants, and noted that of the 145+ shareholders who registered to attend, at least 41 are experiencing an Annual Meeting for the first time.
Judy described the agenda for the evening: The business meeting will cover the highlights of FY20 (July 2019 through June 2020) as well as the first quarter of the 2021 fiscal year (July through September 2020). After that, Tabitha Pohl-Moore will guide us in exploring what it means to be a welcoming community marketplace. Judy then introduced meeting facilitator Nadav Malin, who reviewed the agenda and Zoom protocols for the evening.
Judy introduced the three candidates running for seats on the Board this year: Mark Adams, Joe Giancarlo, and Steffen Gillom. She encouraged shareholders to vote, and introduced current Board members: Mark Adams, Mary Bene, Denise Glover, Grace Koch, Skye Morse, Beth Neher, Tamara Stenn, and Jerelyn Wilson. Judy noted that Grace Koch and Mary Bené each stepped down from the Board this fall, and thanked Grace, Mary and Skye (who is not seeking re-election) for their service and commitment.
Board President Jerelyn Wilson:
Jerelyn shared that she expects the Co-op to be a strong and viable business in order to contribute to the well-being of the community, and reminded shareholders that the Co-op will wither away without them. She stated that “we cannot assume that someone else will shop here, that someone else will pay attention to the state of its affairs. Each and every one of you matters.”
Jerelyn commented that the Board feels a great responsibility to ensure that the Co-op is a welcoming community marketplace, both in our words, and our actions; to assure that the Co-op is well-run and financially healthy; and to challenge us as an organization to embody the principles that underly us as a cooperative. She emphasized that this work is meaningful and inspiring, and encouraged shareholders to join a Board meeting. She noted that the Board is likely to fill an open seat via appointment in the near future, and encouraged interested shareholders to be in touch with her.
General Manager Sabine Rhyne:
Sabine stated that while the pandemic only really began to affect Co-op operations in March, the effect on our business, our collective psyche, and our vision for the future was so pervasive that it is hard to recall much else about this fiscal year. She noted that we can take pride in our financial results: we made it through the pandemic part of fiscal 2020 without catastrophic impact. By pivoting our business to include curbside phone and Mercato online ordering, we were able to weather the effects of $100,000 loss by year end, and even ended up with a tiny profit. We budgeted a very conservative year for FY21 in light of the pandemic. We have been enjoying a relatively robust start to this fiscal year, higher by far than expected, but we are mindful of major changes in our community’s economic outlook, including at the Retreat, the Strolling of the Heifers, and among struggling restaurants and small businesses.
Sabine described the decision to close Dottie’s Discount Foods, noting that over the last three years, bottom line losses came to $75,000. During that same time period, the Co-op as a whole virtually only broke even. She stated that she knew closing would be hugely unpopular, and that some would assume that we didn’t prioritize our downtown customers who rely on Dottie’s. She described a plan to incorporate as much of Dottie’s products as possible into the shelves of the Co-op. She stated that shoppers will be pleasantly surprised at what they will find on the shelves over the next couple of months.
Sabine stated that the Co-op has been working on many fronts to better understand our role as a community ally to people of color and organizations working to reverse hundreds of years of white supremacy. She noted that this work will never end; it is work for our lifetimes, and if we make even a little progress, we may improve the steep path for our successors to work through.
Sabine thanked the staff for stepping up, over and over again, particularly when we had to change our systems three or four times a week to adjust. She thanked shareholders for appreciating and shopping at the Co-op during the pandemic. She expressed appreciation and thanks to the Board and shareholders, and encouraged all to continue to love the Co-op and each other. She reminded us to stop and breathe, and to remind ourselves about the really important things for which we are grateful: each other, our Co-op, our community, our earth.
Board Treasurer Skye Morse
Skye encouraged shareholders to read the Annual Report. It was a successful year. In looking at the local competitive grocery landscape and the investments we would need to make, we had projected a modest net loss for Fiscal 2020. That budget was made before anyone knew about the impending unprecedented public health disaster which would hit retail businesses especially hard. For fiscal year 2020 we delivered net income of $14K. While this may not seem like a big achievement for an organization with over $21 million in gross sales, he noted that this was with a nearly $450k decrease in gross sales compared with the previous year. The co-op also returned over $750K to its members in the form of discounts, and met its members’ needs through offering curbside and now online shopping, caring for our people, and supporting our community. Considering all of this, a $14k profit is truly a great success
Skye noted that making a profit allows us to retain our staff, and make investments for the future, such as new coolers, and parking lot improvements. A profit allows our cooperative to continue. He thanked the Co-op’s dedicated staff, the patience and respectfulness of our members, and most of all, Sabine for her tireless leadership.
Looking forward, management has put forth a conservative budget for FY2021. He stated that the decision to reduce the Elder and Working Shareholder discounts to 5% was prescient. He urged shareholders to ratify that decision when voting. He thanked his fellow board members and all co-op members for their support and dedication to this wonderful organization.
Questions and Answers
Questions were submitted via the chat feature, and Nadav directed them to the appropriate person for a response.
How are things looking since June?
Sabine: We’ve been incredibly fortunate over first three months. Sales are extremely good – better than we ever anticipated. We are a little baffled, but thrilled. Have anticipated rising to the occasion with more staff, and we are running a little behind with that, but we’re very pleased. Thank you for your support so far.
Many people depend on Dottie’s. How will you help them?
We already have started bringing in quite a few products into the current main store lineup to take some of that burden on here that people will lose from Dottie’s closing. We’re bringing in new products in about 52 categories, including a lot of Food Club products. We’re also trying to be thoughtful about expanding our range of products, so that folks looking for more inexpensive choices can find them here. Some salvaged products too, not as much because sources are compromised right now but also because we want to focus on getting products on the shelves consistently.
What is the maximum number of board members that are staff?
Jerelyn: We have 9 members on the Board. Two of them can be staff, and one MUST be staff – but not more than two. We’re careful to watch when staff’s terms come up, so we don’t have both going off at the same time. We’re grateful to have those staff board members on the board – they add quite a lot.
Will we start offering curbside pickup on Saturdays?
Sabine: We’ll consider it. We are still looking for folks to fill some positions at the Co-op that you may have noticed being posted on the sandwich board – we’re hoping to get staffed up to expand that service.
Do we have plans to track sales from BIPOC vendors (BIPOC = black, indigenous, and people of color)? Do our suppliers track this?
Sabine: That is a great question and aspiration. We don’t currently do this, nor do our suppliers. It will take some work to track progress accurately; we will definitely think about how to make that happen.
Bulk Department: Will we resume offering soaps and shampoos?
Sabine: We are talking about it now. Sales of those products have not done well for quite some time – it’s been a problem even before COVID. In the meantime, we’ve brought in gallon jugs of those products into the Wellness Department. They are still in plastic, so that is unfortunate. For now that is how we will meet that need. [Note: a couple of people commented via the chat feature that the dispensers themselves didn’t work well and that may have been a contributing factor in slow sales of these products.]
Can Dottie’s employees transfer into the Main Store without losing seniority?
Sabine: Yes. we’ve talked to them. We’re holding open positions for them if they want, and some are considering retirement as well.
When can we use our own containers in Bulk? This pandemic has increased the use of single serving plastic.
Sabine: at some point in near future. Except for containers you eat or drink from, for obvious reasons. We will make that clear. That’s coming soon.
Talk about the discounts.
Sabine: For those who haven’t been tracking this issue for the last couple of years, we’ve been talking about it in our e-newsletter and in focus groups. We gave away about three quarters of a million dollars in discounts last year, which for a business making 14K on our bottom line is a pretty generous disbursement. As we were watching the trend of discounts continue to rise, our discount percentage of sales was well over 3%. That was quite unsustainable. We started looking at this pretty carefully sometime back and talking with people about all the possibilities. In the end we decided to lower them to get our feet under us a little bit better. Our discounts are now at 5% for Elders, and 5% for working members. We plan to sunset the Elder discount in about 5 years. The idea is to become more profitable, redirect that money to other places, and perhaps have patronage dividends which would go to ALL members. That is what are moving toward in the long term. Currently, we are urging you to vote to ratify the reduction of the working member discount to 5%. We believe this is a much healthier option for our Co-op now and in the future.
Was there a reduction in staff (due to the pandemic)?
Sabine: Some stayed home. Initially, our workforce was cut by 10 to 25% in first 6 weeks from folks staying home. Some staff were able to organize to work from home for a few folks. No staff were laid off as the result of the pandemic.
Are there plans to bring back Co-op prepared foods in deli case that were available pre-pandemic? (like the wild mushroom pate)
Sabine: Yes! Stay tuned. The mushroom pate will be coming back next week.
Tabitha Pohl-Moore, Guest Presenter and Group Activity Facilitator
Tabitha thanked the Co-op for having her as a guest. She noted that tonight’s theme is about creating a more welcoming marketplace. She described what that means to her as a person of color who grew up in Vermont. She stated that we will be connecting with one another and creating community around this idea.
Tabitha stated that her family goes back six generations in Vermont. She stated that there is a way in which as a person of color, you are rendered invisible, although not necessarily intentionally. Part of this is a byproduct of being in a relatively homogenous – or presumed homogenous – society, where it is easier to gloss over differences. A POC is then both invisible, but also hyper-visible. She described the impact of this on her as she was growing up here. She ultimately chose to focus on amplifying the voice of people who, like her, don’t feel “connected”. After moving away from the area in ’96, she moved back to Vermont ’09 to re-root herself here, and provide for her children what she had enjoyed about growing up in Vermont – proximity to nature, and the energy of small towns.
Tabitha reflected on the ways that she has felt rendered invisible, despite most people being outwardly welcoming. Everyday examples of this include having difficulty finding products or styling assistance for her hair, or noticing Confederate flags at Walmart. The reckoning is painful, she said. She stated that her family was forced from their home over the summer due to targeted racism. She stated that being able to see yourself reflected in the products that grocery stores carry is critical. She noted that it’s difficult for white people in Vermont to reach outside themselves: If that’s all you know; it becomes difficult to think about “the other.”
She noted that tonight’s activity is all about that dynamic. She wants us to brainstorm what “welcoming” looks like for all people, and pointed out that Co-ops are an incredible way to make a better path for the future. How can the Brattleboro Food Co-op be even more welcoming? Co-ops have a reputation as being spaces where people can connect: this evening, we’ll break us up into groups of 5 to 6 people to reflect on what makes for a welcoming environment, and how we can each contribute to that. We will be summarizing the results in a “wordle” graphic (see attached).
The context for the activity was presented in the chat box:
“Tonight’s theme is all about creating a (more) welcoming co-op. It’s important for us first to root ourselves in our place in the Brattleboro co-op, because the questions we are going to discuss and reflect upon in this group are deeply connected to feeling welcome. There are plenty of places for us to go to get the resources we need, but there is something about a co-op that makes us want to get what we need here.
We also know that, especially with all that is going on in our community, our state, and our nation, that there is a good chance that some people may not feel like the Brattleboro Co-Op is an option for them, or it is an option that maybe they feel is out of reach or out of touch. Our goal in this breakout session is to dive a little deeper into the co-op and get a sense of what it is like now and how we can make it even more accessible for people—how we can be more welcoming.”
The specific questions addressed in the breakout groups were as follows:
- What does it mean to be welcoming?
- How do we know that we are welcoming? What does it look like? What does it feel like? What do you see? How do people connect with each other?
- Looking at Brattleboro Co-op now, who might not feel comfortable here?
- What can I contribute to making Brattleboro Co-Op a more welcoming marketplace?
Break out groups met for a half hour total and reported back afterwards.
In conclusion, Tabitha reminded everyone that so often, we think the answers are “Out There”, but the essence of a co-op is community leadership: YOU drive what the place looks like, what the policies are. She urged us to reclaim that power within ourselves.
There were 106 Shareholders participating.
Donna Lee Amerman
No Name Provided (x3)
William – no last name
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