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June 12, 2024

Belfast food co-op finishes $6.4M redo, adding space and upgrades

The inside of the Belfast Community Coop shows people shopping. Photo / Courtesy, Belfast Community Coop Interior upgrades — shown here in progress — included wider aisles, an improved kitchen and cafe and removal of a drop-ceiling to open up the space.

Belfast Community Co-op, a mainstay in the Waldo County town since 1976, has completed a year-long, $6.4 million overhaul designed to improve customer service and safety, expand space including the bulk food sections, and reopen a prepared foods kitchen and café that closed in 2020.

“Everyone has been so patient in helping out,” Alessandra Martinelli, the co-op’s outreach coordinator, told Mainebiz. “Everyone is really excited.”

The Belfast Community Coop's revamped exterior.
Photo / Courtesy, Belfast Community Co-op
Renovations, seen here recently completed, were designed to improve customer service, address safety considerations, add square-footage, expand the bulk food sections and reopen a prepared foods kitchen and café that closed in 2020.

The renovation of the store, at 123 High St., started in May 2023. The doors stayed open to customers during construction.

Of the $6.4 million total, construction costs were just over $3 million. The rest of the budget was allocated to equipment purchases, financing, insurance, a reserve fund to cover any unexpected price increases or unforeseen expenses and paying off the co-op’s existing $200,000 mortgage.

Portland architecture firm Woodhull and Topsham general contractor Warren Construction Group led the project.

A "welcome back party" is scheduled for June 21 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., starting with a ribbon-cutting and continuing with free samples, children’s activities, store tours and more. For information, click here.

Grassroots start

The co-op began as a grassroots effort by 1970s-era back-to-the-landers in Waldo County seeking access to good food at a fair price, according to its website.

In 1976, the co-op opened its first storefront in an 800-square-foot space at 16 Upper Main St.

“As the Belfast area and the natural foods industry grew, so did our storefront enterprise,” the co-op says. 

With a growing slate of products and shoppers, the store moved in 1985 to a 2,500-square-foot space at 67 Lower Main St. 

Commerce continued to thrive, prompting a move in 1993 to 123 High St., formerly an A&P supermarket. Renovations included the addition of a deli, cafe and customer bathrooms.

Other updates followed, including the addition of new offices, a walk-in cooler, a freezer and upgrades to meet safety and building code requirements.

The Blefast Community Coop's older exterior is seen with people walking in and out.
Photo / Courtesy, Belfast Community Co-op
The co-op, seen here before renovations started, has long been a mainstay in Belfast.

In 2012, the coop joined the National Co+op Grocers, a business services cooperative for retail food co-ops throughout the U.S. Subsequent updates included product resets, new shelving and wider aisles.

Retail, structural updates

The co-op is owned by its 5,148 members, although anyone is allowed to shop there. On average, the store brings in about 5,000 shoppers per week. There are about 85 employees, most full-time. Last year, sales totaled just under $12 million. The store is on a 0.83-acre lot with 63 parking spaces. 

In 2016, the coop and its member-owners began considering the store’s need for retail and structural updates that would include expanding the retail space and café seating, as well as addressing the building's structural soundness and workplace safety. 

The initial thought was to build a new store or mixed-use development on the current property, or buy and renovate a different building. Due to financial concerns and the input of member-owners who wanted the store to stay where it was, the effort turned to renovation.

A group of people gather for the groundbreaking at the Belfast coop.
Photo / Courtesy, Belfast Community Co-op
The project broke ground in May 2023 after five years of planning.

The project increased retail space from 5,094 square feet to 6,762 square feet by relocating offices, prep spaces, coolers and vents to other locations off the sales floor.

In addition, the cafe was reopened with new services, new equipment, an updated menu and an improved seating area. The bulk section was expanded, and sanitary pull-down handle bins were installed. And the parking lot was reorganized to make it more pedestrian-friendly.

Infrastructure improvements included creating wider aisles, improving the kitchen for prepared foods and improving the cafe area, installing a hydraulic lift, and updating the electrical system, HVAC system, flooring and the single-pane windows at the front of the store.

Age and safety

“One of the reasons we had to do this was because a lot of the infrastructure was aged,” said Martinelli. 

Another big reason was safety considerations. For example, the old produce preparation area was the size of two refrigerators and customers had to maneuver around each other. 

“There just wasn’t enough space,” said Martinelli. 

Expanding the produce prep area, the produce walk-in coolers and the bulk section was a big part of the project.

“We have a lot of bulk bins and an old set-up for receiving in the back,” she said. “We expanded the bulk area by one-third, so can have more bulk options. Bulk sales are one of the reasons people shop at the coop.”

Removing the drop ceilings made the store feels bigger and helped with air circulation, she said.

Installation of a new, more energy-efficient furnace replaced one from the 1960s that no longer had parts readily available.


The co-op’s board of directors launched a capital campaign in January 2023, raising $1.5 million in loans and donations for the project from the owners over a three-month period. The coop will repay the owners with interest, said Martinelli.

Additional sources for funding included $923,000 in cash reserves and a $4 million loan from the Watertown, Mass.,-based Cooperative Fund of the Northeast, a community development financial institution that makes loans to cooperatives, employee owned businesses and community based nonprofits; in partnership with Local Enterprise Assistance Fund and Coastal Enterprises Inc., community development financial institutions in Boston and Brunswick respectively.

The latest project is part of a long evolution.

“The store has been changing constantly,” said Martinelli. “We’ve had three storefronts. We’re always improving and trying to serve more people and trying to be good employers so we have happy and safe workers. We have a lot of owners who are committed to its longevity.”

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