Fiddleheads celebrates first decade
New London — As Fiddleheads Food Cooperative gets ready to celebrate its downtown grocery store’s 10th anniversary next month, it’s hard to imagine that the modern-looking space that now attracts hundreds of people a day once was little more than a glorified farmers market staffed entirely by volunteers.
In fact, it’s a wonder that the food co-op got off the ground at all, given the bickering that entailed its move into the former California Fruit space at the corner of Broad and Huntington streets, right across from the Superior Court complex. Screaming matches occurred in the early days, largely, say some of the principals now, over where the co-op should be located, with a splinter group preferring the Stonington/Mystic area.
Board members resigned, and the original general manager was fired even before the opening. But out of the fray has emerged a successful business: a largely organic, sustainable grocery store with locally farmed produce in the heart of the city that employs about 30 people, has more than 3,000 household members and serves as an informal community center with a café area where people can play piano and converse with friends over coffee or freshly made soup.
“It’s come a long ways,” said city resident Bob Stuller, one of the original co-op members who still regularly buys his food there. “It’s a good family atmosphere here.”
General manager Lexa Juhre said the co-op attracts between 350 and 400 people a day and is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. It's a corporation and pays taxes just like any such business, though Juhre said she regrets the compensation isn't better, starting at about $11 an hour, and there are no benefits for employees.
Fiddleheads, whose name is derived from a word for the fronds of a young fern, has about 6,000 square feet of retail space, and recently expanded its back end by occupying the former Labor Ready offices. The store includes a produce section, bakery area and prepared foods space, with most of the items supplied locally.
"From day one, an important part of our mission was to support local farms and local vendors," said Sheila Herbert of New London, who has been with Fiddleheads since the beginning.
"It's been a great relationship for us," agreed Rob Schacht, owner of the 4-acre Hunts Brook Farm in Quaker Hill, who estimates Fiddleheads is responsible for up to 10 percent of his annual sales. "If we have it, they'll take it."
Herbert said the co-op dates to about the year 2000, when several people formed a natural-foods buying club in the Mystic area, meeting initially in Penny Teal's house. Three years later, they decided to open a store and started looking for a space but, as Herbert tells it, potential sites in the Stonington area were too expensive or not suitable.
The first meeting, Herbert recalled, attracted about two dozen people, and she was one of only two from New London.
"I'm really concerned about food," she said. "I just want food that doesn't have crap in it — pesticides and so forth."
The California Fruit space seemed ideal, except it was in rough shape, with a good deal of asbestos to remove. With a loan from the Bank of Southeastern Connecticut and a smattering of other funding sources, Fiddleheads finally opened in February 2008 with a one-day winter farmers market.
From there, the store improved organically, with every bit of profit put into making improvements and a boost from the landlord, who forgave some early rent payments. Saturday-only openings eventually became two days, and built from there, as did the inventory, personnel and infrastructure.
"The store would not exist without the dozens of solid-core volunteers who showed up day after day," said Juhre, Fiddleheads' general manager.
For the first three years, no worker got paid, then in 2011 the first two hires were made, at 20 hours a week each. The group started a popular dry goods area, and joined the Neighboring Food Co-op Association, which helped Fiddleheads with pricing and connections to popular brands.
Ellen Anthony of New London, another Fiddleheads principal from the beginning, said the co-op initially offered only 40 dry goods products, but now has about 200. A suggestion-book system instituted from the beginning allows customers to request other products they would like.
"It really galvanized people to participate in something," Herbert said. "You always had to innovate."
The volunteer labor and donations of equipment were key to ensuring the success of Fiddleheads in the beginning, but as time went on the store was able to afford new refrigeration units and professional display racks. The product offerings have expanded rapidly as well, including gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan options.
"We are very responsive to people's requests," said Juhre. "We've built a product mix that's kind of unique."
Among the popular products is raw milk, which can be sold in Connecticut but not Rhode Island. Local meats, available only in frozen form, are harder to come buy since there are few USDA-certified slaughterhouses in Connecticut.
The store is open to the public. Owners of the co-op pay $175 and receive special deals. It's hard for co-ops to be competitive on pricing initially, said Juhre, but recent changes are allowing reduced prices on an ever-expanding selection of brands.
The store has 650 members from New London, by far the largest contingent, but it also has hundreds from Waterford and Mystic, with a market area as far north as Norwich and along Interstate 95 from Westerly to Old Lyme. Juhre said Fiddleheads, which once had considered moving to a new spot in the city closer to Electric Boat, is always under pressure to move somewhere else but has a commitment to staying in New London.
"It's a good size," said shopper Pamela Dinger of Ledyard. "It's not too big, and the staff is very friendly and helpful."
What: Fiddleheads Food Cooperative
Where: 13 Broad St., New London
Years in Business: 10
Open: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week
Anniversary celebration: Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 10-11; cake cutting 1 p.m. Feb. 10; free samples, 10 percent off