BRATTLEBORO—A few days into her tenure as the Brattleboro Food Co-op’s general manager, Sabine Rhyne laughs when asked what has her shaking in her boots.
“What doesn’t?” she answers.
The co-op’s first new general manager in three decades, Rhyne took over from Alex Gyori, who retired last month as the store celebrated its 40th birthday.
“It was a really hard decision for me,” she said. “I know how consuming it can be.”
Rhyne smiles as she describes the realization that her approach to life in general is all-consuming.
“I’m here all the time, and I work a lot,” she said, laughing.
Rhyne said she applied for the position because she recognized her commitment to both growing the Co-op for the community and supporting its staff.
She looks forward to maturing as a leader there as it starts its next 40 years.
The store has a solid foundation, she said, but Rhyne says it’s time to strengthen the organization’s internal systems so its staff and members — sometimes they’re one and the same — can thrive.
As a leader, Rhyne said she wants to foster a learning organization, with classes for the community and opportunities for staff to expand their skills.
“This is a really tough industry,” she said. “Retail changes daily. It’s just part of the deal.”
The joy of the co-op movement, Rhyne added, is that it has people willing to help.
“I don’t have to recreate the wheel, I do have to adapt it to the environment of our community,” she said.
What feeds us
The co-op movement seems to collect people from all walks of life. Gyori, for example, came to the Brattleboro organization by way of teaching.
“I’m a musician at heart,” Rhyne said.
A freelance musician, Rhyne taught cello until May. She stopped teaching after she decided to take her new job. She still plays, “but not as frequently,” she said.
Rhyne loves everything about being a musician. “Things that are important to you feed you,” she said.
“It’s that kind of feeding in the work that we do — at least that’s what we strive for,” said Rhyne, “a co-operator” since she was 21 years old.
“The power of community is great, and I always come back to it,” she said.
Even when a community “comes off the rails,” the beauty is that community will find its way back to a better version of itself, she said.
“We’re at the roots and trying to think about what’s important locally,” she said of her work.
Prior to joining the co-op in the shareholders’ and community relations department in 2011, Rhyne served in various staff roles at the Brattleboro Music Center, including executive director. She started teaching cello there starting in the 1990s.
She also worked for 17 years at the former Northeast Cooperatives, a distributor of natural and organic specialty foods and products.
Rhyne started at the Co-op shortly after the shooting death of Manager Michael Martin by the store’s beer and wine manager, Richard Gagnon.
“I guess it was trial by fire initially,” she said.
2011 was a year of “big and tragic and horrible things,” Rhyne continued. “It was a time that required fortitude, compassion, and as much clarity as one could muster.”
Looking back at that year in the region — a year of two local shootings, the Brooks House fire, and catastrophic floods from Tropical Storm Irene —Rhyne sees both the resilience and the human aspects of the cooperative movement.
The store’s deep community roots means on an organizational level it experiences the community’s highs and lows, she said.
“The Co-op, because it’s a co-op, is a microcosm of our community as a community-owned organization,” said Rhyne, noting that both the store and the community came through the upheaval and emerged as a stronger organization.
Supporting workers, improving the community
Rhyne believes the Co-op stands on a solid foundation. Under her leadership, she wants to improve the organization’s internal systems to better support its workers and to cultivate the best working environment possible.
In the coming months, the store will introduce a new employees’ orientation program.
“It’s a big investment,” Rhyne said.
The process will help employees understand the role they have within the cooperative movement and within their community, she said. The program will also provide information on resources available to them.
These improvements will extend and benefit the community in time, she said, and they will “really give people what they need and want from the Co-op.”
If people look under the grocery store’s surface, they can see the grocery’s roots extend deep into a soil of community empowerment, she said.
Rhyne hopes that the expanding partnerships will spawn new energies and ideas.
The country’s food system is flawed, she said: The price of food does not reflect the cost of producing it. Workers and farmers are not always paid fairly. Less expensive foods don’t always provide the best nutrition for the price.
Chain supermarkets might offer lower prices, she said, but, she asks, “on whose back did that cheap food come off of?”
At the Co-op, people have many options to feed themselves better from cooking classes, to nutritious foods, to fair trade programs, to programs designed to support households with lower incomes, she said.
Rhyne said that one of her goals is to provide more options for people with lower incomes to find healthy food at the Co-op — something “difficult for someone on a budget,” she acknowledged.
To help close the gap between the cost of conventionally produced food and the foods typically found at the Co-op, the store has launched a program called Healthy Food for All.
The program offers a 10 percent discount for shareholders who receive assistance through 3SquaresVT/SNAP, WIC, or SSI. Shareholders in the program can pay their $80 membership fee over four years, she said.
Rhyne also hopes the Co-op will continue and expand its partnership with human services organizations like the Groundworks Collaborative.
A year from now
Rhyne has big goals on her horizon.
“We’re aggressively pursuing profitability,” she said, uttering the biz-speak without cracking a smile.
Retail sales — the revenue stream that allows the Co-op pays workers, buys food, and provides programs for those with lower incomes. The unforgiving reality? The bottom line is not the end itself, but a healthy business is needed if the market’s contributions to community and society are to come to pass.
The Co-op has not met its projected sales since moving into its new building in 2012. To help finance the construction project, the organization took on debt, including $1.7 million in loans from community members.
Construction delays, the economy, the workplace shooting, and Tropical Storm Irene all contributed to the delay in opening the new space and the business falling short of expected sales.
It was unusual for any organization to make such a large investment in its community in such a precarious economy, she said.
“We bit off a chunk with this project,” Rhyne said. “It’s been a long haul.”
The Co-op’s sales have picked up, however, and the organization is starting to improve financially.“It’s amazing we’ve been doing as much as we have with what we have,” she said.
Rhyne believes her understanding of the Co-op as an organization and her knowledge of the community serve her well in her new position.
She is excited to work with the store’s “very dedicated staff.”
Staff members have good energy and the desire to contribute to their working environment — and younger staff members are stepping up into management roles and bringing fresh energy with them, she said.
“It’s just great to see that flowering,” she said.
A year from now, Rhyne hopes to have formed the staff into a “really dynamic team.”
Workers are talented and many have not yet fulfilled their potential, she said.
She hopes customers will be fueled by the renewed activity in the store.
She also wants to see the staff and community having fun.
The store offers events all year from ice cream socials, to classes, to a truckload sale.
“We do have fun, although we could have more,” Rhyne said.
Over the next few months, the co-op will host community conversations to discuss the natural food industry and what makes co-ops special. In the process, Rhyne will seek community feedback.
“[The community] shouldn’t take the co-op for granted,” she said.
There’s a lot of power in 6,800 active members, and Rhyne hoped they remain engaged with being the Co-op’s ambassadors to the wider community.
“Where else can you own a grocery store for 80 bucks?” she said.
On a serious note, Rhyne said that cooperatives date back to the 1870s. In England, people could not get quality flour. Instead, they were getting a product that was often stretched with additives like chalk. The first co-op members pooled their resources and changed the quality of the flour sold in their community.
The power of a co-op is “the power to change a thread in the whole social fabric,” she said.
Rhyne looks to take a long view and social view as she moves into her new role.
The key, she said, is to instill “gentle change that sticks for the long haul.”