BRATTLEBORO—After 10 years here, Sabine Rhyne will leave the Brattleboro Food Co-op at the end of this year.
The general manager says she is looking forward to new challenges, but hasn’t planned her next steps.
“I haven’t made those decisions yet,” Rhyne says. “I’m an all-in kind of person. I’m really focused on completing my time here, and I’ve got a lot going on. I’ll deal with all that next year.”
The BFC board will create a hiring committee to recruit a successor for Rhyne, who was named to the post in 2015 after serving four years as the Co-op’s marketing and community relations manager.
A cellist, she came to the market after several years managing the Brattleboro Music Center and its music school, where she still teaches.
However, she has deep roots in the cooperative movement, including 17 years at Northeast Cooperatives, the former regional distributor owned by many retail co-ops and buying clubs throughout New England and New York.
Rhyne succeeded Alex Gyori, who led the co-op for 33 years.
“He was the first general manager and he brought this Co-op from humble beginnings — at best — through multiple moves, to building the building we’re in today,” says Rhyne.
She described the transition to the current building, which was completed in 2012, expanding both the organization’s potential to serve its members and the risk it would incur in doing so.
“Along with everyone here and the board of directors that’s been part of those strategic decisions from the beginning — deciding to invest in a downtown building of this magnitude at the time they did was a really brave and community-minded decision. And the process for deciding to do this was basically a 10-year process.”
Commitment to community
A cooperative is a business that is owned by the people who share its benefits and share in its decision-making process. Some of the most visible cooperatives are food markets like the Brattleboro Food Co-op, but other examples include credit unions, tenant-owned housing, worker-owned businesses, and consumer-owned public utilities.
Asked what has kept her in the business of cooperatives for so many years, Rhyne is quick to answer.
“I really believe in the power of community and, for me, once I understood how cooperatives work and what makes them different, it was really hard not to work in this field,” she says.
The Co-op now has 8,500 community shareholders who own a stake in the business and who get a discount in exchange for working.
“As you can imagine, when you’re owned by thousands of people with thousands of interests, it has its challenges, but it also has its amazing strengths.”
She said that some of the things the Co-op saw over the last year, “especially after the first three months after lockdown, which were disastrous for us — really reinforced the power of the community’s approach and understanding and how we do business differently, in some basic ways, initially.”
Safety above all — plus “understanding the power of local” — drove the Co-op’s direction early in the pandemic, she says.
“The economy we participate in so greatly here is supporting local producers [and] local farmers, and more people got it as they were facing the reality of the pandemic,” Rhyne says. “I do believe that is what has given us a successful year.”
“Working in co-ops has its challenges, but the values-based strategy and reason for being really makes a difference to me and a lot of the people who work and shop here,” she adds.
Rhyne says the pandemic year taught “that we had to be almost instantaneous in some of the decisions we made and how we did business — and usually we’re kind of deliberate.”
“So it taught us some new skills,” she says. “I hope we’ve been good communicators all along. I think that’s always a challenge for businesses — and we can always do better — but overall I think people appreciated what we did and how we did it.”
A four-decades-plus history
For now, Rhyne is focusing on immediate goals, which include diversity, equity, and inclusion training throughout the organization. Some store reconfigurations are also underway.
“We have a strong and capable team of managers and we have instituted important changes in our way of doing business that have strengthened our cooperative to meet the challenges that await us,” Rhyne says. “We have some excellent and committed staff.”
Rhyne cites the advantages of being part of “a strong national cooperative of retail co-op stores that offers good support and contributes to our financial stability.”
Rhyne says the Co-op has “good relationships with our financial and industry partners and continue[s] to participate with them to improve our long-term viability.”
The grocery also has “a committed board of directors and, by and large, we have great support from our owners and potential owners for the role we play in our community,” she says.
The member-owned cooperative was founded in 1975 as a buying club and occupied a small space on Flat Street (currently home of the Vermont Center for Photography, but which will soon move to High Street).
Along the way, it moved into a former supermarket building in what was once known as Brookside Plaza at the foot of Main Street in 1988.
The Co-op purchased the plaza in 2004 after a two-year community engagement process, and it then began to plan for a new building on the site.
Recognizing a housing need in Brattleboro, the Co-op partnered with the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust (WWHT) to collaborate on the new building, which includes 24 apartments on the top two floors owned and managed by WWHT.
Today, the Co-op employs 140 people and occupies two floors of the new space, which opened in June 2012.
Rhyne explains that the pandemic brought significant challenges to the Co-op, including those regarding financial sustainability, supply chain issues, staff shortages, and keeping everyone safe.
At the start, staff members made the switch to offering customers curbside pickup; that strategy kept the doors open, gradually allowing the store to reopen bit by bit.
The food service aspect of the Co-op had to be closed — and part of it remains closed today — but there were no layoffs.
“We have been extraordinarily fortunate to have managed the business through this past year and a half,” she says. “Managers and staff alike shouldered new and different responsibilities to meet demand, all the while maintaining a safe workplace.”
That didn’t make the Co-op immune to a reality that many businesses have faced since pandemic restrictions have been relaxed: finding workers.
“In every business, people have made different decisions about what they wanted to do with their time and their lives, and we had that here, too,” says Rhyne.
“Some folks stayed home for health reasons, and a number of folks decided to retire this year, so I think that, with people’s decisions, we have the same struggles that other businesses have in terms of keeping staffing up and hiring new folks.”
For the Co-op, that was a “new thing,” she says and she doubts that it will “go away any time soon.”
“I think this is a social change, and there’s a lot we need to do differently,” she observes.
“We need to think about wages and how businesses manage themselves,” Rhyne says. “We’ve had to shut down some areas of our food service just to manage as best we can with a smaller staff.”
“We’ll just have to get better at that so we can support people in their jobs and become more efficient,” she adds.
A ‘wild ride’
“It’s been a wild ride,” says Rhyne with a ready laugh. “The economy wasn’t really all that supportive when all that was going on. Initially, we were digging out of a very difficult cash position, which was exacerbated by some spectacular mechanical failings.”
For several years, she says, “we had one setback after another, yet we managed to address many challenges, including fostering really good customer engagement by our talented and knowledgeable staff.”
As a result, “the Co-op is in a much better place today.”
“I am ever so grateful to our staff and our community owners who have supported and encouraged our growth,” Rhyne says. “This is a good time for someone fresh and new to step into a leadership role and shepherd the organization into the next chapter.”