Where There’s Fire There’s Water

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A post-Thanksgiving fire left Buffalo Mountain Food Co-op ankle-deep in water.

The day after Thanksgiving is usually a crazy time for retail. In a food store you will unlock the store to begin a major restocking project after the first of the two big eating holidays. But in Hardwick, Vermont, the day after Thanksgiving in 2005 was a transforming experience that no one saw coming.

Hardwick was a granite boomtown in the early 1900s. It was a terrible place to locate a town, wedged between a river and multiple hills. Main Street is the worst, sandwiched between the river and a steep, silt-covered ledge slope. All the buildings on it share common walls and are built into the ledge, and none of them has a square angle anywhere. Buffalo Mountain Food Co-op is located in one such building, formerly a house with a funky flat roofed shed tacked on. Both walls are co-owned with the buildings next door. The word “fire” strikes fear into anyone on Main Street, and the saying, “We are all connected” takes on a whole new meaning.

The day after Thanksgiving 2005, there was a small electrical fire in the building south of us that got trapped smoldering in the ceiling until it hit air above our common wall. Because our building is shorter, the fire didn’t touch us. But when the 13 neighboring towns’ fire departments showed up and dumped two town reservoirs and a lot of river water on the whole mess, they created a landslide. It came right through our back wall and flooded the entire store with four inches of silt. The sheetrock on the wall shared with the burnt building was water soaked, the cellar with all our compressors had four feet of silty water, and there was no electricity and no heat.

Immediately members were asking to help, and right then we realized the difference between a member-owned store and a privately owned one. Suddenly it didn’t seem so overwhelming anymore. Snow shovels and plastic kids sleds work great for sludge removal!

The insurance company came and did an assessment and brought in giant fans and dehumidifiers once the electricity was on. Members began to dust silt off every can, bottle, box, shelf, and bin in the store. The state health department determined what was still OK to sell, the refrigeration wizard got all the compressors up and running, and we were able to reopen in a week. It was still funky—one door wouldn’t open, tiles were missing from the floor, the fans and dehumidifiers took up a lot of space and were noisy. But we were still in existence and could now focus on getting through the Christmas season.

In January we started looking for a suitable space for a temporary move. Ironically, we ended up in a building we had been in 12 years ago. It was déjà vu for many of our customers. We had to design how our entire store was going to fit into this smaller space, then construct a storeroom, produce prep area, an office, etc. Again, members were right there.

In early February, we closed the Main Street store and watched cooperation at its best. We had budgeted two days to pack up the store, and the members did it in a morning. By afternoon it was all in various vans and trucks. We smashed out a front wall and moved the coolers out of the Main Street store and into the temporary store. Once they were in place we began setting up shelving. We had previously taken pictures of each shelf and how it was set, we printed up big copies and now had those on each shelf so members would know where to put product. The staff directed the members and would fine tune things after the folks left for the day. The coolers were up and running, the vendors were notified, deliveries happened, and we were open in 8 days.

Next we began gutting our Main Street store, but first, a bit of history. In 2003 we renovated the former apartment above our store to create a café. Our small project turned giant when we realized the structural unsoundness of our funky old building. We ended up with three posts down the middle of our store to jack up the sagging second floor six inches, and also discovered that the entire front of our store was rotten. For two years we had wondered how you tear the front off a store and still remain open—a reminder to “be careful what you ask for.”

Four months of renovations later, it was looking gorgeous. The list of improvements included a walk-in display cooler, a storeroom/receiving area right by the street, a larger office, insulation and double glazed windows, doors that wouldn’t freeze shut in the winter, and a beautiful hardwood floor with grates by the doors. The square footage is the same, approximately 2,000, but it feels more spacious with the higher ceilings and improved layout. We held a dance there to bless the space, and our members were wowed.

We closed the interim site in early June, and again the members were awesome. We had to laugh because now we were all “experienced” movers, and there were a lot fewer glitches. Our insurance paid for moving expenses, so by moving the store ourselves we were able to put an extra $15,000 into renovations. Our sales this year will reach about $1.2 million, despite temporarily relocating to a smaller space and having to close three times,

This whole experience really reinforced what “member owned” is all about, and highlighted a caring community with the sense of it being “our store.” The co-op, bouncing back from the fire, was an inspiration to the greater Hardwick community and a fantastic example of cooperation at work. We are all proud of how this disaster turned into something so positive, and now we think it was a blessing in disguise.

A few things we learned:

Don’t scrimp on insurance. It should cover not just the facility damage, but also loss of product, loss of sales, relocation costs, loss of staff hours, etc.

Immediately after a disaster that closes your store, call your suppliers to stop shipment until further notice.

Constantly check on your staff stress levels. They are working overtime having to run the store and help coordinate the renovations and organize the army of working members.

Be patient. Everyone is going to hit the stress wall sooner or later and it could be you next!

Designate someone as full-time project manager. This person needs to hear and take into consideration everyone’s ideas.

Be creative with your financing. The town was thrilled to give us a low-interest loan, and members wanted to donate money outright.

While your store is closed and members must shop elsewhere, turn them into researchers and find our what they liked and didn’t like at other stores.

See other articles from this issue: #128 January - February - 2007