Barrels: A community market experiment becomes a successful model

BY RAMONA DU HOUX

August 31st, 2011 

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The manager, David Gulak, talks about the healthy benefits of eating locally grown foods sold, and prepared at Barrels. photo by Ramona du Houx

“It is all about people — their interaction with our volunteers and the shop,” said David Gulak, manager of Barrels Community Market. “People come here and continue to come back here for the experience as much as the products.”

That experience is very real. The atmosphere during the grand opening celebrations of Barrels’ new kitchen in the rustic, renovated Barrell Block building in Waterville was electric with excitement and good cheer. The community came out in full force to enjoy sampling fresh, prepared foods; to shop for groceries, crafts and specialty items; get cooking advice; to listen to music, as well as to meet people.

“This is where I get my boost for life,” said volunteer Pat Berger. “The energy in here is incredible.”

Steve Hoad of Rose Hoad Farm has been supplying Barrels with free-range eggs and pasture-raised chickens since Barrels started. “It’s nice to see a market driven by community needs and wants,” said Hoad. “And the staff and volunteers energize this place. It’s a gathering place — a community center.”

“We do a decent job of offering something for everyone, keeping within parameters. There are a lot of people that just get muffins in the morning or cheese and bread. To have a core group of things that are top quality but aren’t too expensive is important,” said Gulak. “The number-one thing people have wanted since we opened has been prepared foods.”

Gulak makes no secret about the fact he loves to cook, so from the start of the market, the wheels for a kitchen had been set in motion. A year and a half after the début of Barrels, the kitchen is serving lentil soup, chili, humus, and other specialties. The recipes are put up on line at the market’s Web site, and volunteers have been transformed into chefs. To fund the new venture, the community stepped up to the plate in earnest.

“To do the kitchen, anonymous donors said they would give us $13,000, as long as we got matching funds. So we got the word out on an e-mail blast and up on the Web and had a fundraiser,” said Gulak. “We put the word out that if you become a member now, then you’re membership dues would go towards the kitchen, and we will get matching funds. It worked. Then MaineGeneral Hospital donated the stainless-steal table tops, and we were ready to start cooking.”

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David Gulak and Shannon Haines, are congratulated by Congressman Mike Michaud for their outstanding community work with Barrels. Michaud put their efforts into the official Congressional Record. photo by du Houx

Having the kitchen out in the open provides a great way to have the community interact with the volunteers and workers.

“It’s also really nice to have the room to prepare complex, healthy meals. Before we did small things in the back room. Now we have a weekly menu, and people can check out what we have daily, like soup and other items to go,” said Melisa Hackett, a part-time employee, as she made humus.

With the addition of the kitchen, Barrels has become firmly established as a center for community activities, a market for quality goods, and a place to get healthy, prepared foods. And the manager is pleased.

“It feels great. This is the first time since we opened that all the space is occupied. Everything is organized and coherent,” said Gulak. “We have over 300 suppliers; we only get a few products through a distributor. We buy direct.”

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Jean Rosborough helping a customer decide on the best ‘Made in Maine’ product to purchase. photo by R. du Houx

Those suppliers range from farmers to craftspeople, bakers, book publishers, and others.

“Barrels is fantastic,” said Jene Berger, an advisor for the Colby College pottery workshop, who displays her work at Barrels. “It’s wonderful that Barrels provides an outlet for our works and other artisans in the community.”

More than 95 percent of what Barrels sells is made in Maine. Farm products are either naturally or organically grown.

“You don’t need to pick up a product to see if it’s been made in China. Oranges and rice are specialized, so we have to buy them in,” said Gulak. “We buy locally as much as we can.”

According to Hackett, bread is the number-one seller. “It’s our most popular item. People love to come in and get fresh locally baked bread that they know was baked that morning,” she said.

Roughly 90 percent of the market’s budget comes from sales, the other 10 percent is made up of project-oriented grants, donations, fundraisers, and memberships. Gulak believes that having the nonprofit status has been key to Barrels’ progression and success.

“We’re mission oriented. What I really love and have encouraged from the start is everyone here says we. From customers to volunteers, they say, we should start carrying this product or start doing this kind of event,” he said. “I try and emphasize that you do own a piece of this — it is a nonprofit community market. I want people to take ownership of it, and they do. Being nonprofit allows it to be this way.”

A Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Fair was held at Barrels in March, where local farmers were given the opportunity to meet potential customers, most of whom agreed to buy produce from this year’s crop.

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“We offer the space to any farmer that needs somewhere to drop off their produce for pick-up from their customers. The fair was a great success,” said Gulak with a welcoming smile. “Customers like the friendly atmosphere here. We all are accessible and offer information that people need. If someone asked an employee at a supermarket about the beef they sell, the worker most likely wouldn’t be able to tell you how the cow was raised. Here we know and are happy to answer any questions.”

The energetic, affable manager is always attentive to the needs of customers and workers and efficiently moves from one issue in the market to another, solving problems as they occur, and in the end makes everyone smile. His attitude is infectious, and volunteers emulate his leadership style. Gulak has branded the market with his passion for community involvement and sustainable farming.

“We’re so lucky to have David,” said Hackett.

Gulak spends most of his time with the community at Barrels. He’s dedicated and invested in the project to the extent that he really doesn’t have much time for a life outside of the market.

“It’s my passion. It couldn’t be a better fit to who I am and my experiences. I farmed, was a state organizer, and helped people put together business plans, and brought new products to market; I love community, cooking for people, and locally grown food. Everything I am passionate about comes together here,” he said. “It’s a relief to be able to run some place where everyone understands it’s not just about the money. Of course we have to meet a budget and act responsibly — I just like the nonprofit model.”

So, how did the community market all start?

“Waterville Maine Street did a survey asking what the downtown needed the most. Respondents said a grocery store, or a co-op,” said Gulak. “And Colby students wanted to start a co-op. At the same time, Shannon Haines saw an article in the paper about me planning to start up a business.”

The rest is history, since Haines, the executive director of Waterville Main Street, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the revitalization of downtown Waterville, convinced Gulak to become the project manager for Barrels. Colby College awarded the market a $15,000 grant to get started, with WMS as the market’s parent organization. David then worked with Colby and Unity College students to search the state for suppliers for the store.

In 2009 the community’s dream became a reality, and Gulak became the market’s manager. Even though Barrels is technically not a co-op, because patrons do not receive dividends or a percentage of the profits, it feels like one because of the level of community involvement. What the market has become is a model way to sell Maine products and produce, while bringing the community together.

“I think that Barrels is fulfilling its mission more successfully than we could have hoped,” said Haines. “In addition to carrying products from over 300 Maine vendors, Barrels is also embracing the community-building and educational portions of its mission, by working with MaineGeneral and the Albert S. Hall School to incorporate local foods and to teach schoolchildren about farming and fresh produce.”

Other communities have enquired how to duplicate the market for their towns, and Gulak gives them advice. Word about the market continues to spread beyond Maine. In fact Haines will be giving a presentation about Barrels at the National Main Street conference in Des Moines in May.

“Barrels attracts hundreds of people to downtown on a weekly basis, contributing tremendously to our vision for a vibrant community center,” said Haines. “It is really hard to pick my favorite thing about Barrels, but I think that ultimately it is the overall potential of the market to serve as a model for customer service, community supported enterprise, and socially responsible business practices.”

Gulak hopes one day to have a book, so the Barrels experience can happen all across Maine — and beyond.

“I’d like to institutionalize it for 50 years in a sustainable way, while changing appropriately with the times, so it has a similar feel but with completely different people here. So it could be replicated elsewhere,” said Gulak, looking around the market with satisfaction. “It’s a lot of work, but I’m really fortunate to have a dedicated team.”

Barrels employs two workers and one part-timer. They rely on 25 volunteers to help out running the store, cooking and cleaning. Two thirds of the volunteers come from Colby, the local college.

“I believe in sustainable agriculture, and it was cool to see Barrels spring out of the community,” said Gorden Padelford, a Colby College political science major. “I live off campus and buy most of my groceries here. It’s a great community space.”

The volunteers are a mix of high school students, locals, and Colby students in the summer, which matches how many Colby students and locals the shop has volunteering during the rest of the year.

“I’m hoping the younger generation is more oriented around sustainable farming and buying local. I know some are — I see it here. That’s one reason why we get so many Colby students volunteering; besides it’s a great community place to be. It also helps that the community services at Colby put out the word for us as an option for students to fulfill a requirement for community service,” said Gulak.

The market also offers a wide variety of educational and volunteer opportunities and provides a community event space downstairs for art classes, lectures, musical performances, and film screenings.

“I love going into local schools and giving presentations on sustainable farming. In the future we want to do more outreach to hospitals and schools,” said the manager, as he contemplated other avenues to progress the market. “We also what to do more online. There’s great potential there. We’re looking at posting cooking videos.”

Part of the dynamics of the market is that it is always changing like the seasons, renewing itself with community involvement.

“We’re constantly evolving, listening to what our community members are telling us, and responding. Feedback from people is key. I think people really feel invested and involved in Barrels,” said Gulak. “There was a conference today at Colby, and the speaker said, ‘Too many organizations try to give the community what they think it needs, versus letting the community define itself.’ We are letting the community define Barrels.”