The Maryland Food Collective has launched a fundraiser with a $7,500 goal to remain open after facing profit and inventory losses from corporate competition and its walk-in refrigerator breaking down.
The 41-year-old Co-op is worker-owned and provides students with healthy, ethically-sourced food options, according to its website.
Lauren Karaffa, who has been a Co-op worker-owner for the past two-and-a-half years, said competing with nationally-recognized brands such as Whole Foods and MOM's Organic Market has made it more difficult for the business to sell some of its products.
The Co-op's sales loss coupled with an unexpected breakdown of its walk-in refrigerator — leading to the loss of thousands of dollars of ingredients earlier this month — threatened to shut down the business permanently.
"We were already tight on funds," said Chris Moulson, who has been a worker-owner for the past four years. "We had basically set ourselves up so that we could get through the summer and be in a good place [for next semester]. But when we lost that merchandise, that set us back a good deal."
However, donations poured in within hours after launching the fundraiser on June 16, Moulson said. As of Tuesday, the University of Maryland's Co-op has raised about $4,000 from more than 100 people.
When university alumna Catherine Jellison heard the business was in danger of closing, she said she immediately pitched in $50 to help with the fundraising.
"It's a great place for students who aren't interested in eating processed foods produced by big industrial giant companies that probably don't have good ethics," said Jellison, who was a Co-op regular while she was a student in the 1990s. "You're supporting the university, you're supporting the students and you're getting a great variety of delicious foods that are actually good for you at good prices. Who doesn't want that?"
The Co-op strives to offer ethical, high-quality food at affordable prices for its customers, Moulson said. However, striking a balance between the two has become a challenge, he added.
Donated proceeds such as Jellison's will serve as an initial boost for keeping the Co-op open and getting it back on its feet, Karaffa said.
"That money will get us back up to a place where we'll be able to pay off some of our debts and start paying ourselves again," Karaffa said.
Moulson said being a worker-owner means sharing responsibility for not only the Co-op's gains, but its shortfalls as well. Many Co-op staff members are volunteering their summers and making financial sacrifices in hopes of seeing a more promising situation in the future, he said.
"This month, we've been able to set aside some money for the people who either don't have a second job, or absolutely need the income," Moulson said. "A lot of our worker-owners, including myself, have families, and supporting them is now scary. But for the most part, we're just volunteering our time, because this is a place to love and we're trying to make sure it doesn't go under."
Despite creating a steep financial loss, the broken refrigerator has turned into an opportunity to rebuild the Co-op to cater more to the times, Moulson said.
"The Co-op has been around for 40-plus years and things have changed so much," said Karaffa. "But we haven't had time or the resources to spend on changing our business to fit the changing times."
The Co-op plans to update its food menu, add a coffee and smoothie bar, bring more tables and chairs inside the store, sell more vegan-friendly snacks and natural beauty products, and switch to the Chipotle-style food-ordering trend.
Both Moulson and Karaffa said they appreciated how the community has reached out over the past few weeks to help them.
Moulson added the university administration has been "incredibly supportive" of the Co-op's financial situation, and many staff members have stopped by, asking how they might be able to contribute to keep the business running.
"I thought [the refrigerator break-down] was the end of the Co-op's 42-year journey," Moulson said. "And I've never had my spirits picked up so quickly by the people who said, 'Don't worry, we've got your back,' even people who I know are struggling themselves to get by. I've never been so touched, honestly. They're heroes."
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this article misspelled Karaffa's surname. This story has been updated.