RICHFORD – Despite rumors, Richford’s only grocery store will likely remain open come spring.
According to leadership at the Northern Tier Center for Health (NOTCH) and the Associated Grocers of New England (AGNE), a verbal commitment has been made for NOTCH to take over the Vista Foods in Richford in lieu of its possible closure.
“The board of directors decided that, working closely with Associated Grocers, we would take over the grocery store,” NOTCH executive director Pam Parsons told the Messenger Friday. “We have a verbal commitment to transition this store to us by June 1, 2020.”
Vista Foods, which leases a space in the former Sweat-Comings Building now owned and operated as a health center by NOTCH, was expected to close once its lease ended in March, according to AGNE President and CEO Mike Violette.
“We’ve worked very diligently over the years to increase the business there, which we have – the people in town have been very supportive,” Violette said. “Unfortunately, as costs continue to rise… even though we’ve raised the sales level, we just haven’t been able to have the store sustain itself on its own.”
Vista Foods, an AGNE brand with stores also in Newport, Vt., and in New Hampshire, was only the most recent tenant of the Sweat-Comings building, taking over at the spot a few years ago when the previous grocery store tenant folded.
Without Vista Foods, Richford would be left without a grocery store and limited options for purchasing food, save for some food available at gas stations and the Dollar General situated just outside of Richford’s downtown.
Outside of Richford, the closest dedicated grocery store is in Enosburgh.
Parsons said part of NOTCH’s interest in taking up the grocery store was to guarantee access to food within Richford, something she said was an important part of NOTCH’s mission as a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) – a federally-reimbursed health care organization.
“In some ways, food is the basis of FQHCs,” Parsons said. “If our patients can’t access good quality food, what can we do? That’s true in all our offices, wherever we are, so it’s very close to our mission to take care of the population that we’re serving.”
Vista Foods, according to Parsons, regularly receives a lot of walking traffic, and there were fears about what the store’s closure would mean for customers who might not have access to a vehicle.
Vista Foods also serves as an employer in Richford, providing about 20 jobs in the form of a handful of full-time positions and part-time employment.
According to Violette, had the store closed outright, AGNE had plans to transfer the Richford Vista Foods’ employees to other stores operated by AGNE, but AGNE’s president admitted, “travel is a little tough for some of them.”
According to Parsons, the details of NOTCH’s takeover of the store still needed to be discussed before NOTCH assumes ownership near the end of spring or early summer – including a new name for the store – but the health center hoped to maintain Vista Foods’ staff as it transitions into ownership.
Likewise, much of the infrastructure for operating the store was already owned by NOTCH, and Parsons said AGNE would be leaving the health center with a store that was “in good shape.”
“I would say AG has done a remarkable job the last three years in building up the store,” Parsons said. “It looks good and is busy, so it’s at a point where it’s not going to be like starting from square one.”
As the store’s landowners, Parsons said NOTCH would also be able to negate some of the costs that made Vista Foods less sustainable under AGNE. “There will be costs that AG puts on the store that we wouldn’t have to,” Parsons said, before admitting, “It still will run close to breaking even.”
She also said she expected NOTCH’s ownership to only be temporary.
“I would say that, long term, it may not be under NOTCH, but for the next couple years, I’m sure it will be,” Parsons said. “We need to see if there’s a way to develop it some other way.”
She floated the idea of a community-owned food cooperative, a conversation that, according to Parsons, had yet to happen in Richford, and also said NOTCH’s direct ownership of the store might leave room for other programming connected to the health center.
Violette and Parsons said AGNE, which also operates as a food distributor based out of New Hampshire, planned on supporting the store through its transition to NOTCH.
“The people of Richford have been great to us and very supportive, and we’ve got excellent associates in the store,” Violette said. “If we can maintain that, that’d be wonderful.”