Rock City Coffee workers to become business owners

By Stephen Betts | Mar 07, 2018
Photo by: Stephen Betts Dave Butler, treasurer for the cooperative board, and Susanne Ward discuss the pending transition of the Rockland City businesses to cooperative ownership.

Rockland — The pending sale of Rock City Coffee and Rock City Coffee Roasters to their workers will assure the continuation of the longtime downtown businesses.

Susanne Ward, who founded the companies 26 years ago with her late partner, Patrick Reilley, said she is thrilled that she can sell them to the dedicated employees who will see that the businesses remain an important part of the community.

The sale is scheduled to be finalized Friday, March 9.

Ward and Reilley opened Second Read Books & Coffee in 1992. The couple had come from northern California. She said they had really good friends who lived in the Midcoast and had visited the area before deciding to relocate.

The original store was at 369 Main St., where C'est La Vie is now. Ward said her and Reilley's decision to open a coffee shop/book store matched their interests.

"I love reading, but I knew books were expensive and Rockland was not a wealthy community. So we thought used books would work," she said.

The store opened on the day of the annual Maine Lobster Festival parade. She was painting inside when she saw the large crowds and decided to open the doors.

And over the years, the coffee shop became a focal point for people to get together and talk about the community. She said it attracted musicians, artists and other people from the area.

"Much to our surprise, it became a moderate success," Ward said.

The coffee shop/book store moved across the street in 1995 to larger quarters and was renamed Rock City Coffee

In 1999, Ward and Reilley expanded by opening Rock City Coffee Roasters at the 252 Main St. building, which they purchased. She said she did not expect a lot of foot traffic, but that adding the wholesale part of the business by roasting their own coffee was key to the businesses' surviving during the winter.

Reilley succumbed to cancer in May 2010.

Ward said she had thought about the possible sale of the businesses to the employees since the first store was opened. After Reilley died, she wondered what she would do with the business.

She turned to the Cooperative Development Institute, based in Northampton, Mass. The company makes "democratic ownership work for everyone: CDI brings savvy, focused, and engaged assistance to cooperators throughout New England and New York," according to its website.

The nonprofit organization has helped her and the employees work through the lengthy, complicated process. She said the quantity of paperwork has amounted to climbing Mount Everest.

Rob Brown, director of Business Ownership Solutions in Northport and a cooperative development specialist for the Cooperative Development Institute, said what Ward did was a smart business move. She studied the transition process and allowed time for the workers to get training in financial and business literacy as well as in management.

"This way the the transition will be smooth," he said.

There are about seven worker cooperatives in Maine, Brown estimated.

"There are so many baby-boomer-era entrepreneurs who can't find buyers and either just close their businesses or sell to someone who makes so many changes that they turn off their customers and it leads to the demise of their businesses," the 66-year-old Ward said.

There are 17 employees who will be the initial members of the new Rock City Coffee Cooperative.

One of the cooperative members is Dave Butler, who serves as treasurer of the cooperative board. "It's a trip. I started at the bottom, making coffee and cleaning toilets. Now I will still be doing that, but I will own the toilets," Butler said.

Ward will remain on as general manager for a year. She will retain ownership of the building where the coffee roasting is done, but the cooperative will have the first opportunity to buy if she sells. Rock City Coffee leases the space at 316 Main St.

Rock City has been an integral part of the community. Two years ago, when the company needed a new roaster, the price tag of $110,000 for the purchase and installation of the equipment was daunting. Ward said she did not want to incur more debt that the cooperative would have to repay.

She had $55,000 for the project. One of the employees suggested a crowdfunding effort and, while reluctant at first, Ward agreed, and the community stepped up and contributed the remaining $55,000.

A ceremonial ribbon-cutting will be held 2 p.m. Thursday, March 15, to mark the transition.

Comments (4)
Posted by: Jane Conrad | Mar 18, 2018 10:17

Congratulations to the new owners.  This is a great local business - delicious coffee!!

 



Posted by: ananur forma | Mar 07, 2018 17:36

this is the way of the future. Susanne is a visionary. I worked for a year at the little Rock City in Shaw's Plaza 2004-2005 and learned a lot from Susanne (correct spelling)  a truly self empowered, authentic, honest, hard working, wise woman. I have great respect for Susanne. onward to new adventures. congratulations for solving the sale so thoughtfully with respect.



Posted by: Holly Ann Tracy | Mar 07, 2018 16:55

What a nice transition for this great business.  Good on ya, Suzanne!



Posted by: Beth Birmingham | Mar 07, 2018 15:55

Congratulations, David! So proud of you!!

 



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