by Mike Berger/editor-Northeast
Christine Cummings, new executive director of the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association (MGFPA), will be returning to her position in January after maternity leave. She joined the association in 2017 and was promoted to executive director in June.
She is excited about the growth of the association, the rise of Maine food retail programs and the relationship of retailers and local producers.
Cummings joined the Retail Association of Maine (RAM) in February 2015. As program and membership manager, Cummings oversaw the Shop Second Saturday program and RAM’s membership development, ensuring Maine businesses continue to thrive alongside local communities. RAM provides association management services to the MGFPA. Before that, she had worked for Acorn Footwear and Johnny’s Selected Seeds, with experience in public relations, media buying, print and social media, graphic design and sales assistance.
She holds a B.S. degree in business administration from the University of Maine at Orono and now is taking classes at Central Maine Community College in the graphics communication program.
Cummings grew up working at her father’s small business in Augusta, Maine, and admires the hard work and dedication of business owners and their employees.
Outside work, she loves spending time at the coast during the summer, spring skiing, traveling anywhere with turquoise waters and being a new mother.
Cummings answered the following Griffin Report questions about her goals and challenges ahead.
How have the first few months gone for you as MGFPA executive director?
Great! I’m thankful that I had almost two years of experience working with the association prior to taking on the role as MGFPA’s executive director. Familiarity with the association’s goals, events and membership while having established industry relationships has been extremely helpful. We are finishing 2017 on a strong note with our Maine Food Means Business Summit and a good result on a food sovereignty legislative issue.
A year from now, what would you like to accomplish as goals?
The association—since its merger of the Maine Grocers Association and Food Alliance to create Maine Grocers & Food Producers Association—has made tremendous strides in building the relationships between these two entities. I’ll work to continue to remove the barriers for grocers to provide locally sourced products and for our producers to find outlets that best fit getting their products to market.
MGFPA will continue to strive to advocate for our members—both grocers and food producers—to make Maine a business-friendly partner. I look forward to getting on the road and continuing to meet our members and industry partners. Hearing from business owners, managers and employees is extremely helpful and allows us to take their real-life feedback to the statehouse and national counterparts. For example, it’s the story of the local grocery store owners, their struggles and successes, that makes the largest impact. We’re honored to help be their voice, and I am eager to hear more over the next year and throughout my career with MGFPA.
What is the membership count of the organization, and is the membership expanding to include different channels?
Maine Grocers & Food Producers Association is nearly 200 members strong, including independently owned and operated grocery stores, supermarkets, food and beverage producers and processors, wholesalers and distributors, and allied service companies. They all work collaboratively to provide services that are mutually beneficial —one day a grocer is looking for an insurance agency, and the next a food producer pairs with one of our packaging suppliers. It’s this network of these varying partners that helps make us so strong.
Any new programs you are planning to implement this year?
We recently launched an energy program in partnership with Constellation Energy. Constellation Energy offers members guidance on energy pricing options that give greater budget certainty if you want to lock in prices to minimize risk, or more purchasing flexibility if you want to take advantage of market fluctuations. We are looking forward to continuing to expand this relationship and member benefit.
Last year, we hosted a few successful “Meet & Greet” events. These are after-hour social gatherings held at various member locations. At the Meet & Greets, we sample food products, chat and connect with liked-minded colleagues, members and future members. The events serve as a great opportunity to showcase our members to each other and connect with those curious to know more about MGFPA. Our Meet & Greets give us the opportunity to gather and have some face-to-face interaction, which we continue to see less of in today’s digital world. Our plan is to formally establish these networking events in the coming year.
How is the economy doing in Maine?
The Maine economy has proven to be a challenging and rewarding environment for our members. The interest in the local food scene continues to flourish with residents and tourists alike. Our food producer members have been able to tap into this and create unique and high-quality products that in return meet the demand of many of our grocers’ merchandise needs. There’s a true interest in the food and agricultural movement in the state, and it’s encouraging to think of how all these resources will continue to work together and how MGFPA can play a key role. Labor and wage issues continue to be burdensome, including finding and retaining employees. Maine’s large geographic footprint and aging population present other challenges that our members are finding ways to address.
What is your perspective of the food retail scene in Maine? Any new major entries of new companies or companies leaving?
As noted above, the food scene is very hot in Maine. It’s clear that there is a growing interest in not only understanding where our food is coming from but also wanting to support local businesses and suppliers. So, between farmers, value-added food producers, grocers, restaurants and retailers, it is an exciting time for Maine food. I’ve found it interesting to observe the curiosity that we now have in our food. Where does it come from? Who has had involvement with getting it onto my plate? What factors have influenced it along its journey? Our Maine producers and chefs have been able to tell these stories well. There’s a lot that goes beyond the product and brings the experience front and center. Those able to build a relationship between the customer and their product have seen much success. We are more than just potatoes, blueberries and lobster.
At times, those valued-added, Maine-centric products do come at a bit of a premium, and let’s also keep in mind the diversity of our state’s population and the stores in which they shop. Our independent grocery store owners work diligently to keep shelves stocked with goods that meet their customers’ dietary interests and wallets. Working with our distributor partners, grocers can successfully stock items that offer both the local flavor of the robust food scene while also the traditional goods of the everyday shopper.
There have been some acquisitions of major companies in Maine’s food scene. It’s an economy of consolidations and efficiency. We’re thankful many of these mergers have kept the businesses here without a large impact on employment or membership. It’s encouraging to see the interest in bringing new employees to Maine as we continue to work to make sure the state has its doors open for business.
From your perspective, what are the top issues facing your members?
We frequently hear from our membership of their concerns over the increasing minimum wage. Maine’s minimum wage is slated to increase by $1 per year until 2020 where it will reach $12 per hour (and then incrementally based on inflation) with many states and groups pushing for $15. This upcoming session, we’re anticipating more conversations and debates about introducing a training wage in an effort to help employers hiring teenagers and first-time employees. We hear regularly of the difficulty of finding employees and qualified employees, the costs of healthcare, concerns around taxation and food safety.
Anything you’d like to add?
It’s a really interesting time for grocers and retailers with such focus on e-commerce and delivery services. Many are quick to point the finger that retail is dying, while in reality it’s just in another phase of growth and change. New technology is allowing for customization and levels of service beyond what we saw years ago. I’m looking forward to seeing how stores will adapt by bringing in new technology, further utilizing their data, creating in-store shopping experiences (that can’t be found online) and integrating other services to meet customers’ expectations.