by John McCurry/contributing writer
Maine’s grocery landscape experienced a relatively stable year in 2019, considering the flurry of new laws and regulations the state legislature enacted or is considering. So many of the challenges faced by grocers are out of their control, according to Christine Cummings, executive director of the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association.
“Overall, things are going well,” Cummings told The Griffin Report. “Last year, the minimum wage increased to $11 an hour and, in the coming year, the minimum wage will go up to $12 an hour, so that certainly is putting some restrictions on employers, who have to decide whether they have to look at how they are scheduling employees, or what type of benefits they are offering, or who they can bring on board. So, there are some restraints that are out of the business owners’ hands that they are dealing with.”
As it is often the case, much of the big news was made in the state legislature. On Jan. 1, 2021, Maine will become the first state to require paid personal leave for employees. Employers with 10 or more employees will be required to give workers one hour paid time off for every 40 hours worked, up to 40 hours per year.
“The earned time off policy has been pretty substantial and controversial,” Cummings said. “It has quite a history. It started with interest at a local municipal level in Portland, which was looking to start a paid leave policy, and there was a lot of debate over many months. Then it started surfacing at the state level and looking at companies with no sick leave or earned time off (ETO), and it evolved into an ETO policy.”
Cummings says the new law will especially affect the food and grocery industry, which is populated with small food producers and small mom-and-pop and independent grocers. It forces companies to re-evaluate how their employee policies align, she said.
“There are still questions about how it will affect current policies,” Cummings said. “Things like what happens to the earned time if an employee leaves, and what about the use of the earned time off at holidays, which would put the employer at a disadvantage. Grocers and food producers certainly do have seasonality—think about Thanksgiving or Christmas or the spring holidays—and have to make sure they are staffed properly and still comply with the policy. The intent is for everyone to abide by it and recognize it as law, but it has to be able to work in the real world.”
Maine’s impending bag ban
Somewhat less controversial is Maine’s new ban on single-use plastic bags that begins on Earth Day (April 22) in 2020. This environmental initiative is likely to make things interesting, Cummings predicted. Retail stores will be required to charge a nickel for every recyclable paper bag or reusable plastic bag used. Customers also may bring their own reusable bags. She says how this will work from a customer service perspective is unknown. The ban is somewhat controversial, and Cummings says her organization, as well as the Retail Association of Maine, is opposed to any type of product ban.
“This year (2019), with the political landscape of a Democratic governor, there was a lot of energy and momentum for environmental issues, as there will continue to be,” Cummings said in a December interview. “The associations recognized this momentum. We actually worked very closely with the Natural Resource Association of Maine so that we could collaboratively develop something that was feasible for the retailers while still satisfying the environmental interests. It may not have filled in the blanks for everyone on each side, but each side was willing to bend a little bit. We certainly came together to work on that policy.”
Another ban coming next year
Another law aimed at protecting the environment also should have a major impact on the industry. A ban on polystyrene used in food packaging begins in January 2021, and this includes meat trays and takeout containers. Other states are considering similar bans of polystyrene, which is said to be difficult to recycle. The law leaves grocers and restaurants scrambling for an approved substitute.
“When you think of the amount of meat that is packaged that way, this is major,” Cummings said. “Small grocers and delis will take a hit by having to seek alternate ways of packaging. Prepackaged things coming in from wholesalers will be allowed, but for grocers who repackage in-store, they will have to find another way.”
During the last legislative session, a study was ordered on packaging, so packaging manufacturers, food producers and grocers have been meeting with the local environmental protection offices to pull together recommendations for a statewide policy for recyclable packaging for Maine.
Grocery industry said to be ‘steady’
Cummings said Maine’s food industry is holding steady, describing it neither as an uptick nor a downturn compared to recent years.
“They (grocers) are optimistic in the sense that there are a lot of moving pieces, both at the state level and nationally. Some local markets that we work with, such as Shop ‘n Save that we recently awarded our 2019 Grocer of the Year award to, I look at his attitude and the way that he received the award, and the relationship he has with his customer base, and I can see definite optimism. At the same time, we will receive calls, especially in rural Maine, from stores that are dealing with employee issues. They can’t find employees, so they are having to make significant changes, so they are less optimistic, to be completely honest.”
Local is a continued focus
Back in the stores, shopping local continues as a trend in Maine. Shoppers have a keen interest in buying local and supporting local grocers. Maine is known for its vast array of locally produced food. Cummings notes that there has been considerable growth in the brewing sector, and many stores feature products from local breweries or wineries. Of course, Maine blueberries always are big sellers, and many jellies and jams feature the wild blueberries.
“There are a lot of salsas, interestingly enough,” Cummings said, “and a lot of new local sweets, such as cookies featuring locally grown ingredients, and crackers. There are many Maine-based products. We also have a well-known local mustard, Ray’s Mustard, and several coffee roasters. There is an abundance of products for folks.”
Another new law tightens restrictions on how Maine-produced meat and poultry can be labeled. Poultry products offered for sale may not be labeled with a certified Maine trademark or advertised as “Maine-raised” if the poultry was raised solely in the state from no later than the seventh day after hatching. Meat and meat products offered for sale may not be labeled with a certified “Maine” trademark or labeled or advertised as “Maine-raised” or by a similar designation unless the animal was born in the state and raised solely in the state.
Cummings says the locally produced issue came up again related to ciders and other products. That issue will be addressed in the next legislative session.
“This is something that will stay on our radar for grocers, how they display it and also how the manufacturers label them,” Cummings said. “There is a high quality of Maine products as a whole on a statewide level, because of the artisan and craftsmen quality that is present and because so many ingredients can be sourced locally and integrated into the products. The network of food producers here is extremely strong, they all know each other, and there is a mentality of striving together to achieve.”
Store shifts for grocers
While a “handful” of stores opened in 2019, Cummings says the bigger trend is in change of ownership, or owners opening a second store.
“There hasn’t been so much new construction as there has been people with industry experience taking over existing stores,” she said.
There also has been renovation and feature-enhancement happening. Some of the larger chains have done redesigns. Acknowledging the trend toward convenience and prepared food, stores have added such features as stir-fry bars and pizza bars for customers looking for quick takeout.
“Some of our smaller independent stores have been able to learn from that, and to rearrange and make some changes to their flow and the way their products are displayed, to take advantage of the new shopping habits of today’s shoppers,” Cummings said.
With competition constantly at a high level, there is a strong customer service tradition, such as going out of the way to obtain a special product for a shopper.
Interest in food production has been on the rise. The Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association works closely with Fork Food Lab, a shared kitchen and lab space in Portland to help small food producing companies get started. One of many success stories is Cape Whoopies, a whoopie pie maker that started in a small incubator space and has grown and expanded.
“There are challenges in locating commercial space and in finding adequate cold storage,” Cummings said. “With Maine being so large geographically, distribution also can be an issue, but it is nice to see companies working together to help each other grow.”