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Changes in store for La Montanita as it turns 40

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Products boasting their “organic” and “natural” attributes fill shelves at grocery stores today, but Robin Seydel remembers when that was not the case in Albuquerque.

At least not until La Montañita Co-op launched near the University of New Mexico in 1976.

“In Albuquerque, you couldn’t get brown rice anyplace else; you couldn’t get sugarless peanut butter anyplace else — so many of the products we now take for granted,” said membership and community development director Seydel, who started working with the Co-op as a volunteer in the early 1980s and joined the staff in 1985. “It was a very different time period in terms of accessibility to healthy, whole-food products.”

Albuquerque has evolved, its landscape now dotted with chain stores that specialize in natural, healthy foods and even traditional grocers that also stock those products.

And La Montañita — now celebrating its 40th anniversary — will have to evolve a little bit too, according to its new general manager. Dennis Hanley, who joined the member-owned market chain last month, will lead what he calls a “re-engineering” effort to help keep the cooperative going strong. That may include some growth; no specific plan exists yet, but he said he expects to be talking about a new store “sooner than later.” It could also mean introducing some new products.

But Hanley — whose 38-year career includes jobs with retail and grocery giants like Kmart and Kroger, but also some specialty/organic stores — said much of the work will involve reminding the community about La Montañita’s mission and its role in the community. La Montañita moves more than 1,000 local products from about 350 area producers through its distribution center; it also supports programs like the Veteran Farmer Project that pairs veterans interested in agriculture with local experts for education and hands-on growing opportunities. That message should get out to people who might be shopping the competition as well as younger generations who might not know the co-op model, Hanley said.

“They have to know that’s what we’re all about,” he said on a recent morning at La Montañita’s West Side Albuquerque location. “That’s a much bigger story than just selling a can (of food) or a box of cereal.”

While Hanley sees a need for La Montañita to adjust to the changing retail environment, he said the co-op’s longevity helped attract him to the job.

The member-owned market now boasts six retail locations — four are in Albuquerque, including a small site at UNM, and one each in Gallup and Santa Fe. It has about 17,000 members. It employs about 285 people.

All of it started with a 1,000-square-foot storefront at Central and Girard in 1976. When Seydel was hired in 1985, “I think I was the fourth or fifth person on staff,” she said.

The first major growth spurt happened in 1989, when the market moved to 6,000 square feet of retail space at the Nob Hill Business Center, where it remains today. La Montañita added the other five locations between 1999 and 2013. Its distribution center opened in 2007 as a vehicle to get local products into its own stores as well as other area retailers and restaurants.

Membership growth has been “pretty steady” through the years, said Seydel, who believes the recession may have actually generated more interest in the business model.

“People are very aware of the changing nature of the economy and are very aware they want to support friends and neighbors and enrich community wealth, and I think that set of values still sets the co-op apart,” she said.

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