1 in 8700: Glenn Lower


The store-front of the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, of which Glenn Lower ’84 is the general manager, has gone through several renovations over time.

By Alessandria Schumacher

Glenn Lower ’84 does a little bit of everything to make the Co-op run smoothly. When asked what he does as general manager, Glenn Lower ’84 replied, “My kids—when they were small—used to say I sign my name a lot…they’d come upstairs and I’d be signing checks.”  Despite the fact that some days it may appear that Lower just checks, his role as General Manager of the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op encompasses a wide variety of tasks.

“I’m kind of all over the place.  I’ll fill in wherever is needed. For the past nine months, we haven’t had a deli manager for our prepared foods department so I’ve been the interim deli manager…I’ll sweep floors, I’ll do whatever it takes,” Lower said.

Though he is the one general manager, Lower does not work in a vacuum.

“I also have to think about the 4,300 households that are member-owners and how are we serving them…And then I have 11 bosses, which are my board of directors, and they change. Every year they have a couple of new people.  It’s kind of interesting to have bosses who are always in flux,” Lower said.

“They [the board of directors] give me two kinds of policies,” Lower explained.  One kind of policies are the missions: “healthy foods, and a vibrant local community, and doing environmental things right, and being a democratic co-op, and also doing a lot of education,” Mr. Lower said. The other kind of policies from the board are boundaries.

These “make sure we’re paying our bills, paying our taxes, treating people well,” Lower said. He spends considerable time reporting back to the board about accomplishing the mission within the given boundaries. The board then reports back to the member-owner households. Lower has a circular diagram that explains the complex, two-way relationships between member-owners, staff, the general manager, and the board.

His jobs include overseeing Co-op expansions and monitoring what foods the store sells. Choices made about the store are based on community wishes.
“The primary emphasis is on organic and local,” Lower said, referring to the mission established by the board of directors.

“28 percent of our sales are Vermont-made products, a lot of them from Addison County,” Lower said. “That’s what our member-owners want the most.”

Lower explained that not all co-ops are also natural food stores. As a natural foods store, the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op upholds a commitment to selling organic products by abiding by these criteria.

According to the buying criteria sheet, products containing certain ingredients, such as high fructose corn syrup, artificial preservatives or colors, or bovine growth hormones (rBST), are not allowed to be sold at the Co-op.

Not only is it expensive to source food from myriad local suppliers, but it is expensive to buy foods that fit the buying criteria.
“It’s a challenge for us not to have a price image problem,” Lower said.

Lower currently lives in New Haven with his wife, Cheryl Whitney-Lower ’84.  They have two kids, one who is a junior at the College and the other who will be attending Tufts University in the fall.

Lower was born in California, and grew up in Virginia. His first encounter with Vermont was when he came to the College as a student in 1980.

“In some ways, I went to Middlebury College because almost nobody in Virginia knew about it,” Lower said. He wanted to get away from the schools where so many of his peers went, such as the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina. Lower was a biology major.

“After Middlebury, I did environmental education for a while, but then became a high school biology teacher for about five years,” Lower said. At that time, he was living in the Boston area with his wife, Cheryl Whitney-Lower ’84.

Because they ultimately did not want to live in the Boston area, Lower and his wife travelled around the world for a year before putting down roots elsewhere. During this year, they spent three weeks canoeing in Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle with two friends from college.

Upon returning from their travels, they decided that Whitney-Lower, who was working in higher education administration, would look for a job first, and then Lower would look for a teaching job wherever they moved for her job.

Whitney-Lower, who now works as a Career Adviser at the CCI, originally got a job working as the Assistant Director of Student Activities. Lower, however, did not find work here in Middlebury so easily. He worked as a substitute teacher, while furthering his teaching certifications. There are only so many biology teachers needed in a sparsely populated area such as Addison County. All of the area biology teachers were about his age, so there appeared to be no prospects of a job opening any time soon.

After working for a year as a long-term substitute, the question surfaced again as to what work Lower would do once the teacher for whom he had been subbing returned from maternity leave. A job opened up in the produce section at the Co-op.  The Saturday to Monday schedule perfectly complemented Whitney-Lower’s schedule, which was convenient given that their first baby was on the way. Soon after beginning that job, the produce manager left, and Lower moved into that position. After three years there, the general manager position was changing, so Lower applied for and got that position, which has been his role at the Co-op for the last 17 years.

Over the past two decades at the Co-op, Lower has seen considerable changes, most notably to the size of the operation. From its founding almost 40 years ago, the Co-op has expanded several times.

In 1994, the Co-op underwent its first major expansion within the gray building that now houses its offices.

“When we expanded that time, we thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we are set for life.’  We’ve got so much space now, and everything is modern.”

“By ’98, we said, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re running out of space, we don’t have enough room,” Lower said. At this point, the Co-op surveyed its members with three options: do nothing, move to a bigger location south on Route 7, or expand in the current location.  Support for expanding in the current location was overwhelming, which came as a surprise to many, as many co-ops do not like change or expansion, according to Lower.

“New England towns were already struggling with big box stores coming on the outside and pulling sales from the towns out and the downtowns …  dying or becoming boutiques,” Lower said.

The loss of downtown businesses in many New England towns made keeping the Co-op in town all the more important to many of its member-owners.

In order to expand in its current site, the Co-op had to ask three different land owners to sell them different parcels of land so the Co-op could have a contiguous piece of land big enough for a new building, according to Lower. The new building was funded through a half a million dollars in loans from the member-owners, not donations.

“It was a great community project,” Lower said of the 1998 renovations.

“It’s still a challenge to be in a downtown location and try to run a grocery store,” Lower said.

He explained that their growth was different than that of a traditional grocery store. Rather than a wide building visible from the street with extensive parking, the Co-op renovation took the shape of most other businesses in a downtown setting with a narrow front and parking hidden behind, so as not to create a strip mall look.

“We were breaking a lot of grocery rules about how to run a grocery store,” Lower said of their choice to renovate without becoming a box store.  Between 1998 and now, the Co-op has grown from about $2 million in sales to $12 million.

Another major shift has been from about 20 percent organic and 80 percent conventional to the opposite: over 80 percent organic. The staff has also grown from 20 to over 70.
Looking forward, the Co-op is trying to have an even greater vision for the future than before.

“It’s not just ten years.  Well, what are we doing for 20 to 50 years? You can’t just always get bigger. We can probably get a little bit bigger here, but then that’s it,” Lower said. “It’s not being driven by profits, it’s being driven by the fact that the community says this is what we want. So we’re always trying to figure out, what is it that the community wants the most?” Lower said.

Lower sees the Co-op’s role in the Middlebury community as showing what is possible in terms of feeding ourselves locally.

“I think a lot of local producers have said over the years…we got started because the Co-op was here, because that was the place we could sell stuff and get…our feet on the ground,” Lower said of the Co-op’s role among the producers.

“Food is a terrific economic development tool, and I think the co-op plays a big role in that. We’re sort of like a hub in some ways, lots of food coming in, we’re figuring out how it goes out,” Lower said.