By Crystal Sands
As everyone who shops at a grocery store can attest, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a myriad of supply chain shortages that have impacted everything from eggs and cream cheese to beef and flour. Many times, grocery stores struggle with empty shelves, but Tiller & Rye, a local grocery store owned by Sarah Morneault and Lindsey Levesque that has always focused on a local supply chain, has not experienced these same shortages. In fact, because Tiller & Rye focuses on supplying its customers with food that comes directly from Maine farmers, it is one local store that has thrived during the pandemic, despite national and international supply-chain issues.
Tiller & Rye opened six years ago with a mission to offer a shopping experience for customers that supported local vendors. Morneault said, “We were thinking something along the lines of the Belfast Coop meets Whole Foods (only before Whole Foods was bought by Amazon).” Their company is woman owned, and their managers are women as well. Together, the Tiller & Rye team has created a model that has worked well in keeping local customers supplied while many grocery stores are facing shortages.
From the beginning, Tiller & Rye’s model made the small business highly prepared for the supply chain shortages that have plagued others during the pandemic. Co-owner Sarah Morneault said their store has certainly had struggles with items that come from “away,” such as packaging, but that, at the core, their local supply chain has not been interrupted.
“When everyone was out of the major items like eggs and grains, we were fine because we get these things from local farmers,” Morneault said.
Morneault said when they first opened their doors, they found their local supply chain by going to the Maine Harvest Festival and taking a card from every vendor. Now, the vendors tend to come to them. Morneault said now she struggles when their store can only carry so much variety of the same item, as they want to make sure they support their current vendors well.
“Once we have a relationship with a local supplier, we try to make it permanent—unless they are offering a seasonal product,” she said.
Morneault emphasized that they have had a lot of support from the community and state.
“Maine does a great job of marketing local,” she said. “Maine is also great at supporting its famers and helping them stay in business.” Even with this support, Morneault marvels at how adaptive Maine farmers have been during the pandemic, how they have adjusted creatively to the rising costs in their supplies in an effort to keep costs down for customers.
Because of everyone’s adaptability at the local level, costs at Tiller & Rye have been able to remain fairly consistent while grocery items at the big box stores have gone up. The reduced gap in costs may explain why business continues to grow at Tiller & Rye, but the company’s growth could also be related, in part, to more people becoming aware, thanks to the pandemic, of just how important a local supply chain is when it comes to our most important commodity—the food we eat.
“The pandemic has definitely brought and helped us keep new customers,” Morneault said. “We’ve been so busy.” She emphasized that, for a long time, it was difficult to talk about the success of Tiller & Rye while other small businesses have struggled, but Morneault said she is glad to see many small businesses in the Bangor area find creative ways to survive a really tough period.
Keeping it local has been a positive strategy for Tiller & Rye and its customers. Tiller & Rye not only provides quality food and other goods from local farmers, it also has been able to keep the community supplied, even when supply-chain issues have plagued larger stores.
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