By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
The Dandelion Market in downtown Carbondale has been in financial trouble for some time, and following last week’s layoff of its general manager, Katrina Byars, may soon close or be transformed into a different kind of operation, representatives of the organization said this week.
But Byars and others remain determined to find ways to maintain some kind of outlet for locally generated produce, meats and processed foods that she said offers an alternative to the products sold at the Whole Foods Market in Willits.
“I still believe in it,” said Byars, who also serves on the Carbondale Board of Trustees. “I love it. I’ll do everything I can to help it.”
Byars said she plans to sign up to volunteer as a way of helping to keep the Dandelion Market alive in some form, and invited others to do likewise.
Aside from the expected economic difficulties of running a health-food operation so close to a corporate natural-foods store such as Whole Foods, the Dandelion Market has lost all of its board members but two (Erica Sparhawk and Richard Votero), and all but three of its paid employees in recent weeks, as a result of mounting debt and low cash flow.
Plus, the board learned last year that the owner of the Market’s premises at 559 Main St., Bren Simon, was not going to renew the store’s lease, when expires on June 30.
Simon, widow of shopping mall developer Mel Simon, controls limited liability corporations that own numerous properties around Carbondale, but has shied away from publicity since coming to the area.
Rumors of development plans for the property at the corner of Main and North Sixth streets, which also houses Teresa’s Market and the ColoraDough donut outlet, have been circulating for months, and are believed to have resulted in the decision to not renew Dandelion Market’s lease.
Byars, whose last day was April 24, has been deeply involved in searching for a new location for the store, and she told The Sopris Sun on April 25 that finding a new space will be difficult.
“We’ve been getting a really amazing deal,” Byars said. She and Sparhawk each confirmed that the store has been paying $1,600 per month in rent to occupy about 1,400 square feet of space.
The Dandelion Market started out as a buying club for members a little more than a decade ago, “in response to the need for healthy, affordable organic food in Carbondale,” according to the store’s profile on the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce website.
In 2007, the store began selling memberships to build up funds that enabled it to evolve into a more traditional natural foods store known as the Carbondale Community Food Co-op (that name was changed to Dandelion Market in 2016, in keeping with the fact that Carbondale’s town flower is the dandelion).
Byars, who was hired as general manager in June 2016, told The Sopris Sun in an interview, “It was in hot water when I got there, and I thought I could save it.” She said the store started that year in debt to the tune of about $34,000, a running total of indebtedness she said had plagued the operation for several years.
One problem was competition from Whole Foods, which opened in 2012 and cut into the Dandelion Market’s 2016 sales by about $100,000, at a time when Byars said the store had built up its annual sales to about $500,000.
An additional factor was that the store expanded twice to add shelf space for more goods, which added to the mounting debt.
Over roughly the span of time bracketing the Dandelion Market’s existence, Byars pointed out, a number of other health-food outlets — including Good Health in Glenwood Springs, Mountain Naturals in Aspen and The Annex in Carbondale — all closed their doors.
But, she continued, “You have to have a local food store” that can carry locally produced foods such as Nieslanik Beef, grown on ranches just outside of Carbondale, in order to truly meet the local demand for healthy, locally-grown food.
Big stores, such as Whole Foods and City Market, typically do not carry such small brands, she said.
“We had at least 40 different farms that we purchased from last summer,” she said proudly.
Conceding that buying local produce is a complicated management issue, she said that nevertheless she believes small grocery outlets such as the Dandelion Market can co-exist with the big good conglomerates by catering to that small niche.
On top of that, she said, the Dandelion Market had recently begun serving lunch made primarily of produce from its own shelves, a service that Byars hoped would grow over time into a profit generator as well as a key component of what she called the store’s “community-building” mission.
The board’s dilemma
Sparhawk acknowledged that the Market is in somewhat dire straits, “Because the co-op is in a financial situation where we’re going to need to rely more on volunteers to help lower our operating costs.”
She said two financial experts currently are going over the Market’s books to determine exactly how things went wrong and how it can be fixed, so she was unable to give a lot of details about the financial picture.
But once the analysts have finished, she said, the board expects a report on how best to proceed, perhaps as early as the end of April.
And one of those analysts, she said, is in line to become a member of the board.
Explaining that the “financials,” as she termed the monthly reports to the board, have been inaccurate for months, she said that the accountant in charge of the Markets financials has been let go.
Asked whether she felt Byars was somehow at fault, Sparhawk replied, “I think Katrina had the deck stacked against her” when she took on the manager’s job nearly a year ago.
At that time, income had not been entered into the store’s books, vendors had not been paid, and the picture was looking more and more grim.
The decision on whether or not to keep the doors open, Sparhawk said, “is what we are trying to figure out.”
Byars said she recently spoke to a woman who owns a ranch in the area who was willing to act as host to a buyers’ club, or whatever form the market takes from here, until the operation can get back on its feet.
“People really love shopping at the co-op,” said Sparhawk, “they feel it’s an important part of the community,” and she remains hopeful that while the doors may have to close for a time, the market will survive in a modified form and at a different locale.
The board has considered a former restaurant space at 689 Main St., but found it too expensive, and the soon-to-be-vacant building at 234 Main St. that has housed the Carbondale Animal Hospital, but it had already been leased.
Plus, she said, two other spaces that have been considered lately — both on Highway 133 — would almost double the rent, which might not be within the Market’s financial wherewithal.
But, she added, “If any of the readers have ideas, we’d love to hear them.”