For more than eight years, the La Montañita Grab and Go market adjacent to the University of New Mexico Bookstore offered on-the-go options to the community ranging from breakfast burritos to organic macaroni and cheese.
Now, one of UNM's only sources of locally grown and organic food has shut its doors for good.
After years of financial losses, the Co-op's board of directors announced the UNM location, alongside the member and employee-owned food cooperative's Westside store, would close permanently.
"The financial performance of the Westside and UNM Grab and Go stores has been an ongoing concern for many years," La Montañita's board of directors said in announcing the two store closures on March 10. "This decision is required for the survival of our Co-op and its continued service to the community."
The board later clarified to the Daily Lobo its UNM location would cease operations March 20, but a call to La Montañita on Friday found staff packing up boxes in a store already closed to the public.
An employee at the UNM store confirmed that March 19 was its last day of business.
"We so regret having to close due to repeated annual losses of $60,000," the board said in a statement. "There are just not enough customers (and) not enough sales to remain open."
The Co-op's board also said the two store closures are unrelated to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.
The closure will affect three employees at the UNM location — one of whom is a student at the University. La Montañita general manager James Esqueda said the cooperative will provide support, job placement assistance and "generous" severance packages to all employees not able to stay on with the food cooperative and work with UNM to retain a presence on campus.
"We will seek out other opportunities to partner with UNM so that we can keep healthy, organic food options on campus," Esqueda said. "Providing good food to students and faculty is our mission, and we want to create ways to continue to serve this part of our community. Meanwhile, we encourage customers to visit us at our Nob Hill location."
UNM Food operations manager Amanda Gerard said the space vacated by the Co-op will remain on the market for the time being, but the University hopes to find a "great option for the UNM community" as a replacement.
Though the board mentioned UNM's declining enrollment in a press release sent to the Daily Lobo, it noted the recent erosion of the student body didn't factor into the decision to shutter the Grab and Go store.
Since the fall of 2012, enrollment at UNM has plummeted by 21.68%, according to data from UNM's Office of Institutional Analytics.
Maggie Seeley, vice president of La Montañita's board of directors, said the cooperative's $3,000 monthly rent for the space also didn't play a role in the store's closing, citing it as "a very good deal."
"Simply stated, we were operating in the red to the tune of $60,000 annually," Seeley told the Daily Lobo.
Store manager Adam Finschler said the physical location of the store itself likely contributed to its demise.
"All other food providers (on campus) are located in the SUB, which is a food court hub," Fischler said. "Grab and Go is slightly off the beaten path."
The financial losses sustained by La Montañita's campus location were in line with similar numbers for other food service operations around UNM that remain open, according to the University's most recent internal audit.
As the Daily Lobo reported in August of 2019, the Food Services Vendor Billing department — which includes the Mercado and three Markets around campus — ran at a deficit of $72,571 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018, the most recent year for which figures were available. Auditors at the time projected that the deficit would be eliminated by the end of fiscal year 2019.
An Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) request for financial documents related to the Food Services Vendor Billing department's contract with Chartwells Higher Ed — the University's food service contractor — was denied after Chartwells' legal counsel determined the documents were protected by the trade secrets section of the IPRA statute.
The closure of the UNM store will eliminate the only on-campus retailer where government food stamp benefits were accepted as a form of payment. Additionally, the Co-op's departure takes with it the only store on campus that didn't charge the state's gross receipts tax, according to UNM Food's Gerard.
The presence of La Montañita on campus also altered the extent to which healthier food options appeared at the SUB's Mercado.
The Mercado didn't previously stock many organic items to be "good partners" to La Montañita's campus location and avoid "duplicated competing products," Gerard said. She added that the Market at the Student Residence Center stocks organic options, and approximately 20% of food purchases at the La Posada dining hall come from the Co-op's distribution center.
It wasn't immediately clear if La Montañita's departure would change the percentage of organic, sustainable food on the shelves at other Markets around campus.
La Montañita's UNM store, tucked inside the northeast corner of the main bookstore, was born out of the University's Sustainability Studies Program just before the school's enrollment slide started. "Co-ops as a Business Model," a class taught by Seeley, served as the vehicle in which the idea of a campus co-op evolved and became a capstone project for former UNM student Jake Wellman.
Wellman, who alongside fellow alum Abdullah Feroze played a critical role in bringing La Montañita to campus in 2010 in collaboration with the SUB Board and Chartwells, told the Daily Lobo the original vision was a student-run food cooperative modeled on one already in place in Washington, D.C.
Bringing in La Montañita — an established business with licenses already in place to operate in New Mexico — to run a campus co-op was the compromise reached after discussions with Chartwells and the SUB Board, according to then-ASUNM attorney general Wellman.
"It became something that was nice to have at the front of campus, at least as kind of a token of the University's commitment to sustainability," Wellman said recently. "It never really seemed full or that popular amongst students, but I was always happy to see it be there at the campus' front gate."
He remained hopeful that the now-shuttered Co-op would be succeeded by another sustainable food outlet.
"I hope there's an opportunity soon to replace that commitment to working with both the community around the campus and reflecting the University's commitment to the environment and overall sustainability as a value that the University holds dear and teaches in its everyday actions," Wellman said.
Amanda Britt and Bianca Hoops contributed reporting to this article.
Andrew Gunn is the copy chief and a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @agunnwrites