With Photo Gallery and Story Below
By Cynthia Prairie
I t’s obvious. Just look at the grocery carts. Most of the full-sized, difficult-to-turn models have been replaced by shiny sub-compact, double-decker ones that save energy as customers easily maneuver them through the aisles at Lisai’s.
And there has been and will be more. Change that is.
In an effort to offer more variety and better service, Lisai’s Chester Market is changing things up a bit. But owner Lonnie Lisai promises that the 163-year-old store will keep its small-town ethic.
“The market (trend) prompts us to make changes,” says Lisai, who owns the store with his wife, Obe. He then cites the need to keep up with the desires of his customers while making the store more energy efficient. “The days of canned spaghetti and canned vegetables are over,” he adds. “People are eating healthier. Produce, deli, meats.”
According to Jim Harrison, president of the 400-member Vermont Grocers’ Association, “Long-term, the trend is that people are busier than ever and are looking for quick meals on the go.” He added that grocers aren’t really in “the grocery business. (They’re) in the food business.” And for small, independent grocers like Lisai’s, keeping up with trends is important. “Variety is a big thing: It may be a bottle of wine that a customer hasn’t tried before.” Being able buy “a little treat,” said Harrison, will help a store differentiate itself, as will adding to the mix a good variety of Vermont specialty foods.
And food is where Lisai’s will be making some significant changes. “People are interested in cooking,” says Obe Lisai, adding that the changes will allow the market to offer more variety. “Cooking is a hobby, not a chore for a lot of people.”
Always a store, always a grocer
Lisai’s building at 526 Depot St., was built as a grocery and has rarely seen a day since its beginning in 1849 when it wasn’t one. It was taken over by third-generation Vermont grocers Lonnie Lisai and his brother Brent in 1992. And just three years ago, Lonnie bought Brent’s share. Brent, brother Gary and nephew Mike now own the family’s original grocery, which has been converted into a deli, and the newly built Bellows Falls Lisai’s.
During the transition, one of the first major changes Lisai made to the Chester store was the acquisition of new, longer and more efficient beverage refrigerators, which were installed almost three years ago along the south side of the building, closest to the parking lot.
Next, the Lisais began replacing metal shelving with more attractive wooden shelves. A year ago, says Obe Lisai, they brought in a line of products from Stonewall Kitchen, the York, Maine, specialty food manufacturer. Among the Stonewall offerings, Lisai’s has stocked scone, pancake and crepe mixes, as well as a huge selection of salsas, chutneys, mustards and dressings.
Not too long ago, Lisai’s brand of old-fashioned sodas, including Raspberry Lime Rickey and Root Beer, ice cream toppings such as Butter Brittle Crunch, and rubs (like Pomegranate Red Bell), herbs and herb mixes (among them Herbs de Provence), and spices began gracing the shelves.
With Lonnie’s palate leading the way, the wine department was also refurbished, giving shoppers a chance to explore the world of wine or just pick up an old favorite.
Big changes yet to come
By Christmas, the coffee service that sits at the front corner will be moved to the back of the store, where fresh pastries will be available. It will also be consolidated with an expanded hot “comfort” meals self-serve station. Instead of one meal and two soups, there will be the capacity for four soups and two hot meals. And the Lisais will be adding a salad bar to the self-serve line.
“People want to get a quick in and out,” says Lonnie as Obe adds, Many “only have a half-hour for lunch.” With the expanded self-serve bar comes an expanded cooking staff, doubling from one cook – Stacie Stauffer – by moving employee Bonnie Hudson into the kitchen. Obe says, the two “are coming up with a lot of creative things to cook, like a breakfast casserole.”
“Imagine,” says Obe, “when that coffee is out of the front, we’ll be able to expand the vegetables.” With the help of Efficiency Vermont, they’ll also be adding new and more efficient cooling cases along the north side – the train track side – of the building for both vegetables and prepared food.
One aim in the renovation is to widen the aisles where they can and to open the space. “From the front of the store, you’ll be able to see to the back of the store,” says Lonnie. To accomplish that, a wall next to the sandwich counter, on which the sandwich chalk board leaned, was taken out. When it was removed, so was the stairway it encased, one that most customers didn’t know existed.
The store currently employees 10 full-time and 17 part-time employees. “It takes a lot of people to run a business that is open seven days a week, 12 hours a day,” says Obe. “It’s very labor intensive,” adds Lonnie.
Both Lisais insist that the possibility of a Dollar General Store had nothing to do with the planned changes, which have been in the making for more than three years. But, adds Obe, “I think Dollar General had an impact on the timing. … The changes were in the back of our minds for a long time and it gave us a nudge.”
“It takes a lot of people to run a business that is open seven days a week, 12 hours a day.”
Echoing one another, the Lisais say that they are a part of the Chester community and want to have and to run the best store they can.
The changes are expensive. But, Lonnie says, “I do believe all the improvements will pay for themselves within five years.”
Harrison, of the grocers association, seems to bolster that belief: “What they (the Lisais) do well is they are very attuned to the customer. They are there every day listening to the customer. … They are just really nice people. You like shopping with people who appreciate your business.”
About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor for 30 years, having worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.