Vermont's Big Apple

Husband and wife Marie Bouffard and Mike Soulia have grown Apple Mountain, a Church Street store they bought 12 years ago, into a thriving aggregation of specialty shops, each with its own singular personality.

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Marie Bouffard and Mike Soulia have opened Apple Mountain Harbor Store, the most recent addition to their mini conglomerate that comprises Apple Mountain Vermont Gifts & Specialty Foods and Kiss the Cook on Church Street; the Radisson Hotel Burlington gift shop; the new waterfront store; the stores on the Lake Champlain ferry boats; and a shop in Port Kent, N.Y., where the ferries land.

A half hour with Marie Bouffard and Mike Soulia is just about enough to wash away that jaded feeling that's overtaken us in the wake of Enron, et al. In the last 12 years, this husband-and-wife team has grown Apple Mountain, the Vermont gift shop on the Church Street Marketplace they bought from Nancy and Doug Chioffi, into a mini conglomerate rich with heart and soul. They've created success the old-fashioned way: by listening to their customers, being refreshingly forthright about their goals, minding the infrastructure and really giving a darn about their employees and their community.

Under the corporate name The Apple Mountain Co., their "conglomerate" comprises Apple Mountain Vermont Gifts & Specialty Foods on Church Street; Kiss the Cook, a locally owned kitchen and gift market, also on Church Street; the gift shop at the Radisson Hotel Burlington; Apple Mountain Harbor Store, which opened this year; the stores on the Lake Champlain ferry boats; and a shop in Port Kent, N.Y., where the ferries land.

Bouffard and Soulia have allowed each store to take on its own personality and find its niche. The result is that, while some of the stores are similar, no two are alike, and while their story seems simple common sense is often the tilting factor in decisions it is ripe with tips and encouragement for anyone seeking to build a solid small-business base from which to grow.

Bouffard and Soulia are native Vermonters who met when they were attending the University of Vermont. She is from Barre; he is from Rutland.

She entered college as a chemistry major. "Organic chemistry did me in," she says with a chuckle. She shifted to economics, but left UVM after two years and continued part-time, taking seven years to complete her education. "I worked my way through school at Pizza Hut," says Bouffard, who moved up from waitressing to managing the restaurant on Shelburne Road.

Soulia had graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and landed a job with IBM.

Bouffard says she was able to take advantage of Pizza Hut's "really good management training program," but when she graduated, she knew she didn't want to stay in the restaurant business. In 1986, she answered an ad for a manager's job with Nancy Chioffi at Apple Mountain and was hired to manage what was then a Levi's store.

Chioffi bought Jan's Footwear next door and opened Apple Mountain Vermont Gifts. "Within a year, the Levi's store was obsolete," says Bouffard. "We closed it in '87." As it became clear that the best direction for the store to take was an exclusively Vermont one, Bouffard and Chioffi began pounding the pavement trying to find craftspeople who were willing to wholesale to them.

Bouffard took over managing the staff, the day-to-day operations, and eventually, the buying, as "Nancy was stepping back and getting more and more involved in politics and a run for mayor."

Still, Bouffard was completely unprepared for what happened next.

Tina Lagrow (left) is the buyer for Kiss the Cook and does all the store's advertising. She is seen here with Victoria Granger, sales associate, and Mike Soulia, co-owner of the business. In the year after its name change from Kado Kitchen to Kiss the Cook, sales leapt 60 percent.

"Two days before the New Year of 1990, she called me up.

She told me, 'You're going to buy the store from me.'"

Bouffard was surprised, though not exactly excited, by the offer. "I got off the phone, and said, 'Mike, I've got to get my resume together. I need a job.'"

Seeing it as an opportunity, her husband encouraged her to stop and think things over. "I was panicked," she says.

A look at the financials showed them a chance to keep Bouffard's salary paid, "so we did it," she says. Growth that first year was about 30 percent.

Bouffard's can-do attitude attracted Laura Bowe, former marketing director for the Church Street Marketplace and a friend who met her at the time she bought Apple Mountain. "I could always count on her enthusiasm and support with anything I would ask of her related to the Marketplace and downtown Burlington," says Bowe.

Soulia was still working at IBM, helping out on paperwork occasionally in the business, until he accepted a buyout from IBM.

Serendipity entered in the form of a three-day seminar on how to start a business, one of the services IBM provided for the employees who were leaving.

They had heard that the owners of Garcia's Tobacco were looking to sell the Radisson Gift Shop. "In this seminar, we introduced ourselves, and one of the people was the owner of Garcia's. Over lunch, we decided we'd purchase the gift shop from him." They used the funds from the buyout to make the purchase.

Soulia continued to work for Apple Mountain part-time, having entered a partnership with another former IBM-er to do software development. In 1994, he and Bouffard learned through a business broker that Kado Kitchen and Kado Gifts, connecting shops on Church Street, were for sale. "The Garcia Tobacco people owned that, too," says Soulia.

Bouffard and Soulia bought it. "Marie was pregnant; our dog was dying; and I said, 'Well, I'm going to pull the plug here somewhere." He sold his half-interest in the software company to his partner and went full-time into the business.

Timing created a challenge. Bouffard and Soulia bought Kado's on May 1, 1994, just after the April kitchen show, the only one of the year. "We didn't even know about it," she says, explaining the difficulty of "sourcing products that first year. The customers told us how to build the store."

To get a handle on things, they started a request list. "Everything a customer asked for, no matter how silly, went on the list," says Bouffard. The next year, they took the top 20 requests from the list to the show. "We still track requests," she says. "It sent us in the direction of being a more serious cooking store," she says.

One thing Bouchard and Soulia knew had to happen was a name change to eliminate some confusion. A Kado clothing store owned by someone else operated downtown. They bit the bullet in 1995.

"Kado Gifts was heading in the kitchen direction, and we were trying to come up with a new name that would show that," says Bouffard. After about a month, an "aha!" moment came.

"We sold cheese," says Bouffard. "A cheese company had just come out and said, 'We can't guarantee our butter doesn't have BST [a bovine growth hormone] in it.' We had about two and a half pounds of this cheese in the store, and some guy from some action group called us and said, 'If you don't stop selling this cheese, we're going to do a picket line in front of your store.' The Vermonter came out in us.

"We were riding home one day from work, and we were so livid about this guy from out of state telling us what we can sell, and Mike said, 'Well, just kiss my cheese!' and I got all giggly and said, 'That's it! Kiss the Cook! That's the name!'"

They hired the design firm of Kehoe & Kehoe to create a logo, which graces several items for sale in the store, including aprons, the best-selling logo item. The logo is so distinctive, visitors often ask if the store is a national chain, says Bouffard, so a couple of years ago, they added the tag line, "a locally owned kitchen and gift market," to use in their ads.

Once he joined the business full-time, Soulia began developing a point-of-sales system to link the stores' various inventory tracking systems, which he has refined over the years.

He was also spending more time on the floor helping with sales and learning the aspects of the merchandise.

His mechanical engineering background made him a natural for understanding the science of knives. "Who knew that he was a natural salesman?" Bouffard asks with a laugh. "He's so informative and so reassuring that you want to buy something from him. That first year he was selling knives, these old ladies would come in and say, 'Is Mike here? I want to buy a knife for my nephew or my grandson.'"

The year after attending their first kitchen products show, the store had 42 percent growth, and in the 12 months following the name change, there was about 60 percent growth.

While the growth amazed the couple, they found it difficult as well, "because that kind of growth sinks your cash flow," says Bouffard. "It was hard to keep pumping money back into the store to buy products, because they were selling so fast."

From then on, she says, the biggest problem was, and continues to be, growth. Even last year, growth was 12 percent, although much of it came before Sept. 11.

"Somewhere in the late '90s, Bouffard and Soulia decided to open a second Apple Mountain shop in the Champlain Mill. They closed it in January of this year because of the construction in Winooski.

Like all of Kiss the Cook's sales associates, Eugenia Herrera-Mindell and Jane Orkin wear aprons with the popular logo. The aprons are the store's best-selling logo item.

Their presence in the Champlain Mill created another serendipitous event. Trey Pecor, the son of the mill's owner, Ray Pecor, who also owned Lake Champlain Transportation Co., had come into the store. "He has taken over the ferry company, and the next thing we know, the manager of the mill calls us up and says, 'I've got a business opportunity for you.' I said, 'It's December, and I can't think about that. We'll call you in January.' That was because I'd been in that store, and it wasn't the type of store we were running.

"But Mike being Mike, he met with Trey, because at that point, Evan [their second son] was a little over a year old, and I was exhausted over Christmas. Mike came back and said, 'Oh! We've got to do this!'"

Bouffard went to meet Pecor. "I told him, 'Well, your merchandise is really awful, and I won't buy any of it, but I would like to come in and put my own store in here.'" She says Pecor told her later that when she said that was the moment he was sure she knew what she was doing."

In the waterfront store, Bouffard and Soulia have again taken the essence of what was there and built a strategy to grow it. While they didn't purchase any of Pecor's merchandise, they do have a clearance section to help sell it off. The Maritime Museum has a schooner project and another museum on the history of sailing on Lake Champlain. They connect to and empty into the Apple Mountain waterfront store. "We sell all of the museum's products for them," says Bouffard.

Pecor put in a creemee stand, which they kept, along with bike rentals. "Mike has put together a marine hardware section for the boaters, and we also have our liquor license for beer."

Soulia mentions they have just started selling fishing licenses and hope to get into renting sailing dinghies before long.

For the Port Kent shop, Bouffard wants to create a New York gifts theme. She has picked up a card line by an Adirondack artist. "Then I did T-shirts and souvenirs for New York." She eventually hopes to carry New York products on the boats, as well.

Key to the company's success has been a strong focus on staff. "We just hit the 50-person staff mark because of the waterfront," Bouffard says. "Margaret Mann, the manager, went from zero staff to, I think 18 in the course of a week."

All of the couple's stores are set up with managers in charge. "They're totally in charge of the stores," says Bouffard. "At Kiss the Cook, a full-time buyer, Tina Lagrow, does all the advertising for that store. She was the manager and was looking to change her job to grow with the company, so we created that position for her.

"Helen Fuqua, the manager of the Apple Mountain Church Street store, has been with the company longer than I have. Jennifer Devino, co-manager at Kiss the Cook, has been with us since '94."

The assistant manager at the waterfront store, Heidi Heppner, was a shift supervisor at the Church Street Store. "Her job is to make suggestions," says Bouffard. "We need another person there who's going to help put systems in place."

"We try to build on our employees' strengths," says Soulia. "If they get a little bit antsy, we ask, 'What do you want to do?'"

In the fall, he hopes to start an online catalog and wedding registration for Kiss the Cook.

"Right now, we're doing a lot of custom products," she says. "Cheryl Lampe was the assistant manager for about three years, and at that point, there were no openings for her, so we created a position where she does product development and a lot of the buying and advertising." They're trying to bring in Burlington souvenirs, "because nobody's doing them."

Bouchard and Soulia have also used their savvy when it comes to scheduling time for themselves and their children. "The kids are everything to us," she says. "Spencer has started golfing with us. Evan will go along in his stroller."

"We definitely have plenty of time for the kids," says Soulia. "The boys are Number 1. It might sound kind of simple, but we schedule days of the week when we stay with them and do their thing. Marie and I will split 50-50 being home with the kids."

One might conclude that Bouffard and Soulia have little time to pursue anything further, but that would be a mistake. They have come up with another way of generating business: what they tentatively call a Kiss the Cook home party. "We'll bring the product, and the customer can leave the party with it, and there's no shipping and handling," says Bouffard, who was inspired when she became annoyed by the cost of shipping and handling for her purchases at a home party. "If we don't have enough product, we can go to the store and bring it to the house the next day.

"Tina [Lagrow] and Amanda Van Dusen, the co-manager, are both interested in being consultants, and we set it up in such a way that they could make a fair amount of money in addition to their regular job," says Bouffard.

"Already, the staff is thinking about bridal parties and working on themes," she says. "From there, what we need to do is have displays in the stores for registering for weddings. So we're thinking outside the box in terms of accommodating people."

Business as usual for Bouffard and Soulia.

Originally published in August 2002 Business People-Vermont