Fifty years ago, Dick Mazza helped his father launch Joe Mazza's Groceries, now known to legions of Malletts Bay residents and visitors as Dick Mazza's General Store.

Grocer On Call

Dick Mazza and the store he helped his father build 50 years ago continue to evolve with the times

by Rosalyn Graham

There was a time when every street corner had a store like ours," Dick Mazza reminises. A locally owned,full-scale grocery store with everything the neighbors needed for their weekly (or even daily) shopping trips was commonplace, he says. "Now they are pretty much history and we're one of the last in Chittenden County."

As he looks back on the 50 years since he and his father built the tiny grocery store on the shores of Malletts Bay, and the changes he has seen in the business and the town around it, he can also point to the ways that Dick Mazza's General Store has bucked the odds.

His store has evolved not only to be what he describes as "a small superette" that caters to its community's needs in the 21st century, but also to play a role in the political life of the county and the state as the place where Sen. Dick Mazza meets with his constituents, listening to their concerns and keeping his finger on the pulse of public opinion.

A stroll around Dick Mazza's General Store on Lakeshore Drive in Colchester reveals some of the advantages that have helped Mazza maintain the niche he and his father created.

Jackie Wells (right) and her granddaughter, Amanda, make potato salad. Wells, the morning cashier, has worked in the store since 1968.

In a day when most new supermarkets are measured in hundreds of thousands of square feet, Mazza's has a friendly, manageable size. It's a store where the cashier knows the customers, and the customers know the cashier. Cashiers don't ask if customers want someone to carry out their groceries; someone just does it.

Fifty years of tradition are packed into the rambling store with its odd nooks and jogs that bear witness to 14 additions, which have grown the grocery from the tiny 22-by-30-foot structure that Mazza helped his father build in 1954. He was a young teenager when the family moved from the vegetable farm they owned on Shipman's Hill to land they bought on the shore of Malletts Bay and built the store with a little home attached the nucleus of the complex.

Colchester was a very different town in 1954: a summer resort with hundreds of summer cottages rented by the week to tourists, many of them from Canada, who poured into town every year to swim, sun and relax ... and shop at Mazza's store. "Saturdays were our really busy days," Mazza recalls. "The renters checked in on Saturday afternoon, so they all had to come to stock up for the week."

If things were busy on summer Saturdays, they were extremely quiet from Labor Day till Memorial Day. When Mazza graduated from Winooski High School, everyone assumed he would go on to Champlain College or St. Michael's. The morning he was supposed to register for college, he announced, first to his mother and then to his father, that he had decided to stay and work with his father full time in the store.

"I always remember my father saying he hoped that someday the store would make enough to provide a good living," Mazza says.

The memory of those slim years is not just an illusion of "the bad old days." Mazza has the books from those years and can point to a time when the income for a week was $365. He was making changes, though, tacking on small additions as they could afford it. "My father didn't believe in borrowing money," he says.

Mark Godaire, the store manager, was in high school when he started as a stock person in 1984. He's pictured beside the large wine section, which has become a backbone of the business through the efforts of the meat manager, Carl Jenkins.

One of the most important changes: In 1965 he married Dolly Hinds and she became a key member of the store operation, doing the books for the store in their home that was, and remains, right through an inconspicuous door next to the produce department.

There were other changes, too. In 1960 Joseph Mazza was elected to the state Legislature, an office he held until 1972. It was also a time of change for the town of Colchester as the resort area evolved into a bedroom community. The population grew as the summer cottages were converted into year-round homes.

With the changing demographics, the store and the Mazza home that is an integral part of the rambling building continued to grow, and its reputation as a place where a butcher cut steaks just the way a customer wanted, and fresh pies are offered every day attracted a loyal customer base.

"We've kept building on over the years," says Mazza, assigning much credit to a staff of "very, very good people." Jackie Wells, morning cashier and maker of salads, has worked in the store since 1968, as has liquor agency manager Mert Davis. Carl Jenkins, who's been with the store 14 years, is now meat manager, replacing meat cutter Jerry Craven, who retired recently after 33 years.

Store manager Mark Godaire started as a stock person when he was a high school student in 1984 and came back to work full time when he graduated from the University of Vermont with a business degree. He has been the manager since 1999.

Godaire has seen lots of changes in the store in his 20 years. "Meat has been the backbone of the business for many years," he says. "We are proud of our meat. In fact, we say, 'Our hamburger is so lean, it melts in your mouth, not in the pan.'"

Changes in the store reflect the changing needs of customers. For example, guided by Carl Jenkins, the wine department has grown to fill more than a wall with many hard-to-find labels that the wine-buying public drives for miles to find. "Wine has become another backbone of our business," Godaire says.

Longevity seems to appeal to Mazza's employees. Mert Davis, the liquor agency manager, has worked there since 1968.

Godaire and Mazza share a love of the grocery business and thrive on a schedule that would daunt most employees, and even most business owners.

"He's an amazing person," Godaire says of his longtime boss. "He balances so much and makes it look easy." Laughing at their mutual commitment to long hours and six-plus-day weeks, Godaire says that Mazza could take more time off, "but he likes to be in the store."

Mazza is in the store at 6 every morning, opening the doors at 7 as he always has, enjoying the opportunity to greet customers and finding it a good time to talk about the issues of the day.

In a state where the communications between legislators and their constituents is easy, open and informal, Mazza's accessibility is legend. In the 24 years he has been in Montpelier as Colchester's representative for four years, and as the senator for Grand Isle County for 20 he has had a chance every day to talk to the people he represents.

Whether out front or in his little office, tucked far back in the store, Mazza thrives on talk of the grocery business and the business of the state. "My dad did the same when he was in politics," he says. "You hear the good and hear the bad, everyone's daily concerns."

During campaign season the store is a magnet for campaigners. Pictures and bumper stickers on the walls of the office and the store testify to visits by such luminaries as Peter Smith and Howard Dean. Mazza remembers when Phil Hoff ran for governor of Vermont and Mazza and his friends painted an old bus, called it the Hoffway Express and toured the county. "When he won, that was a real celebration."

Asked how things have changed in the Legislature, Mazza says, "The issues are more complex, and yet many of the same issues come up that were being discussed when my father was in the Legislature."

Tourism and the protection of Lake Champlain are high priorities for his constituents in Colchester and Grand Isle. "We used to take the lake for granted, but now we are working with New York and Canada to keep it clean. Boaters and tourism have a big impact on our economy."

Moe Germain, a friend since student days at Winooski High School, one of the owners of The Moorings marina near the store, and a person involved in many local projects and debates, says, "Instant access is what he gives. Just walk in and find him in his office."

Home for Dick and Dolly Mazza is only steps away through an inconspicuous door near the produce department. Dick is in the store every morning at 6 and opens the doors at 7, even when he must later leave for Montpelier and the Legislature. Dolly is the store's bookkeeper.

The communication goes both ways. Mazza has called Germain for his reaction to legislation being considered in Montpelier. "He would say, 'Look at this and see how you think it would affect our community,'" Germain recalls.

Mazza takes his community commitment seriously. In the Senate, he sits on the Rules, Transportation and Institutions committees. He's served on the board of directors of the Champlain Valley Exposition for about seven years; and five years ago, he worked with Holy Cross Senior housing to develop Colchester's first such project.

His attention to duty could account for the fact that the Mazzas' longest time away from Vermont is a 10-day trip to Florida when the children were small.

Their children and grandchildren are nearby. Their son, Michael, owns Mike's Auto Parts across the street from the store; he has a son, Erik. Their daughter, Melissa, works for Claussen's Greenhouses in Colchester; she has a daughter, McKenzie.

Staying close to home doesn't mean it's all work, however. Mazza owns two old Farmall tractors a 1939 Farmall A and a 1948 Cub and four Corvettes, a collection that started in 1980, when he fulfilled a lifetime dream of owning one and bought a 1976 model. Pretty soon, an '87 bought in 1990 and two he bought new a 1999 and last year's 50th anniversary edition joined the group. "The problem I have is that they're like members of the family hard to part with," he says, laughing.

He, his family and friends drive the tractors and the 'Vettes in holiday parades. When they're not on the road, Mazza keeps them in a recently built warehouse next to his store, where the Corvettes are ready for a drive with the top down on a nice day probably to Montpelier.

Originally published in August 2004 Business People-Vermont