Birds of a Feather

Far from eating crow, this couple flies with it

by Julia Lynam

St. Albans is peppered with businesses that owe some of their backgrounds to Michele Bessett and Bob Iwaskiewicz, the owners of the kitchen shop As the Crow Flies on Main Street.

I t may not be far from Burlington to St. Albans, but the two cities draw on very distinct populations and present very different business challenges. Husband-and-wife team Bob Iwaskiewicz and Michele Bessett spent a long time getting to know what makes St. Albans tick before they launched their kitchen store, “As the Crow Flies,” in 1998. The name popped up just before they opened the store.

“I realized that I spent a lot of time telling people in Chittenden county that St. Albans was only 26 miles from Burlington as the crow flies!” Bessett says with a laugh. The name decision was confirmed when she happened upon a piece of work by East Fairfield woodcarver Roger Adkins, a lovely carving of crows that still hangs behind the counter of her Aladdin’s cave of a shop on St. Albans’ Main Street.

Iwaskiewicz and Bessett, who also live in East Fairfield, are originally from Massachusetts and Ohio. They came to Vermont, separately, “as young hipsters” in the late 1960s. Iwaskiewicz was a musician who played with local groups for years. They met through mutual friends, “in ’68 or ’69,” and went into business in 1979 because, as Bessett says, “In our mid-30s, we had to come up with a career.”

Their first venture was a mobile seafood business. “There was fellow named Jeff who came with a truck from Maine and sold fish in parking lots,” recalls Bessett, the smiling powerhouse behind their current business. “We bought his truck and sold fish in eight Franklin and Lamoille County towns, spring through fall, for several years.”

Four years later they opened a seafood boutique on Kingman Street in St. Albans, naming it after the former truck owner. From their mobile days, the couple knew there was demand for their product, but they were surprised to discover quite how strong that demand was. Bessett, always a keen cook, found that her chowder, shrimp salad and lobster rolls were snapped up, and that people came back for more and asked if she did catering. “We realized that this town was hungry,” she says chuckling, “and they liked seafood.”

Demand soon outstripped Bessett’s ability to keep up with the cooking, and chef Connie Jacobs-Warden joined the team three years later, when they moved to the prime Main Street location that Jeff’s Maine Seafood occupies to this day.

Susan MacKenzie is the store manager at As the Crow Flies. She and Michele Bessett handle the front-of-the-house operation, such as store design, inventory and customer relations. Bessett’s husband, Bob Iwaskiewicz, works behind the scenes on the business details, including the stockroom.

By 1990, it was a full-fledged lunch and dinner restaurant and catering business, offering specialty and take-out food as well as wholesaling and retailing fresh fish, “but I was a frustrated kitchen-shop owner from day one,” says Bessett. “Even at Jeff’s, I brought in retail things like teapots, glassware and napkins.”

Although Jeff’s went from strength to strength, the strain of maintaining the growth began to tell on Iwaskiewicz and Bessett, who found they had no life for themselves. A number of tragic deaths in the family prompted them to change their flight path in 1996 toward a less-demanding lifestyle.

“We were delighted when Jamie West, our young chef, bought the business,” Bessett says, “so the restaurant saw a seamless transition. We took a year off, slept a lot, did some traveling, and Bob started fishing again instead of selling fish.”

It wasn’t long, though, before they found themselves toying around with the idea of a kitchen shop. “I thought I had an idea of what people would want in their kitchens,” Bessett says.

The career they embarked upon when they bought that mobile fish business has made them into prominent players in St. Albans, first with Jeff’s Maine Seafood and now with As the Crow Flies.

“They are very committed and dedicated to the community; they put in 200 percent,” says Karen Bresnahan, executive director of the city’s downtown revitalization organization, St. Albans for the Future. Bessett serves on SAF’s promotions committee, spearheading downtown events.

“As the Crow Flies is a definite magnet business bringing people into downtown St. Albans,” Bresnahan continues. “They really put a lot of effort into marketing and promotion, and they totally understand customer service. The staff are a good team — very much a family — and people feel at home in the store, where Bessett knows most of her customers by name. She and her staff also coordinate and produce a downtown shoppers’ guide every year, and they’ve just started their own e-mail newsletter for customers.”

Katherine Trahan (left) and Bridgit Steele are salespeople. Trahan is the fourth member of the shop’s management team, along with Bessett, Iwaskiewicz and MacKenzie.

Iwaskiewicz and Bessett bring separate talents to the business. While her strength lies in the front-of-house operations of store design, buying and customer relations, his is the business end — as well as stock room manager and general behind-the-scenes person. “It was the same with Jeff’s,” Bessett says. “I was the food person and Bob was the business person.”

The seafood business was a natural for Iwaskiewicz, raised on the Massachusetts seacoast and a keen fisherman all his life. Fishing, however, had to take second place to business development for many years, and it’s only since they gave up Jeff’s that he’s had a chance to get back to his passion.

Bessett is the ultimate cooking aficionado and is delighted to be able to offer to customers the fine kitchenware and ingenious gadgets that she loves to use herself. “The store has everything I loved about the restaurant business except the perishables and the long hours,” she says.

The couple established As the Crow Flies in 1998 in a small incubator space on Main Street, checking out whether the area would support such a venture. It did, and the shop moved to its current, larger premises in 2001.

“Here in St. Albans we don’t have the population to support specialized ventures,” Bessett says. “We have to have a lot of reasons for a person to come in to our shop. We try to create an environment where we’ll be on everyone’s beaten path, whether they’re looking for a birthday card or a special candle, a bottle of wine or something bigger, maybe for a wedding present. It’s important to know your markets and to offer two or three price points wherever possible.”

Her store stocks a huge range of kitchen goods from large cast-iron cooking pots and electrical appliances down to cookie cutters — including no fewer than five types of doughnut cutter.

There are some exclusives too, such as the superb handcrafted woodenware by Ed and Marie Belisle of Highgate. As the Crow Flies also offers gift-wrapping and a special-order service that will track down obscure kitchen items like cabbage shavers and pear corers. They even offer home delivery for housebound customers.

S

tore manager Susan MacKenzie, who has been with the business since it opened in 1998, and sales team member Katherine Trahan complete the Crow four-person management team. MacKenzie came to Bessett’s attention as a regular customer at Jeff’s Seafood. “When I was planning to open the shop I just suddenly thought of Sue as manager,” she says. “At first she said no, I think because it was such a surprise; but then she agreed and we’ve worked in partnership ever since then, sharing our philosophy: The answer is yes!”

Former Jeff’s chef Connie Jacobs-Warden, now chef-owner of Chow!Bella, a flourishing Italian restaurant on Main Street, recalls the early days. “When I first met Michele and Bob in 1988,” she says, “they were in the middle of opening a restaurant, which is the worst possible time of someone’s life, but even under those circumstances we forged a lasting friendship.

“Michele has a great eye for trends,” she continues. “She certainly does her homework, and As The Crow Flies is a real asset to downtown St. Albans. I quite often have customers at Chow!Bella who are planning to shop there after lunch.”

The two businesses come together to hold wine- and food-tasting events designed to tempt people into the downtown area. This year’s joint holiday wine tasting featured organic wines and wines produced or blended by women.

Boundless enthusiasm, civic mindedness, business acumen and teamwork have helped Bessett and Iwaskiewicz thrive in a geographically limited market. •

Originally published in December 2005 Business People-Vermont