Michael Kukola

Re-Storing Pittsfield

The general store is once again a center of community in Pittsfield

by Julia Lynam

Michal Kukola runs the Original General Store in Pittsfield, a community treasure that was about to be turned into apartments. John DeSena, a Wall Street trader, bought the property, restored it to its original appearance, and brought in Kukola to manage the business.

The general store is a way of life in Vermont’s villages; a place that meets the needs of the small population surrounding it and many visitors passing through. In a general store we expect to be able to buy just about anything necessary to life, to meet friends, pick up local gossip, relax over a cup of coffee by the wood stove and then hurry home through the snow with newspaper, milk and dog food in our arms. It’s that vision of the traditional general store that Joseph DeSena and Michal Kukola are pursuing in Pittsfield, population 427, one of the rural villages strung like pearls along Vermont’s famous and fabulous Route 100.

From outside, the Original General Store looks inviting, well-groomed and busy. Signs advertise the opening hours and proclaim “local produce,” “maple syrup,” “ATM” and “wireless Internet.” Inside, general manager Michal Kukola, tea towel in hand, attends to the needs of customers seated at the tasteful wooden tables that occupy much of the front part of the store. Food is important here. 

“The deli accounts for about 60 percent of our business,” Kukola explains. And what a deli! It boats more than 20 kinds of sandwich and 18 pizzas as well as salads, burgers and a children’s menu ... not to mention the breakfasts. 

“We’re big in breakfast,” Kukola says, “Bigger than lunches. People come from as far away as Manchester for our breakfasts. In foliage season, we did 140 breakfasts one day!”

Kukola, who manages a staff of nine at the store, is a walking illustration of a changing way of life in Pittsfield. Born in Veseli nad Moravou in the Czech Republic, he came to New York City as a student and decided to stay, taking jobs in restaurants and building up his experience: “I’ve done just about everything in the business,” he says with a laugh. 

In 2005, having met Kukola through a mutual friend, Joseph DeSena decided that those skills were what Pittsfield needed, and recruited Kukola to manage the newly renovated Original General Store. 

A New Yorker and Cornell graduate, DeSena is a Wall Street equities and derivatives trader for a London-based firm. He’s also a participant in extreme sporting activities and has completed, among many other challenges, the 135-mile Badwater Run from the lowest point of the continental USA in Death Valley to Mount Whitney Portals. 

DeSena’s is the genius behind the transformation of the store, and several other properties in Pittsfield. He and his then-fiancée, Courtney, lighted on the town in 2002 when they were looking for a farmhouse home. 

“We looked in many states but couldn’t find the right place,” he recalls. “When Courtney gave me a book of photographs of barns for Christmas, she wrote an inscription in it saying that one day we’d buy a barn together. I lost the book. Then after we bought Riverside Farm in Pittsfield, I found the book again and discovered that she had written that inscription opposite a picture of this very farm!

FCathy Merrillood is important at the Original General Store. The deli, which accounts for about 60 percent of the business, features sandwiches, pizzas, salads, burgers and a kids’ menu. Breakfast is the biggest draw. Cathy Merrill is the cook.

“We got married on the farm and we’ve since opened it up for weddings. We’re booked through to 2010.”

In Pittsfield, they learned of plans to turn the 100-year-old general store into apartments and decided to buy it and save it, recognizing how difficult it can be to keep a country store going in the middle of Vermont with competition from stores in more populous areas of the state and New Hampshire.

“We took out five layers of flooring; we could see the different eras of occupation,” says DeSena, “and we saved the 60-plus-year-old McCray icebox, which is probably the only one in the country.

“The first two years were very difficult, very slow,” he continues, “maybe because the store had been run down. Now it’s exploded and it’s very busy every day. People come from all over, as far away as Burlington and New York state. It shows that these stores can survive.”

The goal is to keep the store clean and as charming as possible, keeping the look and feel of the old days, says DeSena. “We didn’t want to lose the history.”

DeSena was actively involved in the construction, but does not have a hand in running the store. “We searched for a new manager in 2005 and found Michal Kukola, who’s been very successful — he keeps the place very clean and runs a tight ship.”

Kukola took on the management of the renovated store and put his own stamp on it. “I changed the menu, introduced the sandwiches and opened the wine cellar, which Joe had prepared,” he says. In the tradition of the general store, they’re trying to provide almost anything a customer could need, including an antiques gallery, free-access wireless Internet and an ATM.

For the Czech, it’s been an education to learn to cater to local tastes. “Vermont is very different from New York City,” he says. “Vermont is more about weather.

“In New York they eat healthy — in Vermont, people don’t want to eat healthy, they want the old-fashioned stuff. We sell only about 5 percent healthy food like veggie wraps and salad.”

In addition to the thriving deli and restaurant business, the store carries groceries and Vermont products, including locally produced items such as maple syrup from Long Hill Sugarmakers in Pittsfield, honey made in neighboring Stockbridge, and Pittsfield postcards by East Middlebury artist Mike Mayone. Some art and craft items are carried on consignment.

Horse-drawn sleigh rides followed by a special dinner are planned for the winter, although for the past two years, Kukola explains, they haven’t happened because of the infamous Vermont weather — there’s either been insufficient snow or too low a temperature. 

On his own account, Kukola enjoys the weather and participates in outdoor activities such as skiing and running. He’s also studying business management online with the University of Phoenix.

Just a few miles north of Killington, Pittsfield is on a well-beaten track for skiers, leaf-peepers and summer tourists. Acutely aware of their diverse customer base, DeSena and Kukola have designed the store to provide tourists with their accustomed luxuries, including espresso coffee, while serving the needs of local residents. The Original General Store sponsors the town’s new Web page and offers online shopping from its own, www.originalgeneralstore.com

Original General Store exterior During construction, the goal was to retain the building’s history. To that end, says the owner, Joe DeSena, who was actively involved in construction but does not have a hand in running the store, they took out five layers of flooring and even saved the 60-plus-year-old McCray icebox.

The next step both for the store and for the DeSenas, who, as well as renovating their own Riverside Farm have opened a yoga and Pilates studio in town, is the implementation of plans for a second farm that they have acquired to be run on organic principles. “We’ll sell the produce in the store and also develop a school where people can learn to farm this way,” DeSena explains. 

It hasn’t all been clear sailing for the DeSenas. Former Select Board member Terry Manley, who has watched the changes in Pittsfield, says that not everyone has been in favor. “When you come to a town in the Northeast and you spend that kind of money, you’re going to ruffle a few feathers,” he says, “But the store needed work and it wasn’t doing much business. They’ve restored it back to original appearance; Michal does a great job; there’s a nice ambience and great food. It’s been a good thing to have a vibrant business here, and the building’s a lot nicer now than it was, which is an asset to the village.”

Manley also believes that the DeSenas’ restorations of their own Riverside Farm and the prospective organic farm at the north end of town have enhanced the appearance of Pittsfield, providing “two very attractive bookends” for the village. 

 “Some local people were vehemently against us,” says DeSena, “not wanting us to fix up buildings and become another Woodstock. We couldn’t possibly do that. I’d liken Pittsfield more to Warren — I hope that people would enjoy it as much as they do Warren.

“Our goal is to save stuff. We don’t want to take these things away; we want to give them back. I don’t think anyone wanted a 100-year-old general store turned into apartments. 

“Perhaps I should have been an architect,” he muses. “I love architecture and renovating — there is no better thing to do in this lifetime than save a bunch of old buildings. I do that, and then I try to find someone with a passion to run the business.”

Blending the new with the old, mixing entrepreneurial drive with the aesthetic attraction of Vermont, DeSena seems to believe that he has found a way to help sustain the life of a village in the 21st century without destroying its heritage. •