His might be a narrow specialty, but Pepin’s experience has covered the world
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
As the owner of Dick Pepin Commercial Meat Slicer Repair in St. Albans, Dick Pepin has seen the inside of just about every commercial kitchen in northern Vermont — at groceries, restaurants, delis, and college dining halls. He can repair slicers old and new, even crafting metal parts for outdated machines that he keeps running. He’s quite proud of the old Buffalo chopper (pictured) he recently refurbished.
At 75, Dick Pepin ought to be slowing down. Even he admits it when pressed. For Pepin, however, “slow” is not a comfortable state of being.
“I like to keep busy — I like a challenge,” says Pepin, whose St. Albans business, Dick Pepin Commercial Meat Slicer Repair, grew out of a longtime, on-the-side activity for earning extra money to support his wife and seven children.
If commercial meat slicer repair sounds like a narrow niche, it’s best to take a second look at Pepin’s enterprise. Claiming he prefers to work only two to three days a week, it soon becomes clear that even someone with Pepin’s energy could not begin to cover what he does in that amount of time.
Those two to three days a week are set aside for his regular service route. “I have a monthly service route,” he says, “just lube and sharpen about 25 to 30 accounts each month.” His client list reads like a Who’s Who of Vermont restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, grocery stores, delis, school districts — “at least 25 schools,” he says — and colleges. “I put little labels on the machines, and they call me if they need service.” His route takes him from southern Chittenden County north, through Franklin, Lamoille, and Washington counties as far as the Northeast Kingdom.
Pepin also repairs commercial toasters and food processors — “about four different brands,” he says, mentioning Globe, Hobart, and Cuisinart. “I also sell Forschner knives.”
A while back, he picked up a group of broken meat slicers being sold by a New York grocery chain. “There were about 45 of them,” he says. “I fixed them and sold them to people around here. The sharpener is very expensive for that machine — the Bizerba.”
In his shop, which doubles as his garage, he has a large lathe for making parts he can’t find. There’s also an acetylene torch, a welder, and a blast cabinet for making parts look like new. “It’s the challenge — it’s always been the challenge for me.”
A few weeks ago, Pepin says, sounding almost wistful, he got his hands on an old Buffalo chopper, made by Hobart, from the owners of Bluebird Tavern in Burlington. “Ask any chef, and they’ll know what that is,” he says. “It weighs about 250 pounds, chops meat up, anything you want. It’s a fine, beautiful piece of equipment.”
He fixed it up, buffed it shiny, took a photo, and put it on Craig’s List for sale. He’s had nibbles.
Pepin could be the poster boy for the definition of “Yankee entrepreneur.” The tireless Winooski native joined the Navy in 1952, at age 17, and saw the world aboard a destroyer out of Norfolk, Va.
“We went to the Mediterranean, through Gibraltar, to Cannes, France; Valencia and Barcelona, Spain; Italy; Greece; then to Turkey. Rode up to the Black Sea. We used to watch the Russian destroyers go by us; that was fun.” He laughs.
“Everything we did was on the Atlantic side,” he continues. “Greenland, down as far as the Panama Canal,” he says. “We escorted ammunition ships through the canal, then back to Cuba, St. Thomas, Puerto Rico.”
On his second tour, he transferred to a ship sailing out of Newport, R.I., which gave him a shorter trip home to Vermont when he was in port.
It was on one of those trips home, in 1955, that he met Mary Ann Monty at a barn dance at the Grange Hall in South Burlington. “It was where the Silver Palace Restaurant is now,” he says. I love to dance, especially ballroom dancing — anything to do with South American music.”
Pepin wanted to take Mary Ann home, but she refused the ride. “She gave me a little hard time,” he recalls with chuckle. “I met her the next day on Church Street. We used to cruise Church Street in those days, and there she was! I said, ‘Hey! What happened to you last night? I’d like to take you out.’”
Mary Ann gave him her phone number, and he zipped back to Newport to arrange for someone to stand in for him, then rushed back home. They were married the next year.
Out of the Navy, Pepin landed a job with Supermarket Distributors, a Boston company, calling on supermarkets in Vermont, half of New Hampshire, and a bit of New York state. The company required him to live in St. Johnsbury, so the family pulled up stakes and moved.
After 15 years, Pepin began seeing signs that the company was ailing and, wanting “an ace in the hole,” he says, found he could work for Champlain Valley Fruit, a food-service company in Burlington owned by the Lumbras. The Pepins moved back to the Burlington area.
“I worked for Champlain Valley Fruit just about three and a half years. I worked 12 to 13 hours a day building up this route, and then they put a new man on and took half of my route away. I said, ‘You can’t do that.’ They said, ‘We own the company.’”
Pepin took his contacts and started his own produce business, Pepin’s Produce, which lasted for the next four or five months. Almost every day of that period, he says, he was paid a visit by Bucky Hershberg, whose business, L. Hershberg Inc., had been bought by Bill Moore and Joe Pierce.
“Bucky said that Bill Moore and Joe Pierce wanted to hire me,” says Pepin. “Bucky still owned the building the business was in and worked for Bill and Joe. He had a route of his own and got a percent of the business.” Pepin agreed to sign on, eventually selling his trucks to the company.
Three years later, not entirely happy, he accepted an opportunity to go to work for the John McKenzie Packing Co., now known as McKenzie of Vermont. He found a good home there and stayed for 15 years. They did quite a nice business,” says Pepin, “but they outgrew themselves.”
When he decided it was time to leave. he took a couple of days off and went to Barre to see Roger MacAuley, the owner of MacAuley Food Service. “He hired me that same day. He is the best man I ever worked for. I stayed with them about 13 years, until I retired in 2000.”
By “retired,” Pepin means went to work for himself. Over the years, Pepin had worked after hours building his slicer repair business. “We had a large family,” he says, “so I had to get extra money somewhere. I started tinkering with meat slicers, learning how they operate, and when I retired, I had a lot more time to do that.”
Sadly, Mary Ann died of ovarian cancer in 1998 after 42 years of marriage. “Mary Ann was the love of my life,” says Pepin. “She gave me seven children. After I lost her, it was like the world went out from under my feet. With seven kids, you’re glued together. It took about six years, but then I met and married Sally.”
Sally Quesnel, whom he also met at a dance, was just what Pepin needed. And she helps see to it that he does not bury himself in work. Once or twice a week, he accompanies her to the senior center for an exercise program. All day every Friday, he spends with Nicole, “my special daughter,” in Winooski. “She was born with a lack of oxygen in St. Johnsbury,” he says. “She’s a joy.”
Sean McGrath, the owner of Marco’s Pizza in South Burlington and Shelburne and The Rotisserie in South Burlington, has known Pepin since the 1990s. All three of McGrath’s restaurants are on Pepin’s regular schedule.
“He was a salesman for MacAuley’s for a long time,” says McGrath. “I got to know him from that. Dick is always on schedule — it’s automatic, unless he’s out of the country with his kids. He’s a great guy.”
The desire to see the world has never left Pepin, and he and Sally travel whenever they can, visiting children or friends. “We go to Florida (I have two children there), North Carolina (one there), and I have one in Copenhagen (been to Copenhagen five times).” His other two children live in Milton.
“Last time we went to Copenhagen, we did five countries,” says Pepin. “Next year, the plans are to go to Australia.”
Meanwhile, he carries on with his business, loving every minute of it. “My wife is telling me I’m getting up there,” he says. “I can’t do a lot of heavy lifting any more, and I’m maybe thinking of hiring a young man to train or maybe buy the business.”
That’s fine, he continues, but what would he do then? “I’m the kind of guy who has to keep busy,” he says. “Gotta go, go, go all the time. That’s just the way I am. I like a challenge.” •