A Bread & Butter Business

A village institution for 75 years by Will Lindner

mehuron2016Tom Mehuron is the third generation of his family to operate Mehuron’s market, the Waitsfield enterprise founded in 1941 by his grandfather and still well-connected to the community.

Tom Mehuron grew up in the 1950s and ’60s in a Vermont village so small and intimate that the children used to scamper into one store after another playing hide-and-seek. If a playmate discovered him in the storage room of the village hardware store, the two would scurry away past the customers and the proprietor, and no one seemed to mind.

Mehuron’s grandfather Elmer was a merchant, too, having founded, in 1941, a grocery store near the little iron bridge that crossed the river running through the valley. By the time Mehuron was born, in 1955, his father, Allen, had joined the business. Allen, his wife, Irene, and their children, Tom and Karen, lived in the three-bedroom apartment above the store.

“That meant we lived and breathed it [the store] 24 hours a day,” Mehuron recalls.

The land outside the village was largely in agriculture, so many of Elmer Mehuron’s customers were farmers. And some struggled to get by. Mehuron remembers when a poor farmer brought a pig into the store, asking to trade it for food.

“This was a fairly hardscrabble town in those days,” he explains: rural, isolated, and off the beaten track.

Surprisingly, the town in question is Waitsfield, in the Mad River Valley — a town and village that have been famously transformed by the ski industry and the wealth and leisure associated with it. Three-quarters of a century later, Mehuron’s Market (“Fine Meats and Produce,” says the sign outside) endures, and Mehuron is its third-generation owner. He has, in many ways, transformed the business. Yet its strength remains what it has always been: a market well-connected to its customers, because he endeavors to provide the goods that his community wants.

In other words, it’s as local, in its way, as Elmer Mehuron’s market was. Elmer negotiated with neighbors coming in with their livestock, and sold beef so lean and poor (culled from retired, exhausted dairy cows) that their quarters could barely be sawed by the butcher’s blade. Mehuron remembers this from his apprenticeship in the meat department.

Today a sizable portion of Mehuron’s customers aren’t just local; they’re locavores. They’re committed to the principle of eating food produced within some varying, but proximate range of their community, and what’s more, produced following ethical, and often organic, practices. The Mad River Valley — Waitsfield and its bordering towns — is among the loci of this movement.

Mehuron’s, says customer Jen Robillard, has demonstrated the flexibility and receptivity to earn her loyalty for the 35 years she’s lived in the area.

“When I first got here the choices in vegetables and some other stuff were very limited,” she recalls. “People let Tom know what we wanted and he was able to get those things.” Among her preferences was a certain kind of salad dressing. “Tom said, ‘Okay, I can get that.’

“Thirty-five years ago I didn’t think much about ‘local.’ Now, that’s so much more important: eating local, eating healthy, having organic choices. The store has been ahead of me in some areas.”

Mehuron — it’s a Scottish name — has diligently kept abreast of his emerging clientele.

“The ski areas,” he says, “have brought in people from suburban areas south of Vermont. It started out as ski bums, but more and more it’s about portable jobs, especially after 9/11 when people wanted a good place to raise their kids. The local phone company has fast bandwidth, so we have people with their own website businesses, people working for software companies. I’m lucky to have a market in an area where people are looking for high-quality foods — better stuff that’s not necessarily cheaper stuff.”

Catering to local tastes and locavore sensibilities, Mehuron’s provides Vermont-raised chicken from farms like Misty Knoll and Tangletown; beef from Maple Ridge and other producers; lettuce, basil, and other green vegetables from the Kingsbury Farm Market and Hartshorn Organic Farm just down the road; root vegetables from Pete’s Greens; and breads and baguettes from admired Vermont sources like Manghi’s and Red Hen.

Alas, there’s no such thing as local seafood, but not long after he took over the business from his dad in the late 1980s, Mehuron set out to establish a good seafood section and made connections with providers from the Ipswich and Boston, Massachusetts, markets. As their business has proliferated in Vermont in recent years, those suppliers — and recently, Black River Produce — have stepped up delivery so that seafood shipments arrive “pretty much five days a week,” Mehuron says.

There’s more than market calculation going on here; there’s a community-centered approach not unlike what Elmer Mehuron must have had in the days before the Interstate.

“A more comfortable feeling comes from dealing with people face-to-face,” says Elmer’s grandson. “It fosters more trust about your food supply.”

When George Schenk was starting out, he didn’t bring a pig into Mehuron’s market. What he did bring wasn’t much more presentable: It was hastily and amateurishly boxed frozen flatbread, which he carried in in a couple of garbage bags. Schenk’s now-famous restaurant, American Flatbread (less than a mile from Mehuron’s), was in its infancy in 1990, and the idea of a frozen version that could be sold in retail outlets seemed a bit of a stretch. But Schenk had asked Mehuron if he would consider it, and Mehuron seemed receptive.

Then Schenk came in, on a Friday afternoon in January, toting his garbage bags.

“He shook his head and said, ‘Here, give me those things,’” Schenk recalls meekly. “I thought I’d given him enough for a week, but he called the next morning and said “We need 110 more as soon as you can get them.’” Soon after, a letter of recommendation from Mehuron helped him expand his markets in Washington and Chittenden counties.

“I was hopelessly undercapitalized,” Schenk confesses. “From a textbook way of looking at it, the most likely outcome was failure. That it didn’t fail had a lot to do with the opportunities we got at the very beginning, and Tom Mehuron was at the center of that.”

This was not what Mehuron expected as a young man working first for his grandfather and then his father in what seemed a backwater community.

“Nobody here ever went anywhere,” he says. “When I became a teenager the last thing in the world I wanted to do was to become a grocer.”

He graduated from Harwood Union High School in 1973, then went to The University of Vermont to study chemical engineering. But working in the laboratory made him physically ill, so he switched to accounting, and graduated in 1977 with a degree in business administration.

Partly to bide his time until something else came along, he went back to Waitsfield and the family business. In 1969, his father — by then the proprietor — had moved the store from its traditional location on Bridge Street to the Village Square shopping center a half-mile away. The next transition, to Tom Mehuron’s ownership, occurred gradually in the late 1980s.

Determined to put his stamp on the market, he studied food (even taking a gourmet cooking class), and in 1990 constructed an 8,000-square-foot addition that nearly doubled the size of his 10,000-square-foot market; part of the addition became a state liquor outlet in 1993.

Mehuron put his stamp on himself, too.

“I got really big in college,” he says, “270 pounds. I got into jogging in the early ’80s to lose weight, and that led to distance running, road races, and two marathons.”

Though still slim, his activity is limited by recent knee surgery. But he and his wife, Kathy, are water people and have a camp on Newark Pond in the Northeast Kingdom. They recently purchased a home on Grand Turk in the Caribbean, where his passion is scuba diving.

This summer, Mehuron’s Market celebrated its 75th anniversary, and Kathy, who is both a teacher and a novelist, marked the occasion by publishing an artful 60-page paperback that serves not just as a history of the store but of the family and the community. Its dedication, written by her, evokes the qualities of generosity and community spirit that Robillard and Schenk mention when they describe Mehuron’s commitment for 23 years to the Mad River Community Fund, which assists local people fallen on hard times. Her husband, she writes, is “a man who rolls up his sleeves to help when others suffer misfortune, and dances with abandon when they have a stroke of good luck.” Professionally, Mehuron was a 15-year board member with the Vermont Grocers Association.

Plans for the market’s next transition are underway. Kathy’s son (Mehuron’s stepson), 33-year-old Bruce Hyde, is the heir apparent. Bruce’s brother, Jon, 30, directs and films commercials in Los Angeles, and the Mehurons’ son, Thomas III, is a junior at New York Medical College.

Once-pastoral Waitsfield has grown large enough to attract a major chain supermarket, whose entrance is across the road from the humbler Village Square complex. Mehuron, though, has put decades into understanding and serving his community, and is undaunted by the competition.

“I like our chances of being somebody’s favorite grocery store,” he smiles, “once they discover that we’re here.” •