Shelf Conscious

An atypical establishment

by Will Lindner

uncommon_0716At The Uncommon Market, husband-and-wife team Sharon Allen and Peter Foote offer Montpelier residents a collection of food and services not often found in small corner stores.

Every community should have a neighborhood market, and the three-story brick building at the corner of Elm and School streets in Montpelier has served that purpose probably as long as most residents can remember.

“This was Matt’s Mini Mart when we bought it in August of 2007,” says Sharon Allen, who owns and runs the aptly named Uncommon Market with her husband, Peter Foote. “Before that it was Ron’s Corner Store.”

But times change. And though The Uncommon Market continues the traditional use of the first-floor retail space in this old building, whose eastern wall plummets into, and helps contain, the North Branch of the Winooski River, it is nevertheless an embodiment of the changes, social and culinary, that have altered the community it serves.

The proprietors have either keenly divined what foods their clientele wish to buy (and what day of the week and time of the day), or they have helped lead their customers in directions they knew they would enjoy — a chicken-and-egg conundrum — and undoubtedly, both are true.

“We’re die-hard Montpelier people,” Allen explains.

Yet their customers bring to mind the fable of the blind men and the elephant, in which each of the men formed a strong opinion of what the elephant was, based on which part of the animal he had touched. For many patrons, The Uncommon Market is a fish market with some other things on the shelves that they may or may not notice as they proceed to the cash register with their firm white packages in hand.

Their single-mindedness is understandable, for the owners set out from the beginning to provide a source of great seafood for their customers. “We love fish ourselves,” says Foote, “and we thought it would serve a need.”

“All of our fish comes from the Boston fish market,” adds Allen. “We started off with two purveyors, then dropped one for quality reasons and have added two or three others over the years. So we’re getting fresh fish in almost daily.”

The store’s twice-weekly email message, “The Post,” alerts customers about the next day’s arrival: day boat haddock, Icelandic Arctic char, Shetland salmon, yellow tail sole, shrimp, and dry scallops …

“Their fish is the best-quality fish in the state of Vermont, that I know of,” says customer Tim Newcomb, a graphic designer and political cartoonist whose office is a block away. Newcomb and his wife, Sharon, live in Worcester and try to crown each day with a sumptuous, often exotic dinner. Their radar is out for sources of ingredients, whether it’s for seafood, Vietnamese sauces, or specialty salts, and Newcomb finds himself almost daily walking through the door of The Uncommon Market.

Yet the market also has constituencies for its meats — “locally sourced,” in today’s vernacular — and its wines. The store is too small for an exhaustive supply of the latter, but Allen stocks the wine wall thoughtfully.

“Then, for a lot of people, we’re about lunch,” Foote continues. “There are a lot of state office workers in town.”

The deli, housed alongside the fish and meat counter in the market’s smaller side room, opens at 6:30 a. m., turning out breakfast sandwiches. The staff then turns to lunches, and at 2 p.m. the “night” team gets to work preparing dinners. These are modest portions packaged in plastic containers that go into the tall coolers in the main room of the store, where customers who know what they’re looking for can pick them up on the way home.

Not surprisingly, there’s nothing typical about these meals, either. “The Post” provides the menus for the coming days. Lunch might include a grilled ahi tuna steak sandwich, something in a báhn mi Vietnamese chicken sandwich, or pulled pork (“come early; it sells out”). There are soups, too. Dinners? They change according to the ingredients available on the store’s shelves or needing to get used up in the coolers. It might be Italian meatloaf, shrimp quesadillas, or salmon cakes with caper mayonnaise.

Surely this kind of well choreographed hubbub and attention to customers’ needs is not unique in Vermont’s small-grocery world. What distinguishes The Uncommon Market, though, is its dedication to foods that are produced in Vermont. Allen estimates that the small store carries 150 “local” (Vermont-made) items. There are the well-known craft beers, cheeses, and breads. But someone taking a closer look at the shelves of crackers, jams and jellies, granola, flour, corn meal, and chocolate will discover more obscure Vermont-grown products as well.

Allen reveals that it often takes patience and a bit of hand-holding to teach these micro-entrepreneurs (if that’s a term) how to market their wares. They’ll come in, she says, with a cardboard box lid of a dozen whatevers and ask if she’ll sell them. Now that they’re established and middle aged — Foote is 62 and Allen 51 — they find themselves providing coaching to these rookie start-ups.

“I’ll say, ‘Think about a price. Think about when you’re going to deliver replacements. Is this a guaranteed sale, so that you’ll come back and take away the remaining items? Have a calculator with you. I need an invoice.’”

Frequently, she will trim her margins to help the product be affordable.

“They need help with their business acumen,” she says.

Some, of them, however, have Kathy Killam of Killam Sales & Distribution for that. “It’s a small business,” says Killam. “And by small I mean me.”

Based in Johnson, Killam scouts, markets, and delivers niche foodstuffs, a labor of love that she says has her living in her truck for days at a time. The Uncommon Market is one of her most active clients.

“They’re very supportive, and open to try anything,” says Killam. “They’ve had products that haven’t done well, and that’s okay because at least they’ve tried them. I’m amazed how many great products they have in that very small store.”

Two that have caught on at The Uncommon Market, she says, are a kombucha (a fermented, probiotic drink) that she delivers from Middlebury, and a yogurt from West Newbury.

Shopper Tim Newcomb agrees. “Sharon and Peter extend themselves to people making their first steps in this burgeoning local food industry. They bend over backwards to give new businesses a boost.”

The Uncommon Market was a new business itself once, and a leap of faith for two people who had eclectic professional backgrounds. Foote, a seventh-generation Vermonter from Middlebury, graduated as an English major from Middlebury College and then embarked on a career veering wildly from teaching to human services to computer sales, and from hotel management to housing development.

“If you look at it closely, though, it’s all people-oriented,” Allen says of her husband’s past work, implying that that carries over to his kindly demeanor and personable style at the market (and in “The Post”).

Allen grew up mostly in Plainfield, and exercised her wanderlust during her youth before returning home and earning a degree in counseling and psychology from Goddard College. She, too, was something of a professional vagabond, but the experiences that set her on her present path included two stints with the Vermont Department of Public Service, interrupted by studies at the New England Culinary Institute. She did some catering on the side. At the DPS she served in consumer affairs, helping the department craft policy in response to citizen complaints. It was creative yet practical work that she relates to business development.

“I finally decided, ‘I want to use my brain for my own business,’” she recalls. “It was time.”

Food would be the direction for that venture. She and Foote enjoyed cooking and shared an aversion to supermarkets. “The way Peter and I shop, we’ll go someplace and pick something up for dinner — maybe two dinners if we’re lucky. It’s more of a European market style.”

They knew from the beginning that that was what they wanted to replicate in Montpelier. They had met in the mid-1990s at Charlie-O’s, an iconic bar in Montpelier, and got married in 2005. Both came into their relationship with nearly grown children: Allen’s daughter, Chelsea, now 31, and Foote’s daughter, Katy, 37, son, Alec, 35, and foster son, Charles, 31, all of whom, at one time or another, have worked at the market, as does Allen’s dad, Ted.

They searched around central Vermont for a store they could buy, but ultimately knew that Montpelier, the town where they lived and which spoke to them so personally — was their true target. When Matt’s Mini Mart became available, they put together a business plan and jumped in.

From the outset, they had a vision, and set out to achieve it. The Uncommon Market didn’t evolve from a conventional neighborhood grocery into a store that features, on the one hand, fresh seafood from New England’s premier fish market, and on the other hand, products imagined and created by humble, unheralded Vermont artisans.

“That was the idea from the start,” says Allen, “We had it all on Day One.” •