Cornering the Corner Market

Five village groceries and counting

by Phyl Newbeck

comeau0219In 2004, Mike Comeau bought the ailing Richmond Corner Market, planning to fix up and manage the upstairs apartments and lease out the store. When fate intervened, he became a grocer and now owns five such markets in the region, including the Jericho Market. He married Catharine Timmer last September.

In 2004, a collapsed wall forced Mike Comeau to close his first store, the Richmond Corner Market, only three months after he purchased it. Relieved that nobody got hurt and his insurance company came through, Comeau refused to wallow in self-pity and reopened the business six months later. That was only the beginning.

In the last 13 years, Comeau has become a force to be reckoned with in the grocery business, now owning and operating five independent supermarkets, in Jericho, Johnson, Richmond, Shelburne, and Waterbury.

Born in Burlington in 1972 to a preschool teacher and wholesale food salesman, he started working as a $3 per hour dishwasher in Colchester when he was just 13. In 1989, he joined the staff at Grand Union, doing odd jobs and bagging groceries. A year later he graduated from Burlington High School and got a full-time job on the third shift.

Initially, Comeau took advantage of his free daytime hours to ski and bicycle, but in 1997 he borrowed $5,000 from his 401(k) to buy a three-unit apartment building. “It’s going to sound like I had a grand plan,” he says “but I really didn’t. I had zero vision. My friends were getting married and I couldn’t afford to live on my own so I thought this would be a good investment.”

Thanks to a Federal Housing Authority loan and some quick thinking at the Friday closing — when he discovered that his entire initial deposit had been designated for the purchase rather than closing costs — he was able to buy the property. But it meant subsisting on bologna sandwiches for a few weeks after scrounging to come up with an additional $2,000 before the banks opened the following Monday.

With his investment starting to pay off, Comeau took out a second mortgage to buy another apartment building. After the conclusion of the deal, the seller took him aside and explained how he could make purchases without dipping into his savings. He subsequently purchased three more buildings.

Soon, he was making more money on his apartments than from his job at Grand Union. The supermarket chain was having financial difficulties, so he began to think about other employment options. The Richmond Corner Market was for sale and Comeau, unaware of the full value of his rental properties, went to the bank for a loan.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” he says. “They told me I was worth quite a bit of money.” He sold one of his rental properties and bought the store. “I didn’t really have a plan,” he concedes. “The building was in bad shape and had apartments upstairs. I figured I’d clean it up and maybe lease the store.”

Comeau bought the Richmond Corner Market on October 18, 2004, and in January, as he was building an addition, the hole for the foundation caved in and the store collapsed. He says he’s grateful that no employees were in the building and no construction workers were in the hole at the time. After two of the most stressful weeks of his life, he learned that his insurance company would cover the damage. However it took six months for the store to reopen.

Comeau soon realized he enjoyed running the store and was making more money than he would if he were leasing it. One day, Dan Noyes of Richmond Home Supply came by while he was making sandwiches and asked if he would be interested in building a new, bigger store on land that Noyes owned.

“I’d never met Michael,” Noyes recalls “but I went to the store and introduced myself, and he said he was interested. In the next month or so we hammered out a deal and shook hands.”

The new Richmond Market opened in June of 2010. “He’s got a great formula and he knows what he’s doing,” Noyes says. “He’s a really sharp guy.”

Comeau still didn’t have grand plans for growth, but he began to talk to a Jericho landowner about opening a store there. While that idea was germinating, he learned that RJ’s Friendly Market in Waterbury was for sale.

The bank was initially hesitant because Tropical Storm Irene had caused significant damage to the area, but Comeau is convinced he was in the right place at the right time when he opened the Waterbury Village Market three months after the flood. “What better time to get involved?” he says. “It was perfect for someone who wants to be embedded in the community.”

Within a year, he was contacted by the Pomerleau family, which owned the site of the shuttered Grand Union in Johnson that had also been hit by a flood. This time, Comeau was the one who was hesitant. “I wasn’t afraid of the risk for me,” he says “but rather the 100 employees and two communities that were counting on me. There were others on the line and it was important that I get it right.”

With help from the Ernie Pomerleau, with whom he had also worked on the Waterbury deal, Comeau was able to get grant funds, town money, and a loan from the bank in addition to his own funds. “Had not the Pomerleaus pulled some strings, there probably would not be a store there,” he says.

In October of 2013, Comeau completed the deal and Sterling Market was born.

Soon another opportunity arose when the owner of the Shelburne Supermarket wanted to retire and offered to sell Comeau the store. That offered a new challenge because, in contrast to the Waterbury and Johnson markets, it was an active, successful business and there was pressure to keep up the good work. At the same time, plans for building the Jericho Market were in full swing. He purchased the Shelburne store (renamed the Shelburne Market) in July of 2015 and opened the Jericho store a year later.

Comeau is a four-year resident of Jericho. Before he bought his home, he had continued to live in his first rental apartment in Winooski. “I spent all my time fixing up other units, but not my own,” he says. “It was very modest. I just went there to sleep. This house was my first big-boy purchase.”

He made another lifestyle change when he married Catharine Timmer last September. They own four dogs of different breeds, ages, diets, and temperaments. Comeau doesn’t ski as much as he used to, but he and Cathy ride Harleys and he loves to fish.

For years, he worked out of a small office in the Richmond store, but two years ago, he moved his center of operations to a separate location across the street. His five stores provide employment for between 225 and 250 people with roughly 40 to 50 in each store. Most weeks, the combined stores log close to 40,000 transactions, with the Shelburne store’s recording the highest sales.

Comeau carries local products, featured on prominent displays depending on location. For example, produce from Jericho Settlers Farm is more prominent at the Jericho and Richmond markets, while Waterbury showcases Pete’s Greens. The same with meats — from LaPlatte River Angus and Boyden Farm — depending on location.

Marriage has helped Comeau take a tiny step back from the business. “Until last year my hobby was working,” he says. “We’re only closed on Christmas Day. I feel the weight every day of my employees’ rent payments and car payments, and that pressure gets me up every day and keeps me focused. I take that commitment really seriously.”

In addition, he feels strongly about serving the communities where his stores are located. “I’ve been known to go to competitors and buy items if we’re out and sell them at cost,” he says. “I don’t want to be the store owner who is out of heavy cream on Christmas Eve. I take it personally.”

Despite being busy running five stores, Comeau sits on the board of directors of the Associated Grocers of New England, which supplies products to independent retail outlets. He previously served on the board of the Vermont Grocers Association.

He also volunteers for the Preservation Trust of Vermont, traveling to over a dozen small communities to provide assistance. Executive director Paul Bruhn says that several times a year, Comeau accompanies him on visits to village stores to look at their books, survey their inventory, and offer suggestions. He has also volunteered his expertise for local storekeepers at Preservation Trust retreats. “He’s really good at what he does,” Bruhn says. “He can quickly understand what is going on in a store. He’s a very special guy.”

Challenges to Comeau’s businesses include competition from chain stores and what he describes as “razor-thin” margins. Staffing is also a challenge. “I’m not a college-educated guy,” he says. “Some days I think I’ve almost built myself out of a job because I don’t know if I have the skills to run this thing.”

He concedes he might be considered a micro-manager. “Maybe I don’t have the best personality for this because I want to be everything to everybody,” he says. “People are making a conscious effort to come to our stores. I don’t want them to be disappointed.”

Comeau isn’t looking for another store to add to his arsenal but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. “It’s very difficult for me to say that I’m done because I never knew I’d grow to five stores,” he says “but I am very, very, very careful in my thinking. I’m not saying no, but it would have to be the right deal and would have to complement what I’m doing and would have to have the buy-in of the other employees.” •