Shelf Perpetuating

A family-owned St. Johnsbury store’s Williston branch

by Will Lindner

nat_prov0717In 2007, Mark and Sandy Grenier, the owners of Natural Provisions grocery in St. Johnsbury, opened a second store in Williston. The Greniers’ daughter, Allison Lafferty (right), and her husband, Peter (center), manage the store, and Sandy’s brother, Terry Powers (left), is co-owner.

One day in early 2007, Mark Grenier noticed something about Williston that struck him as rather odd. He was visiting his daughter, Allison Lafferty, her husband, Peter, and their toddler son, Jacobi. She was showing him around the retail Mecca of superstores at Taft Corners, when he realized there was no health food and health products store to be found. That seemed surprising; even his hometown of St. Johnsbury, in what some would consider the hinterlands of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, had such a store.

Grenier knew this very well, because he owned it (and still does, today).

And thus, an idea was born. Grenier began speculating about opening a second store, in Williston, with the same name as the store he and his wife, Sandy, owned and operated in St. Johnsbury: Natural Provisions. Soon, he got the whole family involved: Sandy, the Laffertys, and Sandy’s brother Terry Powers, who had recently taken early retirement from a 20-year career in retail and financial services with AAA and moved from Philadelphia back to the family fold in Caledonia County (Danville, to be exact).

They all had retail backgrounds. The Greniers had purchased Natural Provisions in November 2004, but prior to that were restaurateurs, with a landmark restaurant in St. Johnsbury called Surf & Sirloin. Powers, even before his 20 years with AAA, had worked in insurance and finance.

The Laffertys were intrigued, but at the time they were pursuing vastly different careers. Both were in their early 30s. Peter had studied psychology at Clarkson University (was just a few credits short of earning his master’s degree from St. Michael’s in clinical psych), and had been working for the Howard Center for nearly 10 years in group home settings as a case worker.

Allison, after studying biology and premed at Clarkson, earned a medical degree from UVM in 2004. By 2007, she was involved in research in the field of pediatric inflammatory-based diseases.

But they, too, had experience in retail, having worked during their college years at the Surf & Sirloin. Peter, who grew up from the age of 13 in Peacham, had also worked for his father and uncle in their general and hardware store in Danville.

Peter thought it might be time for a break from casework. Allison’s career had already been sidetracked when Jacobi was born in 2005. The long haul, they weren’t sure about, but they committed to helping the new health food store get off the ground.

That was 10 years ago, and they’re still there. After finding an available location — the former Boise Cascade building on Harvest Lane — and hiring Worldwide Consulting Group to review their business plan, Natural Provisions in Williston opened for business in November 2007. Mark and Sandy Grenier and Terry Powers own the company, and the Laffertys serve as co-general managers in Williston.

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck business,” says Allison. “When the bathroom needs cleaning it’s my job.”

“When the toilet won’t flush,” Peter interjects, “it’s my job.”

“It’s true,” Powers acknowledges. “The buck stops with Peter. He’s the operations guy.”

Unbeknownst to the team, though, the country was on the precipice of the Great Recession, which brought them instant lessons in humility.

“We went through hell for three years,” says Powers.

“But we learned a lot,” Allison says.

“We learned that we all worked really well together,” Powers responds. “When you’re family …” He lets the rest — implications of cohesiveness, of shared dedication — go unsaid

Those early struggles were why Powers, who initially saw his role as an investor and occasional consultant, became more intimately involved and still makes the trip to the Williston store from Danville twice a week. His wife, Ann, who retired from a hospital management job last year in Philadelphia and has joined her husband in Vermont, sometimes accompanies him and puts in several hours as a cashier. More family.

The initial concept for Natural Provisions in Williston was modeled on the Greniers’ store in St. Johnsbury where they do a big business in supplements, kitchenware, and gifts. (They did not originate that store; it was an existing business they purchased a year to the day after selling their restaurant.) At 10,000 square feet, however, the Williston store has more than twice the space, and the Laffertys have overseen an expansion of the concept into a much wider array of products in a loose, seemingly fluid floor plan.

“We’ve had people describe us as a big indoor farmers’ market, both for the feel — the vibe — and the size,” says Peter. “I think the vibe and size thing fits, but I’d argue that we offer way more products and selection than the typical farmers’ market.”

“That’s been an exciting part of the business,” says Powers. “We knew there were certain things we wanted to have here, but we also listen to our customers and their recommendations. That has really helped us build our customer base.”

The market is now divided, though not rigidly. Employees are cross-trained into departments. Each department has its own manager, with a budget and responsibility for developing expertise in that field and a knowledge, particularly, of local sources if they exist. Departments include produce, grocery, meat, beer and wine, bulk (such as grains and spices), and “wellness” — supplements, body-care products.

There is also a deli. Customer Alan Levy, a Williston resident who used to own a neighboring business, and whom the Laffertys and Powers credit with helping them think through options for their store in its early days, considers this one of Natural Provisions’ greatest strengths. Despite the impersonal, grid-like feel of the Taft Corners development, there are businesses nearby with employees who take lunch breaks.

“Their hot-meal bar, their soup bar, and their salad bar are a hidden gem,” says Levy. And don’t get him started on the barbecue held each Friday during the summer. “It’s awesome! There’s nothing like it in the area, and I’m a real foodie!”

Levy also admires the demonstration tables, where local vendors and producers offer samples of their wares and talk with customers. These provide a sense of movement and interaction, and are an expression of the owners’ (and the Laffertys’) commitment to local and startup businesses.

One vendor who participates regularly is Andrew McClymont, an Australian native who now lives in Moretown and has created a product called Good Mix. (It’s found in the granola section.)

“It’s a mix of ingredients — superfoods — chosen for their mineral content and nutritional value,” McClymont explains. “It was developed by my sister, Jeanie, who’s a naturopath in Australia.”

The Laffertys gave McClymont his first break.

“I started making Good Mix about 18 months ago and I was looking for opportunities to sell it. They were the first store willing to take it on, and they’ve been generous with shelf space and making it visible to the customer. They’re also receptive to regular demonstrations, to get the product moving, and I go up for that reason on a monthly basis.”

Assisting pioneering entrepreneurs who have great ideas and revolutionary products but need marketing assistance and a good break, is something the Laffertys say is important to them. Such products, as well as more established dietary and nutritional supplements, provide a way for Allison to use her medical background.

“I really liked medical school,” she says. “This isn’t the same, but it provides a great opportunity to learn something every day. Everyone who comes here is usually trying to make changes of some sort. I’m not their physician but I can be a resource for people, to explain things or to do research for them.”

A concern the family has, at both stores, is finding ways to make the natural and organic products they’re committed to more competitive in price with conventional products. To that end, they have devised ways to lower costs in some areas, by rewarding customers who purchase regularly, and passing on manufacturers’ discounts. They are proud of such an offering for vitamins, which they say can result in a 30-percent discount when all the factors are added together.

“This is our biggest goal,” says Mark Grenier in St. Johnsbury. “Having two stores helps, because it increases our buying power. We’re working very hard to lower our prices. It’s taking time, but we’re getting there.”

Speaking of time, Peter Lafferty, particularly — the point man in Williston — doesn’t have much to spare. Yet he is committed to youth sports in the family’s hometown of Colchester, and coaches Jacobi’s baseball and basketball teams. He also serves on the board of the town’s youth baseball and softball leagues, and holds membership in the Williston Area Business Association, the Natural Organic Farmers Association (NOFA), and other professional organizations.

When he steals away for one of Jacobi’s games, Allison steals away, too, and can be found in the stands. But the store is not left on its own: During the games she has an extra phone in her pocket, and for those couple of hours, the buck stops with her. •