Q: Thanks for sitting down with us, Jennifer! Why don’t we start with you telling us a little bit about yourself?
A: John and I are from Florida. We bought house in Taftsville in 2009 thinking we’d be here in the summers, this being our second home. But we fell in love with Vermont. In 2014, I took a job in Massachusetts and when our son graduated, my husband moved up to Vermont with me. Now we spend most of our time in Vermont with the winter months spent in Florida.
Q: Can you share what happened between the moment you learned the Taftsville Country Store was closing and now?
A: I think it was May or June when the previous owners [Victoria and Courtney Brooks] put their ad in the listserv. By the first of July, they had closed the store. We were heartbroken. The community was heartbroken. It had been a store of some kind for 179 years!
As soon as that happened, people started talking about what we could do. We wondered if we should follow the same model as the Barnard General Store [with a community trust]. But it occurred to us that the current owners needed to move on, so my husband – who works in real estate – started talking with them about the building and began a dialogue that they were opened to. We agreed to terms where we’d buy the building.
Q: That’s a big step! What was your first thought after committing to buy the country store?
A: What are we doing? We have no idea what were doing! We alternate between being excited that we can bring this back for the community to being panicked. Not panicked on the real estate side – but the business side. So we spent a lot of time speaking to people in community – not just Taftsville, but those from Woodstock and Quechee – asking what they want to see and what they’d support. We also drove around to country stores in the region for feedback. What we found is that fresh food is what is making these places survive. That’s why our idea is to convert this to a café/deli.
We plan to have pastries, picnic boxes… we’d love to have prepared foods that people can buy for their weekend visits. That said, we still intend to have a heavy retail component with wine, baked goods, fresh eggs and dairy – the kinds of things that the community supports. We’ll be more geared towards food in general. That includes adding bistro tables, picnic tables outside. We hope to find a chef-trained operator who will make it theirs. That’s the big item on our to-do list. And unlike places like Brownsville and Weston, there’s a steady stream of traffic on route 4 just outside our door.
Q: Although it’s still early days, we’ve got to ask: how did your initial expectations differ from your current reality as the owners of a country store?
A: You get caught up in the adrenaline and excitement and you don’t stop to think of what it means. We have a management agreement with the previous owners to run the store because we wanted to bring back the fresh fish service on Fridays. That alone takes more work than it seems. A fishmonger comes from Boston on Fridays to deliver fresh fish. We realized that means we must be here on Friday nights, then Saturdays for people who can’t make Fridays. It’s a part-time job that I wasn’t expected. And the fish doesn’t come neatly packaged, you have to do that yourself. I’m certainly not a fishmonger! When you need to cut up 20-40 pounds of fish, it’s a little stressful.
From the start, we wanted to set it up right. We have a website; I have a blog. We want to get the word out that we need an operator to run this. We need business and liquor licenses. We have to work with the town to change what the store is. All those things are time consuming.
Q: Your new website is called the Taftsville Mercantile – does that mean the Taftsville Country Store is undergoing a name-change? And from what you’ve shared so far, it sounds like the new name heralds a transformation in what the store offers as well…
A: Yeah, so this is the big debate my husband and I are having: how much do we do and how much do we leave to the operator when they come in? We wanted to create a new name and image to generate buzz and excitement in the community.
We’ll also make some cosmetic changes like refinishing the floors and painting the walls. Caroline Olsen [of local business Nutty Life] will help with designing the prep kitchen. So now we’re asking ourselves: do we go ahead and put the kitchen in, or wait till we find an operator and see what they envision? We’re willing to make an investment, the difficult part is deciding what to move forward with and when.
Q: What can customers expect to find when they step inside your shop today?
A: We brought back wine, fresh fish, Green Rabbit baked goods, Windy Acres eggs, and we’re selling Abracadabra Coffee Co’s cold brew in cans. For right now, we’re continuing to sell the former owners’ merchandise at a discount. That includes typical Vermont country store gift items. Beyond that, we’ll play it by ear.
we’ve got the post office for at least four more years. We’re hopeful that they’ll remain a part of this community so that people come to get their mail, sit down, grab a cup of coffee. We have a neighbor who’s lived in Taftsville for 62 years. She likes to come down to the store just to talk with friends and neighbors. It’s essential to keep country stores open because they’re a community hub.
Sure, for the tourists – they want fresh food too – but also because country stores are vital parts of the community. They’re a big part of Vermont’s character. When we first started the dialogue with the previous owners, they had talked to many people about what could come into the space after listing it for rent. I think there’s an opportunity to ensure these stores remain community hubs and not vape shops.
Q: What’s your ultimate vision for the store’s future?
A: We want to be a country store café. Our vision is to make our products more about fresh, local produce than postcards and t-shirts – although we do sell postcards! When tourists come in, they’re looking for cheese, wine, cigars, people are always looking for a cold beverage or coffee. We like having the fresh local eggs and milk – items that people realize they forgot when they get home and don’t want to get back in their car. But with Jake’s and Mac’s so close by, we don’t feel like we need to be a grocery.
The number one thing requested is a dry-cleaning service because there’s nothing in the area. Lots of folks have asked for a fresh butcher since Singleton’s Market [in Quechee] closed. Newspapers. People also ask about provisions: cheeses and cured meats. Some of those things make sense for drawing people in, but we need to be careful to stock what we’ll sell right away or items that’ll last for a while so we’re not worried about being open only Fridays and Saturdays.
With the operator, this’ll be open full-time, possibly staying open late on Fridays. For those visitors coming in from Boston, if traffic’s bad and they arrive around 8 PM, nothing’s open. They can’t get a restaurant table, so to pick up a loaf of bread, some lasagna and a bottle of wine, that’ll be great. People would love having a food truck here Friday nights, but we’ll need to have conversations with the town.
There’s this great little gourmet market in Stowe that’s almost exactly what I picture for our store. No tables, but an amazing selection of pastries, sandwiches, salads, other prepared foods, and retail food products. It’s absolutely my desire to have all our products from Vermont. Everything’s so available here – there’s no reason not to be local!
Q: What’s some of the early feedback you’ve heard from locals and visitors?
A: One day a man drove up, came out and demanded to know what was happening to the store. I told him what we’re doing and he said, “you’re a genius!” Others come in and they’re like, “what is this place?” We’re happy to share the story about what’s happening.
Over and over again – whether they’re from Quechee or Michigan – they say, “that’s really great, I’m excited to see what happens.” A group of cyclists came through and they filled their water bottles and said they were dying for something to eat. I said to check back in the fall! My husband and I are amazed by the overwhelming positivity from the community.