Past, Present & What’s the Future?

Island Grocers

by Elissa Lash

Island Grocers

Elizabeth Cecil

Bob Pacheco with son Eddie in front of Reliable's meat counter.  

Was there some golden time on the island when food was basic and simple and local? What was food shopping really like in earlier days? Being a mother and the primary ‘hunter-gatherer’ in my family, I spend a lot of time at the grocery store. I often wonder, has it always been like this…?

Across the nation, grocery retailing began in the early 1900s; before that, folks relied on their own or others’ farms and gardens, supplemented with supplies from dry goods or general stores. Grocery stores tended to be small, less than a thousand square feet. Although stores tended to cluster together, there were different grocers for dry items (canned goods and other non-perishables); butchers for meat; and green-grocers for produce.


In the early history of food retailing, a clerk would fetch products from shelves, behind the counter, or stock areas, while customers waited in the front. They presented their ‘orders’ or lists (or later, called them in) to the clerk, and many of the grocery stores would deliver your items, often free of charge. Most food did not come individually packaged; the clerk measured out and wrapped the specific item ordered in the amount desired by the customer. These early practices were labor intensive and slow, and limited the number of customers who could be attended to at one time. Ruth Stiller of Vineyard Haven was one of those clerks. In 1917, her father, Samuel Cronig, founded and ran Cronig ’s Market, one of the Vineyard’s earliest grocery stores. She is one of the five Cronig children, who all, at one time or another, worked at the store.

“Summers were always busy, but we loved it. My father adored the store! He’d go down every single day at 5 a.m. We were closed on Sundays. That was our one day off. Customers would stand in front and talk to their friends, it was very social. We would run and get their things.”

“There were six grocery stores on Main Street, Vineyard Haven, but it didn’t seem to me that we were in competition. There was Bangs across the street, they delivered, like us. Down the street was the A&P, First National, and SBS–they were huge, with a big freezer.”

Cynthia Riggs describes her Vineyard shopping experiences as a child, shopping up-Island: “Gifford’s store (in West Tisbury) was where we bought most of our staples. The store had an ice cream parlor, where Mrs. Gifford served her homemade ice cream. We children were sent to Gifford’s for kerosene, sugar, salt, dried beans, some canned goods, and some notions, such as sewing thread…Georgina Gifford loved to talk to customers. One of my big sisters would be sent on an errand, and when she didn’t return after a decent interval, my mother would send Sister #2 to attempt to interrupt Mrs. Gifford…We pretty much lived on the land and didn’t get many groceries during the summer.”

The Invention of Self-Serve

Self-service grocery stores were developed by Clarence Saunders, the founder of the Piggly Wiggly stores. His first store opened in 1916 in Memphis, Tennessee. Saunders was awarded patents for his unique retailing ideas, and he began to offer franchises. By the late 1920s, self-service was a widely accepted way to shop. But some successful grocery chains resisted the concept until the economic changes caused by the Depression created a highly competitive retail environment. Many early self-service stores did not sell perishable items. It wasn’t until the 1940s that combination grocers, with a broad range of food stocks utilizing the self-service model, became common.

Then, as now, price was a hot topic on the Vineyard. Today, many families make monthly runs off-Island to load up on basics from Costco and Trader Joe’s. Shirley Mayhew remembers trying to save money in the 40s and 50s, before those off-Island runs were an option, by comparison shopping. “We had two grocery stores in Edgartown—a First National and an A&P. There was a small Cronig’s in Vineyard Haven on the corner of Main and Church. Everyone figured Cronig’s was more expensive because it was privately owned…I finally took a day and priced a number of items at the three grocery companies. I was surprised to find about half the items were cheaper at Cronig’s.”

Island consumers still look for a good price, but also factor in other needs and desires: “organic,” “local,” “looks fresh,” “it’s my favorite brand,” and “got a coupon” were some of the refrains I heard. Many I spoke to wanted to shop locally and conscientiously, but worried about the ability to do so, especially this winter. Recent summers have been slow economically. Many local families will be facing continued under- or unemployment. The Island Food Pantry served record numbers this year, with donations from Reliable, Cronig’s, Stop & Shop, and, sometimes, local farms and restaurants.

Dorothy Bangs, whose husband used to run Bangs Market, remembers, “During the Depression, Cronig’s and Bangs Market got people through. Father Bangs would put up a meal and sell it for a cheap price to families he knew needed help. We knew each other. These were family businesses. We weren’t going to let anybody go without.”

Yet even when the mission is healthy eating, selling groceries is not a straight and narrow path. As Michael Pollan reports in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the Whole Foods experience—focused on organic, free-range, and sustainable foods— is not a guarantee of how a food is produced. The reassuring label of “organic” can simply be appealing marketing for consumers who are increasingly distanced from actual food production. What Pollan calls “Industrial Organic” is now an eleven-billion-dollar industry.

Ruth Stiller (Cronig’s Market)

‘I think we were able to stay in business because we were all taught to be polite. My dad taught us that you have to be polite to the customers, but customers don’t have to be polite to you. My claim to fame was that I could remember the name to go with every face. So we were well-liked. Lillian Hellman adored my little brother and always wanted him to take her list and then bicycle it up to her.

“Vegetables weren’t in cellophane. They came mostly from farms…they were bunched up and tied with string. We didn’t wash them. You did it yourself. We didn’t have selection like now, just one kind of plain old lettuce. We’d get cattle from the farms on Sundays, and my brother and uncle would butcher them. They’d bring the butchered cow to the back door of the store and we’d let it cure for a few days. We ate the innards that weren’t so popular—hearts and lungs…This was stuff that otherwise would be thrown out. My mother was thrilled to have meat that she knew was clean. A lot of other grocers got meat from off-Island.

“We didn’t have an ice box in the beginning. When we first started selling frozen food, we couldn’t give it away, because no one knew of it. My father wouldn’t stock ice cream for the longest time, he didn’t want to compete with the widow across the street who sold it. If people from West Chop requested it, he’d buy from her full price and then add it to their order.

“Cookies came in a big box, and we weighed them out, and even though you’d been using your hands for change, you’d get them out of the box without gloves. Thinking back on it, I’m horrified! And I used to cut and weigh all the cold cuts and cheese individually. I could do it right on the dot!

“I remember when canned goods became popular. My brothers loved canned green beans even though we had a vegetable garden.

“During the war, we girls did everything. I didn’t mind the heavy lifting. I liked it; I could carry a case of canned peas!”

The Pachecho Family (Reliable Self Service Market)

Reliable self-service market, in Oak Bluffs, was founded by the Pacheco family in 1947. “We were one of the first self-service groceries on the Island,” remembers current owner Bob Pacheco, who spoke about his family business while trimming excess fat from steaks, weighing and wrapping stew beef, helping a customer find safety pins, and giving directions. “That’s why self-service is part of the name. The concept was just coming into being. It had started on the mainland. My dad, Ed, and mom, Helen, were old-school like the Cronig family. They were workers. You work all day and into the evening, and think nothing of it. We kids worked in the store; we called it ‘spending quality time with dad.’ The store was part of the family. There was, and is, always a Pacheco here.

“These days, some owners are never at the store. Maybe I’m behind the times, but that’s not how I was taught.”

Steve Bernie (Cronig’s Market)

Steve Bernier, who purchased Cronig’s in 1985 with “a handshake,” grew up in Massachusetts, starting what would become his life’s work in groceries at age 16, pushing carts and cashiering at Star Market Co., eventually working his way up to being a District Manager at the main headquarters in Cambridge. Having enjoyed summer visits to the Vineyard, he bought the small Main Street store from Robbie Cronig. He moved his family to the Island and “passed papers” in February of 1986. Bernier was 38 years old. The change was not easy.

“There was a staff of approximately 23 people. The store had old registers that rounded up the change. We were closed on Sundays. I’d come from a place with 240 employees and 20 registers, open 24 hours…Robbie introduced me to customers at the front door. He and I became very close. Up until his death he still had a key to the front door. Things have changed, they had to…we evolved.”

One of Bernier’s concerns is stocking the store in a way that encourages choices for the consumer while promoting healthy eating and supporting local products. He realizes this isn’t the traditional way to stock. Buying in bulk from a supplier enables a retailer to offer a discount, but bulk ordering is offered only by established national brands. Small companies aren’t able to offer this same discounting. Narrowing produce choices by primarily stocking fruit and vegetable varieties with a longer shelf life enables cheaper prices, but can lead to the loss of cultivation of certain varieties. Corporate supermarkets often take “slotting fees” from suppliers in exchange for premium shelf space or better positioning—eye-level or end-of-aisle. Bernier calls this “selling real estate.” It’s a practice that can lower price, but also limit consumer choice.

“We sometimes get accused of being high-priced, but I don’t want to fill the store with belly-wash…If we try to shop, eat, live in a way that respects the well-being of kids, teachers, and farmers, I’m convinced that it helps create a better community.”

Elio Silva (Tisbury Farm Market & Vineyard Grocer)

A relative newcomer to the vineyard’s grocery scene is Elio Silva, founder and owner of the Tisbury Farm Market and Vineyard Grocer, both in Vineyard Haven. He started the Farm Market in 2008, bringing in small shipments of produce and meat frequently, and stocking as much local food as possible, gearing the stock toward customers who “like the feeling of shopping for fresh food more often.” He compares this style to the European shopping mode, where food-stuffs are purchased each day, and dinner is prepared based on what’s fresh and available.

Mr. Silva is passionate about price. He believes we need a “cultural re-education. If we cook with basic, fresh ingredients—rather than eating frozen or ready-made—we get more for our money. More volume, more nutrients…And when we pour our hard-earned money back into the local economy, there is more money circulating here, which makes it easier to live on-Island.” He wants to educate his customers on what creates price. “It’s a myth that prices are higher here because of shipping. Price is symbiotic. Credit card spending helps drive up price, all the money for fees is money that goes off-Island, leaves the local economy. Shoplifting and packaging are major price-drivers as well.” He recommends shoppers use cash, bring reusable shopping bags, and let owners know about shoplifting.

Today and Tomorrow for Island Grocers

So what will the future of groceries look like on our Island?

Cronig’s Market is currently expanding. Steve Bernier is hopeful about Cronig’s involvement with Island Grown Initiative (IGI), stocking Island produce and products. He feels “IGI gives hope” to the community and “fits in with the Martha’s Vineyard culture.”

Bob Pacheco sums up Reliable’s trajectory: “I kind of like the old school philosophy—just take care of your customer and they’ll take care of you. Price wise we try to be fair…really it’s about what customers want and need and how we treat them. It’s not about me and what I think the store should be.”

Elio Silva plans to keep education at the forefront of his markets, as well as an emotional and spiritual connection to eating and the idea of food as medicine. He hopes to offer cooking classes and encourage community meal-sharing. He will continue to stock his stores only with food that he would serve his own family, even if it is less personally profitable for him.

Martha’s Vineyard can be a tough place to live year-round, not only for consumers, but for business owners as well. “This is a market that serves a diverse group of customers, from food stamps to billionaires,” says Steve Bernier. “What I’m interested in is health…it’s that or we’re into chemicals and making it cheap. You can’t play to two gods.”