Business & Economy

Closure of Bakersfield market leaves town with limited food options

Bakersfield Village Deli, as pictured in 2017. Wikimedia Commons

“It was a gathering place,” Jen Montague said of the market and deli she ran with her husband, Shaun, on Main Street in Bakersfield.

It was a place you stopped by for a coffee and a chat. A place where you got “great sandwiches.” A place where you picked up pizza for the family on a Friday night. 

And in the town of 1,300, it was one of the only places to buy food of any kind. So when the Bakersfield Village Deli shut its doors at the end of May, it left a hole in the community that would be difficult — if not impossible — to fill.

“It really limits the options,” Jen Montague said of closing the store. “Not only for Bakersfield residents, but all of the surrounding communities that we drew from.”

The closest large grocery store is a Hannaford more than 10 miles north in Enosburg. Locals also shop at the stores in St. Albans City, which are about twice as far.

The Village Deli had a small selection of groceries and was well-stocked with local beer. There’s still a Short Stop convenience store up the street, but its food offerings are limited. And now, there’s nowhere left in town serving take-out. 

Annie Harlow, a Vermont food business consultant, said stores like the Village Deli may not be people’s primary source of groceries, but they are still important centers in a small community.

“There’s a lot of impact when a store closes,” she said, “but it isn’t always because that’s where they bought most of their food.”

Comments on the deli’s Facebook page seem to suggest as much.

“Thank you for all the amazing deli dinners,” one former customer wrote.

“Thanks for the awesome food,” another wrote, “and making your customers feel like family.”

Tough business

Montague listed a number of reasons why she and her husband decided to close the store. Many revolved around the pandemic. They were worried about customers coming into the store who were sick, and about getting sick themselves.

The couple was also feeling burnt out, Montague said, likely working more than 100 hours a week at the store.

“It’s an exhausting job,” Harlow said of running an independent market. “You’re ordering the food. You’re receiving the food. You’re putting the food on the shelf. You’re checking it out at the register. And, you’re paying the bills.” 

One challenge small stores face is competition from bigger stores for food distribution, she added. That’s largely because the less food a store buys, the less efficient it is for a distributor to drive a truck there. The low density of rural areas doesn’t help.

In the end, distributors may see small, rural stores as less valuable customers, Harlow said. Like many businesses, she noted, distributors have faced staffing issues during the pandemic as well.

Montague recalled “not knowing if we’d be able to get a delivery of the chicken wings that we needed that week, or milk, or bread.”

A distributor may also require a minimum order that is more expensive than what a cash-strapped store can afford, Harlow said. 

“Right now the food costs are so high if you are buying from a traditional distributor,” said Koi Boynton, the coordinator of northwest Vermont’s Healthy Roots Collaborative. “We hear enough about our restaurants. I’m sure it’s the same for our retailers.”

Jane Kolodinsky, an economist and food researcher at the University of Vermont, said many small, rural stores were already hanging on by a thread before the pandemic — and the past year-and-a-half brought challenges that could be insurmountable.

Businesses along rural main streets have struggled for decades, she said. And closures of post offices and food stores limit the chances people have to run into one another.

“When we lose that,” Kolodinsky said, “you’ve kind of lost the last vestige of feeling like you’re part of a community in a rural area.” 

Boynton said the stores that do survive in rural communities don’t always fill the gap in access to healthy food, either.

“We’ve seen a lot of gas stations that have become beverage marts — they’re the place to get a Powerade,” she said. “They don’t necessarily have fresh produce available. So that can be a challenge for folks.” 

Still, experts said there are examples across the state of small markets that operate successfully. In Franklin County, Boynton pointed to ​​Wood Meadow Market in Enosburg Falls, which sells organic produce, meat, grains and baked goods. 

She also cited Vista Foods in Richford — which was slated to close and then taken over last year by the Northern Tier Center for Health — as an example of a community rallying around an important resource.

“We have seen a resurgence in some communities,” Kolodinsky said. “But for the communities that lose their last access to food, it’s devastating.”

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Shaun Robinson

About Shaun

Shaun Robinson is a Report for America corps member with a special focus on issues of importance to Franklin and Grand Isle counties. He is a journalism graduate of Boston University, with a minor in political science. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Patriot Ledger of Quincy and the Cape Cod Times.

Email: [email protected]

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