Citing Need to Return to Family Values, Stephen Bernier Announces Closures At Up and Down-Island Markets

Eighteen years ago, when Cronig's Market and Up-Island Cronig's owner Stephen Bernier first decided to open his grocery stores on Sundays through the off-season, he was met with outrage in the community.

"I had customers yell at me for three months," Mr. Bernier recalled yesterday in his office at Cronig's in Vineyard Haven. "Values, values, values," was the complaint, he said.

This fall, Mr. Bernier will turn back a few pages in Vineyard history and again close the Vineyard Haven and West Tisbury stores on Sundays, from Oct. 15 - the Sunday following Columbus Day weekend - to the last Sunday in April.

The reason? Values, values, values: family, community and environment, Mr. Bernier said.

"I have Sunday off, but my employees work on Sundays and I hear their stories and I see the look in their eye," Mr. Bernier said. "Do they ever go to the beach? Do they ever take a trail walk? Or do they ever sit down and talk on Sunday?"

Instead of employees working or customers shopping at Cronig's on Sunday, Mr. Bernier hopes people will instead be home with their families or their friends, or take advantage of the Island's resources, from hiking trails to community events.

"There are some people that are more affected by it," Mr. Bernier said of his employees. Some employees with children work every Sunday, since their spouse or other family member can stay home. They save money on day care and earn higher wages, since Cronig's pays time and a half on Sunday.

Mr. Bernier said he and store manager Sarah McKay are working together to make sure the employees affected will be taken care of. "No one's going to get harmed," Mr. Bernier said.

Mr. Bernier has owned Cronig's Market in Vineyard Haven since 1986. He bought it from David and Robert Cronig, who opened the store 10 years prior, in 1976. Mr. Bernier opened Up-Island Cronig's - formerly the Indian Hill Market - in 1996. Between the two stores, Mr. Bernier now employs about 150 people in the summer and 65 in the winter.

"I'm putting my money where my mouth is and I'm making a commitment to the community," Mr. Bernier said. "The effects of this I think are much broader and deeper than I think a conversation can speak to."

Islanders are already talking about the change, news of which was posted at both stores in a letter to customers on August 6. The reaction: mixed, and the feedback on both counts is already coming in to Mr. Bernier. Many are bemoaning the inconvenience. Readers of the Sunday papers will have to go elsewhere to buy the New York Times and the Boston Globe. And people whose only day off is Sunday will have to shop at Cronig's before or after work - or go to the competition, such as Stop & Shop in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven or Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs.

But Mr. Bernier hopes that won't be the case.

"In my heart I believe in my customers," he said.

He added that he has been able to make some people understand his point of view. On Saturday, for example, Mr. Bernier spoke to a customer on the phone for 30 minutes, and in the end the customer supported the change. Others were on board immediately; he recounted the story of a VTA bus driver who approached him in the parking lot of Up-Island Cronig's.

"He said, thank you for having the courage to do this," Mr. Bernier said. The man said he missed the way the Island was in the 1970s.

One employee affected by the upcoming closure is Brenda Viera, who has worked at Cronig's Market every Sunday for 16 years.

"It's going to affect me positively and it's going to affect me negatively," said Mrs. Viera, who has a six-year-old and a 17-year-old.

"I have children and I was never able to be home with them Sunday," she said. "I'm happy I have the time off to spend with them now."

On the other hand, Sunday was the day that Mrs. Viera knew she could not be called away by one of her children coming home sick from school. "For me it was a definite work day that I could count on that income."

The sentiment was echoed by Sarah Strelecki, who has worked Sundays at Cronig's Market for 13 years.

"It is a positive thing because I'll have a day off work with my family," said Mrs. Strelecki, whose children are 10 months and three and a half. "But in turn, to make up for those hours, I'll have to pay more in day care."

Although the stores stand to save money on energy and employee pay, they also stand to lose business.

"I have a lot of risk closing on Sunday - it's a huge risk to the company," Mr. Bernier said. "The decision was made with the business side of it second. I made the decision solely on what I thought was right for the community."

There are business aspects that make closing on Sundays more realistic now than in past years, however. Mr. Bernier believes the Vineyard is at the end of its growth cycle.

"Customer count did parallel Island growth, including new construction and tourism," Mr. Bernier said. "We've sort of reached a glass ceiling. We're near build-out and the growth is not scaring us anymore."

The customer count has been modestly but steadily decreasing for three years, Mr. Bernier said. If customers do adapt to Cronig's new schedule and the Sunday business is not lost completely, the stores stand to benefit - energy would be saved, morale would be up and employees would be more rested before the start of summer.

"There is a slight chance this could be a win-win," Mr. Bernier said. If the business does not benefit financially, the other benefits still make it worth it, he said. "It would have to be a very negative situation for me to reopen on Sunday."

Mr. Bernier welcomes feedback at 508-693-4457 or The stores will be open on Sunday, Dec. 24, since Christmas is on a Monday.