Entrepreneurship is in Elio Silva’s genes. Growing up in the landlocked, coffee-rich state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, he worked beside his father as he grew a small grocery into a major supermarket. In his 22 years on the Vineyard Mr. Silva has imported the lessons and work ethic ingrained in him during that time to the two stores he runs on State Road in Vineyard Haven: Tisbury Farm Market and Vineyard Grocer. He has also imported some delicious Brazilian coffee. Last week the Martha’s Vineyard Commission approved Mr. Silva’s plans to consolidate his two businesses in an expanded and redesigned building, also on State Road.
He says the move to the new building came from a desire to better serve the community.
“If it’s not something that would be beneficial to people then I don’t want to build it,” he said in an early-morning interview at Little House Cafe on Wednesday.
Not only will the new larger store sell the type of goods familiar to customers of the Tisbury Farm Market — mostly of the fair-trade, organic variety — but Mr. Silva hopes that the new project will become a visible example of smart growth on the Island, housing four affordable housing units on its second floor in the heart of the State Road business corridor.
“The idea is to provide a benefit to the community and still make money,” he said.
The first floor is where you will most likely find Mr. Silva, who currently works seven days a week running the two businesses that have outgrown their modest outposts. He works from 5:30 in the morning until 8 at night, with an hour break at in the morning to be with his family as they wake up.
“I really love what I do, so for me it’s not work,” he said.
The concept and philosophy for his stores is modeled in large part on Trader Joe’s, which he praises for its variety, prices and customer service. Mr. Silva goes a step further with Tisbury Farm Market; when he is not traveling to more than 70 vendors all over New England searching for healthy and affordable boutique brands, he is actively partnering with Island farms such as Morning Glory and Whippoorwill Farm to bring the Island’s lettuce, duck eggs and Jerusalem artichokes to Vineyard dinner tables. He says he will never sell lottery tickets or cigarettes in his stores, and although he carries Coca-Cola, Mr. Silva hides it in the back to encourage customers to make healthier choices. He is aware that similar stores elsewhere have a much higher profit margin.
“A couple years ago we had this guy from Boston who did a lot of gourmet stores and he walked into the Tisbury Farm Market and we were roasting coffee that day and he smelled it and we walked around the store and we talked a little bit and he said, ‘You’re really not making as much money as you should on a place like this.’ He was explaining that because it’s Martha’s Vineyard and this is a boutique I could be charging three times more. He said, ‘You could close for six months of the year.’ I said, ‘Then my year-round clientele wouldn’t be able to shop here.’ And he said, ‘It doesn’t matter, you close for the rest of the year and you’d still make more money.’”
The idea was outrageous to Mr. Silva.
“I don’t have a problem working seven days a week if I’m able to do things right. People in the community know I’m doing this for them, not just to make a lot of money. That’s why I think there is so much support for my new project.”
Mr. Silva came to the Vineyard in 1988 after a stint working 17-hour days as a “do-it-all type of guy” at the landmark Boston restaurant Locke-Ober’s where he won over the head chef by making trips on foot to Chinatown to retrieve unusual ingredients. One day Mr. Silva’s friends in Brazil asked him to find work and a place to stay on the Vineyard.
“I asked my boss for two weeks’ vacation to get to know the Island and help my friends,” he said. “At about 2 p.m. Monday I got off the boat and told my friends I needed some time. I walked over to Hines Point and around Vineyard Haven and I really loved it. After a couple hours I went job hunting and that night I stayed at the Harbor Landing [motel] and the next morning I found a house. That afternoon I called my boss and told him to make the two weeks’ vacation my two weeks’ notice, because I wasn’t going back.”
In the years since Mr. Silva has launched a variety of homegrown businesses, including the E& E deli at Five Corners, the clothing store Fogaca’s in Vineyard Haven which he opened with his wife of the same name, and the Martha’s Vineyard Coffee Company, reinvesting in the businesses with money earned through a variety of odd jobs like landscaping, or cleaning at the Atlantic Connection from midnight to two in the morning.
Mr. Silva’s formidable business acumen should come as no surprise. As he says, he began his training when he was eight years old.
“My father had a farm and we used to sell the eggs from the chickens,” he said of his childhood in Cuieto Velho. “He left the farm because he couldn’t make any money and went to work as a masonry helper in construction during the day and after five o’clock he’d have this small bar where he’d sell tequilas. Slowly he grew from that to a bar and some groceries and eventually it grew into a small grocery store, then a bigger grocery and today he has a supermarket. From 1980 on he developed this store and most of the time I was there with him. We grew up in that environment. I definitely have followed in his footsteps.”
Mr. Silva hopes to make Vineyarders healthier by providing affordable, organic food, and he practices what he preaches. He says, with no hint of irony, that he aims to live to the age of 120. To get there he doesn’t take sugar in his coffee, he eats meat sparingly and exercises regularly. Still, he admits, he works too hard. But he does so in the hope of an eventual reward.
“Once I accomplish everything I need to accomplish as far as having a source of income there’s a lot of things I’d like to do,” he said. “So I don’t have a problem with working hard now because I know I still have another 80 years in front of me.”
Besides the promise of a decades long retirement — that he hopes to divide between the Vineyard, Napoli and Brazil practicing innovative agriculture — there is another reason Mr. Silva works so hard.
“I don’t know any better,” he said with a laugh.