“He’s food, I’m house,” April Levandowski said of her husband, Michael, and the way they have successfully run LeRoux at Home, one of the longest running and most successful businesses on Main street, Vineyard Haven.
Mrs. Levandowski laughed as she explained their division of labor: she is responsible for the domestics (linens, curtains, pillows, etc.) while Mr. Levandowski takes the kitchen side of things.
As if to emphasize his wife’s point, Mr. Levandowski — the foodie — proudly noted that he and his wife cook a full dinner together, from scratch, nearly every night. “April and I are very healthy eaters,” he smiled. “It’s really a part of our day. We treat dinner as an event.”
This love for cooking translates into what the store provides for its customers.
Mrs. Levandowski thinks of the kitchen as the heart of the home. “People get very comfortable shopping here because it can feel good,” she said. “We’re providing things that people feel comfortable about buying and they use the items every day.”
LeRoux at Home is better placed than many to escape some of the pressures hurting other businesses. Part of that is even related to the recession — along with the growing slow food movement, the economic downturn has reintroduced people to their own kitchens and drawn customers to stores that sell kitchenware.
The store offers cooking demonstrations. Always popular, these have grown to be even better attended as people interested in cooking meals for themselves come down for a free lesson.
“We love it because it brings a good audience into the store and it’s good for the local chefs, too,” Mrs. Levandowski said.
Another reason for LeRoux’s businesses success is its philosophy: Good, better, best is the Levandowskis’ guiding principle for choosing the goods on offer.
LeRoux aims to stock every level of merchandise, from the basics to the top of the line, for every wallet. “We price it right,” Mrs. Levandowski said. “We try to cater to a broader audience.
“It’s our job to find new product lines and to find good value and that’s what we try to pass on. Good assortment, good selection and good value,” Mrs. Levandowski said.
“In our business, it’s easier to define those categories,” Mr. Levandowski said of the good, better, best philosophy that powers the store and added that most sales come in the good and better categories.
Mr. Levandowski credits the good, better, best philosophy as having helped carry the store through tough times.
The Levandowskis began business in 1988, when the couple bought a clothing store, also known as LeRoux. They added a shoe store and, in 1998, a home goods store.
Eventually, though, they found they were putting all of their energy into LeRoux at Home. So the couple closed the clothing and shoe stores and opened more LeRoux at Home stores — one in Portland, Me., and another in Portsmouth, N.H.
“Michael loves to cook, so housewares sort of won,” Mrs. Levandowski laughed as she explained how the business evolved.
“It has more longevity to it,” Mr. Levandowski said of selling home goods such as pots, pans, spatulas and sundry other essential items.
Pressures to move inventory are slightly lower in housewares than they are in fashion, where styles change in an instant. “It can stay on the shelf if it needs to, but that’s not necessarily running a good business. You want turn. You don’t want to be sitting on the inventory,” she said. “We’re very careful about what we buy.”
The two mainland outposts have helped offset the pressures of the off-season. “That’s really helped buffer the seasonality of the Vineyard, so when this season starts to wind down, the Portland season starts to pick up,” Mr. Levandowski said.
In the 23 years the Levandow-skis have been on Main street, much has changed. When they first arrived, only one or two stores were open on Sundays. “If we’re gonna be on Main street, we’re open. We feel, if you’re on Main street you’re here to service your community,” Mrs. Levandowski said, noting that the store is only closed two days a year. “Can’t sell it if you’re not open.”
Staying open on Sundays is not the only difference between the Vineyard Haven of the late 1980s and the Vineyard Haven of today. Mr. Levandowski noted that when he and his wife arrived, downtown had a different identity.
“The town had a style about it, a sense of purpose. It was anchored with some really fundamental [businesses]. Vineyard Dry Goods was here, Murray’s, Brickman’s,” he said. “The stores that are operating [now], the retailers tend to be servicing a tourist community. They have price points that are unrealistic in terms of the income for the Island.”
Of course one of the biggest changes has nothing to do with the stores on Vineyard. It’s the stores online. The Internet has affected the way people shop, and LeRoux will soon create a new outpost on the web. “We’re trying to do it in a way that makes the experience feel like you’re at LeRoux and not feel like you’re online,” Mr. Levandowski said.
The store, run at turns by this lively and thoughtful couple and their knowledgeable staff, often is crowded with customers both new and longtime. Mr. Levandowski commented that men seem as comfortable in the store as women, though that may be due to his influence on the first floor, which holds the housewares items for which he is responsible.
The owners know LeRoux’s employees are a big part of its success. “We typically get people who have an interest in food or cooking. Everyone who’s on our staff really likes cooking,” Mrs. Levandowski said. “We’ve been very fortunate to come up with a good blend [of personalities].”
Being a part of the community is important to the Levandowskis. She shared an anecdote that demonstrated the store’s small-town service: A man had driven from Chilmark frantically looking for balsamic vinegar because his children wouldn’t eat vegetables without it, but the store had run out of bottles (It refills vinegar bottles from large vessels, each with its own infusion.)
“If somebody brings their bottle, we’ll fill it, but we had run out of bottles and were waiting for a shipment,” Mrs. Levandowski said. “We were running around trying to find some vessel we could put it in,” she laughed. The mission was a success.
“Anything good, from my book, you work for,” Mrs. Levandowski said of LeRoux’s success. “Anything that has been valuable to me, you work at it. It’s not something that just happens.”
Her husband agreed, but added that it’s not all nose-to-the-grindstone. “We’re just having so much fun.”