Why does food cost so much on this Island?
Coming from Steve Bernier, owner of Cronig’s Market, the answer is part career grocer’s insider view, part disaster warning.
“There’s a flood coming,” said Mr. Bernier, sitting in a cocoon-like office space above the Cronig’s main store in Vineyard Haven. “The rise now is exponential, dynamic. We’re at the end game of what goes around comes around.”
Periodically gesturing at purchase order data on his computer screen, he issued a bleak report on exploding food prices.
“Look at the weather the past couple of years,” he said, “There’s forest fires, droughts, fruit’s coming out deformed because of global warming. What’s coming tomorrow?” He added: “We have never seen such a culmination of the effects of wrongdoing. We’re not prepared as a country, but we have no way out. I don’t know what we’ll do, I’ve only been in retail 40 years. But there won’t be any more cheap food.”
The owner of one of two main grocery stores on the Vineyard receives far more regular price shifts from vendors these days, particularly on grain-related products, which account for several aisles of the market.
And the changes aren’t always on the price sticker: though the jar size stayed the same, 18 ounces of Skippy’s peanut butter went down to 15.8 ounces in January, after decades without a change. The company blames a spike in ingredient prices caused by recent droughts in southern states. It’s the kind of trick that doesn’t get past someone with more than 40 years’ experience in food retail.
“When the prices get high enough they start doing creative things in the same size box,” he said.
Mr. Bernier, 60, got his first job at the Stoneham branch of Star Market at age 16 and worked his way up to a management position for eastern Massachusetts. He went from there to Cronig’s, buying the Main street Vineyard Haven store from Robert Cronig in 1986.
Today he owns Cronig’s Market on State Road in Vineyard Haven, Healthy Additions, a separate health and vitamin supplement store behind the market, and Up-Island Cronig’s in West Tisbury.
For Mr. Bernier the woes of being a retailer do not end with the global food crisis; he said the Vineyard sets its own diabolical traps.
“It’s not the ferry prices,” he said, reflecting the oft-heard lament from Island retailers that costs associated with the ferry are the cause of high prices. “It’s the seasonality and it’s the dynamics of freight movement.”
A typical store has 85 to 90 per cent of its product on the floor, he said, but the bulk of Cronig’s produce is stored in the basement, arriving well ahead of time in relatively small containers via the Steamship Authority.
“I have to sit down this fall and work out summer food reservations [for next year]. It all has to fit into these boxes,” he said.
The Stop & Shop is Cronig’s main competitor on the Island. Owned by the Dutch parent company Ahold, Stop & Shop has 300 stores in New England and Long Island. As a result it has more purchasing power and storage alternatives and is able to use devices to entice vendors — including selling preferred real estate to specific brands within the store, Mr. Bernier said.
He operates differently.
“No one owns the shelves here,” he said, “I see that as dirty money. Customers own the shelves, not manufacturers.”
(Robert Keane, spokesman for Stop & Shop, said he could not comment on the practice of stocking fees.)
Then there is the cost of living, said Mr. Bernier, listing statistics: commercial properties are taxed 60 per cent above residential properties in Vineyard Haven; automobile insurance has gone up 22 per cent this year on Cronig’s company vehicles.
Employing workers is expensive. In the past he said the store would attract students for the summer months, or full-time residents who would eek out a living elsewhere in the winter.
“It used to be you could get by in a skinny living here, you could live in a shack in the woods,” he said. “Then about 15 years ago the college kids coming for the summer wanted to work the operating system instead of the aisles. Then they just stopped showing up at all. At the same time, Brazilians started arriving.”
Now the store operates at full-scale employment year round.
“We could be half the size in the winter,” he said, “but it’s a complicated job today and it can take six months to train someone. There’s no salesmen on the road anymore, it’s not warm and fuzzy. It’s spreadsheets, it’s black, white and yesterday.”
And now there are language and cultural issues as well. Mr. Bernier said at the Vineyard Haven store, 60 per cent of his workforce is Brazilian.
“It’s a dynamic business with and without language comprehension; it’s tough,” he said. “Try getting product ordered when people can’t talk on the phone.”
According to Mr. Bernier with every summer season it gets harder to stay in the black.
“You can feel the belt getting tighter this summer. And when it ends we’re under water and holding our breath for nine months. It takes till August to pay back what we owe.”
It may rankle ever so slightly to hear such a tale of woe from the owner of stores that end each year with a substantial profit. But there is little question that Steve Bernier works hard for the money.
“When you’re sitting at this desk you have to make money, you have to be in profit or suppliers stop calling. Money is not a dirty word,” he said, adding: “The environment we live in is driving the prices. Am I driving around golf courses in a Porsche? No, I’m working 60 hours a week. Because I love it and because I have to.”
Mr. Bernier said the margins on produce are as high as 35 per cent.
This results in some eye-opening prices. On the shop floor Sunset heirloom tomatoes are currently $7.99, the big ones roughly the price of a passenger trip to Woods Hole.
“They’re high-end tomatoes. They give better color and taste in cooking,” said produce manager Shawn DeCosta who ordered the tomatoes in from Sid Wainer and Sons, a fine foods distributor based in New Bedford.
The heirlooms are popular — according to Mr. DeCosta, Cronig’s moves 10 cases a week. The bottom line, said Mr. Bernier, is it’s the kind of produce his customers want.
“In Worcester, Massachusetts, supermarkets might not sell a single case of those a week. Who are our customers though? They’re the caterers, the home chefs. Over the years I’ve shaped the produce around what the customer wants,” he said.
“We chase, we sell, we go out and track down produce. Our beef? We travel 300 miles and go inspect the feed ourselves.”
Cronig’s stocks 30,000 items, he said, adding:
“I’d love to have 2,200 items like Trader Joe’s. No, I’ve got to carry eight balsamic vinegars. At Trader Joe’s every item they sell has to generate a profit. They’re a food store knockoff. They knock off stuff, play around and look like Joe Hero. That’s not apples for apples. I can’t go to market like that.” He added:
“You look at what they’re buying [at Cronig’s] and it’s all high-priced stuff. And if we had a big end cap of Ragu I could barely give it away. [End caps are the rack of shelving often tacked on to the end of an aisle.] I watch the merry-go-round. It’s the weirdest set of dynamics.”
As living costs on the Island ratchet ever upwards, Mr. Bernier wonders how long this will remain the formula.
“It’s like riding a wild horse,” he said. “By 2012 Cronig’s might be a completely different grocery store.”