It’s late morning on a hot, sunny Tuesday and Steve Bernier is sweating. The owner of Cronig’s Market is pulling bull briar and poison ivy off a giant eight-foot-high deer fence that surrounds most of Thimble Farm, 40.8 acres nestled in the Iron Hill section of Oak Bluffs. He has been working steadily for about an hour and a half, but his day did not start here. Earlier in the morning he swept the parking lot of up-Island Cronig’s and stopped by the post office to pick up the market’s mail.
Steve stands up, adjusts his yellow polo shirt, which is caught between a branch and his belt, and takes a few sips of water. “Whew, it’s hot.” He slides his glasses up the bridge of his nose and looks around to take in his work. For the past six months, he has tried to spend three hours three mornings a week working at the farm, helping to clear the fence. “Sometimes I need to be at the market, but my aim has been to be here, to help out three days a week. I love it here, ” he says. “It’s quiet. No one bothers me. It’s a simple task that needed to be done and it gives me time to think.”
He goes back to cutting invasive weeds out of the fence. A thorn catches his hand. He swears and looks around. “If only I hadn’t lost my other glove.” For his fence work, Steve uses large red leather gloves that are designed for fire tending, but as he has discovered, are also excellent for fending off poison ivy and prickers. He and all the members of Island Grown Initiative have been instrumental in helping to revive Thimble Farm and its spectacular (“neat as all get out”) 31,000-square-foot greenhouse. “Ali Berlow had the vision for supporting Island-grown food and sustainability. Now we are trying to help realize it,” he says, referring to the early days of IGI in which he is now invested heavily. “And it’s not always easy. Selling a few bunches of locally grown cilantro and local greens is a start [the farm currently grows and sells about 600 pounds of greens weekly], but it’s not a business plan. Helping farmers and the Island raise, grow more and really bring it to market, now that’s hard work.”
As the owner of the Island’s largest locally owned and operated market, Steve Bernier would know.
An hour later, back at his office, he tucks into a sandwich that his deli made for him, just as it does every day. “I don’t have a particular combination. I eat whatever they make for me,” he says. The office sits roughly above the bagged dog food in the big market. It is filled with mementos from earlier incarnations of Cronig’s and pictures of its former owner Robbie Cronig, but Steve is focused on today’s business. “We have about 400 vendors and that means 400 orders that have to be managed every day. Some of these vendors we deal with on a daily basis, others weekly, monthly, even seasonally. In the summer, we have two trucks come over a day to help us keep the shelves stocked. But then things happen like last month’s hurricane and we had to completely abandon our usual ordering and stocking system to make sure we had extra water for everyone. After that, it took us 10 days just to get back on track and have fully stocked shelves.”
In other words, it is not only what gets ordered, but how it arrives. Cronig’s has two eight-foot-wide, 55-foot-long trucks. Attention must be paid to what needs to come off first and what needs to go to which store. “With all this in mind, we have to pack it nose to tail. It’s an art to get it right,” he says.
There are other things to contend with, too, that are unique to the grocery business. “I own my shelves. I don’t take street money,” Steve says. “This means no one is paying me to stock something at a certain height or in a certain location.” But because Cronig’s is smaller than most off-Island grocery stores, for some vendors, such as Nabisco, his store is considered a “C Store” or a convenience store, which means they are only allowed to stock and sell a small percentage of the hundreds of products that the company produces. Steve has to regularly and fiercely negotiate to get a greater variety of products from the giant food companies.
“It’s complicated,” he says. “Sometimes you can negotiate and then other times there is just no ability to change what I can get. Do I want to be fighting for more processed foods? On one hand, the hand that knows they are not the best foods for people, no, but at the same time, people would stop shopping at the store if I didn’t sell certain things. I feel I am at a fork in the road. I sell both Tide, which has chemicals in it and is not good for our fragile ecology, and 7th Generation laundry soap. Some of my customers still want Tide. Should I sell it? Business-wise, of course I should. But I know we shouldn’t be using it.” He throws his hands up and continues: “I don’t want to dictate to my consumers what they should buy, but at the same time, I want to give people better options. Options that are both good for them and for the planet. I want to educate them.”
He thinks for a minute. “A good example of this: I know that not everyone wants to or can pay for local or even organic meat, so I also sell Brandt beef. Now, I have personally visited the Brandt farms and know that their cows are responsibly cared for and humanely slaughtered. Even though it is not organic, I believe it is an excellent product. So I feel good about that as offering it as an alternative to organic meat at a lower cost.” His eyes brighten. “An even better example? I only sold 20 per cent of the first case of organic apples I had in the store. I threw 80 per cent of the fruit out. People didn’t know about organic fruit and vegetables.” He sighs. “Change takes time.”
The phone rings. Steve answers. “Yo.” It is his wife, Constance Messmer. Apparently one of the three children is in a bit of an adolescent pickle. Steve and Constance chat for a bit about how to support the child and navigate the situation. Then they move onto parental logistics — where their daughter Olya is and who is picking up the boys Andrei and Serogia from football practice. Steve rings off and laughs. “It never stops.”
Eleven years ago, he and his wife adopted Olya (now 15) and Serogia (now 18), from the tiny town of Apatity, Russia, which by plane is about three hours north of Moscow near the Barents Sea. “For three months there is total darkness. It is regularly 20 below zero there,” he says. “There is something like 40 per cent unemployment. And the people drink vodka as though it is water. It is grim. But the people were warm and beautiful.” Two years after adopting Olya and Serogia, who are biological siblings, they decided to adopt another child. Miraculously, they were able to adopt Andrei, who was Serogia’s best friend at the orphanage. Choking up, he recalls how Andrei told him: “‘I knew you’d be back for me.’ It has been quite a journey. We have all grown so much. My kids are each amazing, powerful beings.” He also has two children, Stephen and Elise, from his first marriage. “I have an incredible relationship with my son, his wife and children,” he says. He opens his hands, gazes at them for a moment, looks up and says: “All I can say is that I am so grateful for what I have.”
His store manager Sarah McKay stops by the office. They update each other on market business matters — staff, stocking, what’s happening in each of the stores — all in supermarket shorthand and lingo. Sarah started working for Steve 15 years ago as his marketing person. They have an easy rapport. She ducks out to check on a price for him downstairs.
Next Andrea Donnelly stops by. “My CFO,” he says, laughing. Andrea, started out as a cashier when she was 14, was promoted to bookkeeper and now manages all financial aspects of his businesses. She laughs back: “This is the only place I’ve ever worked.” They discuss a few checks that need to be cut and she’s off.
“I grew up at Star Market, learning on the job, and have raised my staff the same way,” he says.
In 1985, after nearly 22 years at Star Market, Steve began talking with Robbie Cronig about buying his Vineyard market, long held by the Cronig family of Vineyard Haven. “We met and talked for a couple of hours every day for two weeks in his living room,” he recalls. “Then, at some point in those two weeks, we both realized we were going to make something happen. One day, I walked into his house and he slapped the keys into my hands. We shook on it and then we worked out the numbers and that was that. Even when the lawyers tried to complicate our deal, we went out of the room and said, let’s get this done. Walked back in with a solution and signed the papers.”
At the time, he was in management at Star Market living in Andover. He sold his house for $340,000 and used the money as a down payment for the main market down-Island. “Robbie and I had no secrets from each other. He had the key to the market and the combination to the safe for the first 10 years that I owned the business,” Steve recalls. Two or three years after he bought the business, he bought the building and the land that Cronig’s sits on. “I was one of the first markets to get cigarettes off the floor and was the first store on the East Coast to have debit and credit cards at every register,” he says.
Now, 28 years later (going on 29), Steve owns the down-Island market, the up-Island market, Healthy Additions and the real estate that they all sit on, along with the real estate for the West Tisbury Post Office and Fella’s. But he is shifting his focus.
“Now, I want my business to work more and more for the farmer,” he says.
He also wants to work more for the environment. He has invested in renewable energy, leasing out his parking lot to Vineyard Power for their solar panel project, which in seven years, will help him pay for a third of the electricity he uses. But he says: “It is not about the money. It’s about doing the right thing. Burning less fossil fuels.”
In another conservation move, he has backed Island Grown Initiative’s project to save the well head and 23.1-acre property owned by the Dunkl family, which was home to the former Chilmark Water Company. “Looking at the future, not knowing where our clean water will be, this is insurance for ensuring that all Islanders will have access to clean drinking water. It just makes sense,” he says.
He reflects on why he is forever investing, expanding, evolving his business and pushing IGI and the other organizations he supports, such as the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, to grow. “I’m an old-fashioned entrepreneur,” he says. “I see an opportunity, I jump at it. In a small community like this, it gets messy, but that’s okay. That’s just part of it, part of the process. I think I get some of it — the work ethic, the projects, the obsessive need to fix things up, make them better — from my mother.”
He grew up in the small town of Stoneham and attended high school there. “When I got to high school I learned that we were classified as poor. I mean, we didn’t usually have presents at Christmas, but I didn’t feel poor. We had this incredible 130-year-old house. It was tiny. And I mean tiny. My mother renovated the house from floor to ceiling with her own two hands. She did everything — ripped the walls off and replastered them, personally dipped every shingle in red paint so that both sides would be painted and wouldn’t curl as quickly. It was beautiful. I’d get 10 cents for doing chores every week and would spend it on a black raspberry ice cream cone.” By the time he was 14, he was giving his mother $20 a week from the money he earned from his three paper routes. When he went to work full time at Star Market at age 17 and got a nickel raise from $2 to $2.05 an hour, he was making more money than his father. When Steve was 21, his father, a World War II war veteran, died of a heart attack at age 58. “My father couldn’t stand injustice,” he recalls. “When two African American families wanted to join the Knights of Columbus in Stoneham and the group wouldn’t let them in, he resigned. I definitely also have a bit of him in me too. Fighting for what’s right. What I think is right.”
He concludes: “Constance understands me. That I need to work six days a week. That I’ll never stop feeling like I have more work to do. That there is more to do.” When will he retire? “My body will let me know,” he says. “I’m thinking that when I’m eightyish I’ll have to make some lifestyle changes. I just want to make it to 100. But for now, tonight, I’ll get home at eight with the boys. We’ll all have dinner and then I’ll just collapse into bed and go to sleep.”
Steve Bernier in the Checkout Lane
Profession: Grocer, owner Cronig’s Markets.
Board member: Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, Island Grown Initiative.
Age: 66 1/2.
Spouse: Constance Messmer.
Children: Stephen, 45; Elise, 43; Serogia 18; Olya 15; Andrei, 16.
Education: bachelor’s degree in management from Northeastern University.
Wakes up: 4:30 a.m. most days to work out, eat breakfast and be at work by 6:30 a.m.
Works: Six days a week.
Employees: “About 100 in the summer and 40 year round.”
Widely known: Steve alternates early mornings sweeping the parking lots at his two markets.
Not widely known: The attic at Cronig’s Market houses all the costumes and some props for the Vineyard Playhouse.
Pets: Two guinea pigs and Champ the dog.