Country Store Owners Explore the Problem of Finding Good Help

by  Nat Frothingham

The labor market is stumping even the experts. The unemployment rate is near a 16-year low, and employers are fretting about their inability to find reliable workers. That shortage of workers should prompt an increase in wages. Remember that supply and demand curve: When the demand (for workers) exceeds the supply, prices should rise. Yet wages have stubbornly resisted the pressure.

New York Times, July 15

 

Photo by Michael Jermyn

Bill Kane at the Upper Valley Grill & Store

Bill Kane has been the longtime owner of the Upper Valley Grill & Store.

He got started when his brother suggested he take a look at a building in Groton. “But it was just a shell,” Kane said.

But his brother advised, “Get it started. You can go back to your other work.” That was 25 years ago.

Part of the Store’s success has been its location — a five-minute drive away from the Groton State Forest, a popular destination for camping, hiking and swimming. The Grill & Store is a convenient stopping place about 20 miles from Montpelier going east on Route 302, 16 miles from Wells River and 29 miles from St. Johnsbury.

The Grill & Store is a relaxed and comfortable stopping point on the way to and from Maine.

There’s the kitchen and grill with a wrap-around counter with 12 to 15 stools. If you’re hungry for a country meal, there’s a solid menu of buffalo crispy chicken, homemade soups and sides, three-bean salad, baked beans and pie for dessert.

And the store is a general store that’s got what general stores have in stock — meat, cheese, beer, soda, bread, newspapers, an ATM machine — all the necessaries anyone might need to equip a country place. Outside, there’s ample room for parking — and for cars, trucks, snow-machines, two pumps, one for regular gas and one for diesel.

When Bill and I sat down to talk — we explored a problem that he and other owners and people in business are facing in finding good help.

We started by talking about the highs and lows of customer activity in a typical business year.

It was early June, when we first talked and Kane said, “Low is right now.” In Kane’s business “low” begins with mud season in March and April and mud season can sometimes last into May.

“Father’s Day is typically the kick-off,” said Kane about his summer season and Father’s Day this year fell on June 18.

During the low season, Kane hires three part-time employees and himself.

But when things get going in the summer, and with foliage season in the fall, with hunting season after that — then in winter when snow-machining is big, Kane hires as many as 10 employees (five full-time and five part-time.)

Kane and I next talked about the hiring process. “Have you noticed a change lately?” I asked him.

“Yes, lately,” he said, “over the last four years.”

Kane’s been doing what he’s always done before in reaching out for good help — advertising in local papers like the Caledonian-Record in St. Johnsbury and in the free paper in Wells River called The Bridges.

Before things started to change about four years ago, “I had a big file of applicants,” Kane said. But not anymore.

And Kane has had lots of people working for him including “employees who have ended up in jail.”  Also other employees who have worked out well, who sometimes were so timid when they started out “they wouldn’t say ‘boo’ to anyone.” But over time they “blossomed” and by the time they were done, “they wouldn’t stop talking.”

“It used to be,” Kane said, “that if you didn’t work, you didn’t have cash.” But that appears to have changed and Kane has been told that many kids today, get money from their parents. “That didn’t happen in my day,” he said.

Then he’s noted that many kids when they’re applying for their first job,“want big dollars, want the top dollar — $14 to $15 bucks an hour.”

“They’re making too much on unemployment,” Kane said. “It’s equal to $20 an hour. I think they have to be stricter about it.”

Sometime recently, Kane hired a young woman who had to have her cell phone with her at all times. Finally Kane asked her, “Please put your phone into the basket until your break. But she couldn’t do it,” he said.

But despite the overall picture of finding really good workers, Kane did recently hire a young man who works for him right now. Kane would offer him more hours if he could. “Three days a week, if I’m lucky,” he said about this standout young man. “He’s always working. He works at Walmart. He works side jobs.”

 

Photo by Michael Jermyn

Jessica Waters and Zach Kirkpatrick at the Woodbury Village Store

Our next conversation was with Jessica Waters, who along with her husband Zach Kirkpatrick, have been running the Woodbury Village Store for a little more than a year (since April 2016 to be exact).

The Woodbury Village Store has attracted quite a bit of media attention both near and farther away.

Both Jessica and Zach are extremely forthright about the personal circumstances in their lives that prompted them to look for a country store and eventually buy the Woodbury Country Store.

What’s personal is this: Zach Kirkpatrick is contending with Lyme’s Disease. Sometimes he’s pretty much disabled from it. But when he’s feeling good, he’s at the store, working. And when he’s not feeling good — home is just upstairs over the store. So he can come and go and be involved to the extent that he can.

“Where are the customers coming from?” I asked Jessica.

“Far and wide,” she answered. Of course there’s Hardwick — 10 miles roundtrip. And Cabot.

Then there are people who work in Montpelier but live locally. They will phone from work in the afternoon, call in an order and it will be ready when they get to the store.

On the day I visited, the Village Store was humming with activity.

It’s a general store. It’s got pretty much everything.

Beer and wine and cigarettes, of course. But also chips, jams, peanut butter, sweatshirts, hats, dog food, cards, homemade cookies, ice cream, juice, soda, hunting and fishing licenses, candy, milk, cheese, eggs. There’s a meat case and a cheese case, also potatoes and asparagus, and charcoal and matches.

The list of sandwiches is close to phenomenal. What about the “Maple Magic” sandwich.Consider what’s in that sandwich: ham and turkey in a grilled bun with these things added: maple, mayo, a sweet and spicy mustard. Also grilled apples topped with smoked maple cheddar and bacon. That’s just one of the many sandwiches on offer: Yum.

It was lunchtime. Parked outside was a Fish & Wildlife truck. A young farmer with three kids had just come through the door. Also parked outside was a UPS truck. It wasn’t there to deliver a package. It was there because the driver wanted lunch.

“We get a lot of government workers and road crews,” Jessica said.

The Woodbury Village Store, Jessica advised me, is open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

“If we had the staff,” Jessica said, “we would stay open longer.”

When she pondered the question of getting good summer help, Jessica said, “I wouldn’t say the people aren’t there. The people are out there,” she said. “But I have high standards. I would rather have nobody than somebody.”

I asked Jessica if she had reached out effectively in letting people know she was looking for help.

“I’m good at that end of things,” she said. She has taken advantage of the job board at the Culinary Institute.  Also she has used Craigslist and she’d taped signs on the door.

“I’m working 70 to 80 hours a week,” she reported. “And it’s been a strain on me. I have to run here and back. There are so many things I want to do. We lost a full-time person about six months ago.”

“Last year,” she said, “we had a kitchen manager hired. Two weeks before we opened, he was offered a job he could not refuse. We are willing to pay good money for someone to run the kitchen.”

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