by Nat Frothingham
Uncommon Market — the popular corner store and deli at the intersection of Elm and School Streets — is throwing a party to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its opening, and everyone’s invited.
Over the years, Uncommon Market has become both a business success and a neighborhood and downtown anchor point. If you need a breakfast sandwich and a cup of coffee, or a newspaper, or a bottle of wine, or fresh fish and meat, or a deli sandwich or something as simple as a soft drink —Uncommon Market is there. And if you want to meet a friend — in good weather — what about two chairs and a table on the porch looking out at Montpelier’s North Branch River?
And the party — what about the party? It will be an all-day affair on Monday, October 2 — with free samples of food, drink, cake — in other words the works — beginning at 6:30 a.m. with Uncommon’s breakfast customers and running straight through the day until closing at 8 p.m.
So the logical question to put to Sharon Allen and Peter Foote, the married couple who have been running Uncommon since 2007 is this, “What was it like on ‘Day One’ — can you remember?”
Almost together, Allen said, “It was really, really busy,” and Foote added, “I was stunned by all the excitement going on.”
But as Allen remembered, “We had forgotten to price the sodas.” Foote added, “So we called my brother Cory, who runs a convenience store in Vergennes, and asked him.” Cory’s advice was to price them at $1.89.
Foote quickly said that Allen is the boss, adding, “It was always clear that Sharon was going to be the boss.”
“We work together, we live together, we still want to hang out together,” Allen said about their partnership. “We’re a force of nature,” said Foote, smiling.
Foote had mentioned in an earlier conversation that more than 200 people have worked at Uncommon Market since they opened. When asked to explain, he said, “They’re on their way to something else.” Working at Uncommon, he remarked, “It’s a phase in their lives.”
Allen said that one woman went on to become a vet. Then she added, “We just had three people leave. They all went off to college.”
“One woman left to ride her horse across the country,” Foote said. When asked the outcome, he said, “She made it. She and her husband are now running a little store in New Mexico.”
Allen spoke of the pleasure of watching 10 years of life pass by in a small town like Montpelier. Such as getting to know the kids. “We knew their moms before their moms were pregnant. Now (the kids) are in third grade.”
Uncommon Market — said Allen — once had three parolees working at the store. “We didn’t ask if they had a record at the interview.” The couple only learned later after a phone call from Corrections that they were employing three parolees.
About interviews, Allen said, “We are sticklers for references. If you can’t find someone to say something good about you, don’t apply.”
One time one of their employees — a man who worked in the deli, proposed to his girlfriend right at the cash-out counter on bended knee, Allen related. They had been going together. She said, “Yes.”
On the business side of things, a year after Uncommon Market opened, there was the 2008 banking crash. “I was glad we were doing food,” Allen said. “People didn’t go out to eat as much. Instead they stopped at Uncommon and bought food to take home and cook.”
“Fresh fish is popular at Uncommon,” Allen said. “We have a strict rule about how long fish stays in the case: One day in. Then day two. On the third day, it’s gone.”
“In the summer,” she said, “we can’t keep up with the chicken salad.”
“Breakfast is big,” Allen said. “We changed the roll. It was an English muffin. We changed to an artisan roll and sales took off.”
People wait in line at the deli counter to order their sandwiches from a list on a blackboard. “People like the choices,” Allen said. “And people like the soups, all the soups.”
At about 3:05 pm there is the buzz of schoolchildren from the Union and Middle schools as they sweep through the market for candy and snacks.
When he was governor, Peter Shumlin would come in for a soft drink with his security detail tearing after him.
“We try to help local producers,” Allen said, “People come in and ask, ‘Do you want to sell my carrots or my baked goods.’ We sometimes provide business advice with pricing and packaging. We favor Vermont products and we take a little smaller piece of the pie with local growers and makers.”
In addition, Uncommon reaches out to the Montpelier community with donations. Once a month they donate five gallons of soup to a community meals program. They also make donations to the Montpelier Food Shelf. And the store provides financial support for the People’s Health & Wellness Clinic in Barre.
“When we first opened,” said Allen, “there were so many requests (for help), we had to pick just a few. We started with hunger issues, river care and the Kellogg-Hubbard Library. But we are ready to consider other extreme poverty issues as well. We’re glad to be part of a town and business community that’s really giving and generous.”