by Nat Frothingham
The Uncommon Market, at the corner of Elm and School streets in Montpelier, opened on October 2, 2007, under the ownership of husband-and-wife team Peter Foote and Sharon Allen.
As I sat recently with Peter and Sharon on the balcony that runs along one side of the store and overlooks the North Branch, I inquired first about those beginnings—and got a surprising response. I asked them what things came first and how they added to the store over time.
In fact they didn’t add things to the store over time. Both remembered their vision for the store before they bought it, and what the store became. “This store is very much like the store we imagined,” they told me. “We just opened up and did it all.”
“Did it all” includes a lot of things that anyone passing by might expect from a store that, at a glance, looks a lot like your basic corner grocery, a place where you can pick up what you need in a hurry—basics like a quick cup of coffee, milk, bread, eggs, beer, soft drinks—that sort of stuff.
“There’s a perception that it’s a corner store,” said Sharon. Well, Uncommon is a corner store. But it’s a lot more than a corner store. “You can get breakfast for five bucks,” she noted. You can get a freshly made sandwich made on the spot and a soup for lunch. Then there are fresh local meats, an eclectic wine selection, fresh fish, local baked goods, and prepared food.
“You can walk in and buy dinner,” said Peter. “If you don’t feel like cooking,” Sharon added.
“We do a lot of special ordering,” she continued. Peter mentions crayfish as an example. Or a customer might ask for Spanish paprika. Every few months, when a new class of cooking students arrives at the New England Culinary Institute, they walk into Uncommon Market for the first time and are surprised to discover a store with fresh bass, clams and Alaska King salmon.
Sharon next mentioned fresh lemon grass. Peter said he hadn’t tasted it. “Yes, he has,” Sharon countered, to laughter. “He doesn’t know it yet.”
The couple puts out a twice-weekly blog that connects them to 800 of their customers. The blog is an easy, engaging word of two about what’s coming at Peter and Sharon in their personal life, along with notes about what’s new at the store.
In one blog, Peter went on at some length about what it was like to buy a new bed. That led to someone coming into the store and saying to Sharon, “How’s your new bed?” Sharon replied, with some surprise, “How did you know we got a new bed?”
Peter reckons that during the past seven years some 150 people have worked at Uncommon Market. Right now there are 16 employees, most of them part-time.
“We’ve had great people,” said Peter about the overall quality of the work force. The store has employed its share of artists, writers, college graduates on their way up in the world.
When I asked Sharon to account for the store’s popularity and success, she said it wasn’t money, management, or location. “It’s customer service,” she said emphatically. During the first four years of operating Uncommon Market, she and her husband had no family holidays, no vacations. The store is open seven days a week with long hours, and, as owners, they feel a need to be there. Said Sharon, “Making sandwiches—being everywhere, doing everything—you need to be there.”
About a year ago Sharon threw a surprise birthday party for Peter. Some 50 people came. As part of the invitation, Sharon said that Peter had always wanted to go to Italy. She added that in lieu of birthday gifts, “We’re starting a little Trip to Italy Fund.”
“People were very generous,” she told me. The fund gave her and Peter a head start in paying for the trip, and a year to save up the rest of the needed money.
Beginning on October 1, for 17 days, Peter and Sharon will be in Rome, Amalfi and Umbria with these allurements: a rooftop bed and breakfast in Rome, a view of the sea and sky along the Amalfi coast, and a terrace overlooking the Umbrian hills.
No need to worry about the market while Peter and Sharon are away. Uncommon’s manager, Alexis King, will be in charge, with backup help from Chelsea, Sharon’s daughter.