Vegetable Corner owner Ray Tetreault will close the beloved country store on Sept. 3. (JERRY KLEPNER PHOTO)
The Vegetable Corner, the family-owned produce and meat market at the intersection of Mountain and Harpswell Neck roads, will close permanently on Sept. 3.
Owner Raymond “Ray” Tetreault, 85, said he had no choice because of his age and health. “I’m going to miss all the people,” he said. “You don’t realize how hard it is for us.”
“We didn’t envision this at all,” he said of closing the country store where he, his wife and most of their seven children worked through three decades. The plan was to call it quits when he was 90, but his health has deteriorated since a heart attack in 2012.
Loyal customers were dismayed by the news. On a recent summer day, Paige MacFarlan carried two plastic bags of homemade bread and a jar of honey to the market’s small checkout counter, its wood surface covered with colorful chicken-themed torn felt. “I’m sad,” she said. “We’ve been coming here forever.”
Condon Kuhl, who moved to Harpswell from Iowa in 1987, echoed MacFarlan. “I’m sad — that’s putting it mildly.”
Joe Andrew, 96, was surprised by the news when he stopped by the store. “It’s closing?” he said. “It can’t close.”
But customers who have savored Ray’s homemade sausage, pastrami and kielbasa shouldn’t give up hope. Ray said he might make and sell those meats (and nothing else) early next year, depending on how his heart holds out. “I want to be able to do it,” he said. And his wife, Violet, would like to sell corn on the cob on their lawn in the summer, but she, too, has health concerns.
Neither the business nor the building will go up for sale. Ray and Violet live only a few feet from the market, which will likely revert to what it once was — a garage adjacent to their home of nearly 40 years. “I never got a car in there,” said Ray. “I took those overhead doors down and now I have to put them back up.”
For years, the store has been a must-stop for locals and summer folks alike who buy not only produce and Ray’s prime cuts of meat, but also chicken, fish, scallops, Scottish salmon and grocery items. It was hard work for Ray, Violet and their seven children, who range in age from 41 to 59. Even their 12 grandchildren helped out,including a grandson who met his future bride at the market. No one, however, was interested in putting in Ray’s long hours.
“With seven kids, you’d think one of us” would have taken over the business, said daughter Laura Strelitz, a Mt. Ararat High School math teacher who lives in Cundy‘s Harbor. Three of her siblings live locally, while the others call New Hampshire, Colorado and Utah home.
The Vegetable Corner got its start some 34 years ago when Violet, with daughters Mary and Hannah, sold corn on the cob and strawberries under umbrellas on their front lawn. It was son Peter who gave the market its name.
“Then I got foolish,” said Ray. “Let’s build a garage in case it rains.” Then came a meat case, a vegetable case and a meat saw. Before long, it officially became a small store, the popular Vegetable Corner, where demand typically outstrips supply.
Outside the market is a can’t-miss 6-foot wooden “corn man” painted with bright blue overalls, a red shirt and green hat. A fabric American flag is hoisted in one hand and a half dozen wooden ears of corn are cradled in the other. Roger Landry bought the solid wood statue in New Hampshire several years ago and passed it on to Ray. Landry had to use a chain saw to trim the bottom of the figure because it was chockablock with carpenter ants. Ron Golz, who lives in the High Head section of Harpwell, painted it.
Inside the market, the linoleum-like floor has seen better days. There are coolers for produce, 14 wood bins brimming with potatoes and onions, and Maine-made jams and maple syrup. The back of the market, with its original garage floor, is where customers place orders for meat, chicken or fish. There are cases for frozen goods and home-baked cookies and muffins. Adjacent metal racks are weighed down with oversized cans of a variety of fruit and vegetables — 7 pounds of cherry pie filling, 6 pounds of yellow mustard, 6 pounds of kidney beans. There’s also a stand with bread and rolls, a coffee bar and a food warmer for soups. Gone are the days when customers ran a tab or paid only by cash or check; Ray eventually began accepting credit cards.
Holidays were special. Mary and Hannah would pick pumpkins in the fall and pile them onto a big Chevy pickup truck to sell in the store. At Thanksgiving, the market offered fresh turkeys. Christmas was a busy time, with Ray readying rib roasts and crown roasts.
Daughter Mary Evitts, who lives in West Newburyport, Massachusetts, worked at The Vegetable Corner in her teens and 20s. “I really love the store because it was convenient but a lot of hard work. I’m very nostalgic about it,” she said. “A lot of people came in who were just kind to us.”
“It’s a really good way of life,” she continued. “Just having to deal with people and having the comfort of your family is a gift. It’s a thing of the past. When my 10-year-old found out Grampy was closing, he started crying in the back seat of my car. I’ll miss the opportunity for my kids to work there.”
“This is a story about family,” Mary stressed. “At the end of the day, we’ll give God all the credit.”
Ray’s grandparents were French Canadian. He and his parents, devout Catholics, grew up in Brunswick. “All we spoke at home was French,” he said. In 1955 he attended the National School of Meat Cutting in Toledo, Ohio.
Ray, nicknamed “Rocky” in his younger years, and his brother Paul worked with their father at Tetreault‘s family-owned market in Brunswick, now home to Union Street Bakery & Cake Shop. The store was originally their uncle’s, who opened it in 1926. Ray eventually moved on and for several years worked full time at two jobs — cutting meats at Bowdoin College and Shaw’s supermarket. Violet, 82, is from South Portland. The couple met at a Brunswick bar where she liked to dance. They married two years later, in 1962.
Six or seven years ago, when family was no longer available to pitch in and Ray couldn’t stand for long hours, Rick Goodenow donned a butcher’s white coat and learned to cut and sell meat from Ray. Rick had retired after 31 years as a firefighter at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station. His daughter, Emily Goodenow, made the market’s bread, cookies and muffins. Rick planned to retire again, and on Aug. 15, Emily was to begin training in Utah as a SkyWest Airlines flight attendant.
With only a few weeks before The Vegetable Corner closes, one morning Ray and Violet reminisced about their decades of work. Ray pulled up a chair in the dining room of their small home next to the store and Vi sat in a comfortable lounge chair in the living room. A 2-foot-tall crucifix, a treasured gift from a friend, hung on the wall near her.
Ray recalled early days when a truck with 225-pound quarter sides of beef hanging on rails arrived at the store. He’d unload one, throw it over one shoulder, and get to work butchering. Vi would do the baking and make pickles in their home kitchen. Eventually, daughter Theresa took over making mouthwatering pastries, to the delight of locals.
There were lighter moments, like the time their youngest daughter, Hannah, was working in the store and told her father a movie star frequented the market. “That doesn’t impress me,” he said. “I’m not a movie star person.”
The celebrity “comes in one day … in dungarees and a work shirt,” said Ray. “Hannah is pointing at him. I thought she was telling me he was shoplifting. After he left, she said, ‘Dad, that was Patrick Dempsey.'”
The family “always put God first in our lives,” said Vi, “even when times were tough.” On a wintry night two years ago, the market’s pipes froze. Ray said he didn’t realize it until one of their daughters went in the store. “Dad, you’ve got water all over the place,” she told him.
“We had a lot of damage,” he said. “We took a big loss at the time. That really got me thinking about closing.”
On Sept. 3, Ray and Violet will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. “We’ve been working 12- to 18-hour days since we’ve been married,” said Ray. “I look forward to spending time together. This morning, before I went to the doctor, we had coffee together. It was a peaceful time.”
Back at the store, customer Dave Luce mused that “maybe the time has just come” for the business to shutter. “I’ll be sad.” Sheri Blackstone, who was ordering meat, said the Tetreaults’ retirement is well deserved.
The Vegetable Corner is “more than a business,” Ray said. “We met so many nice people and made a lot of friends. That’s what I’m going to miss the most.”
“I’m not giving up entirely,” he said.
Added Vi, “We’ll take it one day at a time.”
Connie Sage Conner is a retired editor of The Virginian-Pilot. She lives in Harpswell and serves on the Harpswell News Board of Directors.