Walk into Reliable Market on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs, and the first thing you might notice is a sense of comfort. The entrance areas, the layout of the aisles, and the friendliness of the employees combine to give the place a human face that's ever harder to find these days. You definitely don't feel like a number in a warehouse.
And it's been that way from the start. First opened 60 years ago by Armando and Helen Pacheco in the building that now houses Basics, the clothing store, Reliable has always been an intimate, family-oriented business. Today the market is run by their son Bob and his wife, Donna, who are in turn backed up in the business by their two children, Eddie and Jennifer.
To celebrate the store's 60th birthday, last spring the Pachecos held a nine-day sale where many items were priced at 60 cents - chicken for 60 cents per pound, a large bottle of ketchup for 60 cents, and so on.
When the senior Pachecos opened Reliable Self-Service Market in 1947 - the year Bob was born - there were five other grocery stores on Circuit Avenue - the First National, A&P, Red & White, Central, and Pioneer. And all but one of them stayed open year-round, according to Bob. When I asked him why Self-Service was included in the store's name, Bob said, "Before that, when you went into a store, you told the grocer what you wanted, and he'd find it and put it on the counter, and maybe tally up your purchase on the paper bag as he filled it." With the new markets you moved through the store with a cart and served yourself.
Although they were all small, mom and pop operations, it's hard to imagine six grocers being supported by what was a much smaller community at the time. Did Bob's parents feel any hostility from the established merchants when they dove in? "None that I ever heard of. They probably said, 'Hey, you want to open? This is America: good luck.'"
However the competitors felt, the Pachecos soon built their own clientele, and Reliable survived - and thrived. And grew: In 1960, after 13 years in their first space, the Pachecos moved Reliable a couple of doors south on Circuit to its present location.
An only child, Bob spent plenty of time as a boy in the market, learning the ropes as he went along. During high school he thought about being a pharmacist, but his focus on the future sharpened abruptly when Armando died in the fall of 1965, six months after Bob graduated from the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School. It didn't take much convincing to help his mother carry on with the business, but Bob still remembers the advice that his uncle gave him at the time. "He told me, that no matter what - good times, bad times, people always need to eat."
Bob had already learned most of the business, and the only thing that wasn't second nature to him was butchering, so in the fall of 1966, he took an eight-week course at the National School of Meat Cutting in Toledo, Ohio.
"That was the only part of the business I didn't know, the meat cutting," he recalls with a semi-wink, as if to say, "There, I nailed that, too."
When I stopped by last week to talk to Bob, I expected he'd take me somewhere where we'd be undisturbed for a few minutes, but he just waved me in behind the meat counter, pulled out a stool for me, and said, "It's going to have to be on the run, Okay?"
After sketching out the history of the market, the conversation turned to Reliable's lasting success, which can be boiled down to the time-proven basics - good service and fair prices, according to Bob.
"We have a very strong relationship with the year-round customers," he says. "Some are second and third generation shoppers. That's a great feeling. Anybody can be busy in the summer. I'd rather be busy in the winter."
Bob comes across as a warm person - with a twinkle - who's as comfortable with himself as he is with others, but he's no idle glad-hander. He is soft-spoken and takes time to reflect before speaking, and when he does his thoughts are concise and to the point. He gives each customer the attention he or she needs. "Take care of one customer at a time," he says. "If there are eight people waiting, concentrate on the one you're waiting on. You can't panic. That doesn't do any good."
From time to time during our conversation, a customer would lean in behind the display case to say something like, "Hey Bob, remember that roast I asked you about last week? I need it tomorrow." The order was important, of course, but the customer appeared to cherish the contact with Bob as much as the roast or the chops or the quartered chicken.
"You hear a lot of laughter around the meat counter," says Barbara Child who, with her husband, Ed, comes in from Lambert's Cove once a week, year-round, to shop at Reliable. "There's a nice, friendly atmosphere there, and Bobby Pacheco is just a wonderful person. If there's ever anything we ever need in the meat line for a party, Bobby just knocks himself out. "For Margaret Maida, who makes the pilgrimage from Chilmark, the attraction is two-fold. "They have excellent meat, and the prices are good," she says. "Something as simple as hamburg. They grind their own, and it tastes like beef." And she's not alone when it comes to up-Islanders heading to market in Oak Bluffs. "I'm amazed at the people I see there from Chilmark, and from Aquinnah."
Reliable's prices are generally acknowledged to be lower than at the other, larger markets on the Island, and a recent unscientific but telling sampling proved the point. Usually it's the reverse - the bigger the retailer, the lower the price, due to economy of scale.
How do the Pachecos hold the line? First, Bob explained, "The company we buy from is a cooperative. We're one of 400 independent grocers that belong, and they're not in it for profit." Second, the Pachecos fight for their customers. "There's no sin in arguing with the meat salesman. We want to get the best price we can for the customer, and if that takes a little discussion, so be it." Bob sounded as if he relishes the "discussion" at times.
"Nothing wrong with a little discussion, is there?" added Eddie who just then passed by the meat counter. Eddie has been on the payroll since he was 14, but he spent plenty of time in the store as a kid, like his dad did a generation earlier. After graduating from the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, he went off to study business at Bryant College in Rhode Island, and then came right back to the Island to join the family business.
When I asked Eddie what it was like working with his Dad, who was standing right there, he mentioned something about old school/new school. But when I asked for an example, they mentioned a few technological advances, like scanning registers, but soon they were back talking about their similarities and the philosophy that's guided the family through the decades. "We were going to keep doing it until we got it right," Bob said about the family's determination in the early days to keep learning, keep delivering what their customers wanted, in terms of goods and services. Without missing a step, Eddie added, "And we're still doing it till we get it right."
Getting it right these days means serving a more diverse clientele. Many members of the Brazilian community were first drawn to Reliable by their meat prices, but they seem to have found a comfort level there. In response, the Pachecos have stocked staples popular among Brazilians, including black beans, large sacks of rice, and extra strong coffee. As important, the Pachecos have had a Brazilian speaker on the staff for the last six or seven years, someone who can help newcomers find their way around.
No matter who shops at Reliable - someone newly arrived from abroad or a third-generation regular - they're all important to the Pachecos.
"When a customer leaves, I hope they think they've been treated well. That's something I inherited from my dad, that attitude." And it comes easy to him because, he says, "I love the business. I love people." Just the way many Reliable customers feel about the store, and the people who run it.
If Bob is the face of Reliable Market, Donna may well be its backbone. Gradually, over time, she took over the office work, which she learned from Helen, who continued to work the registers until a few weeks before she died in 2005. Today, Donna runs the office and manages the produce department, while daughter Jennie helps out in the office and runs the health and beauty aids section. When I spoke with Donna the day after I had visited with Bob, she was a bit shy at first and avoided any global comments about the business, preferring to focus on specific improvements such as the brand-new shopping carts that were purchased last summer.
But she lit up when she told me, "Just a second. I want to show you something about the future of Reliable Market." I thought she might break out an architect's rendering of a new building, and I wondered where it might be located. Instead she took me to a small bit of wall space right by the meat department and pointed proudly at a photo of Eddie's twin boys, born last summer, dressed in identical Santa Claus outfits. Right alongside were pictures of Jennie's two daughters. "Four grandchildren, all under four years old," Donna said, with an audible bounce in her voice. Sounds like Reliable Market may be in the same good family hands for another 60 years.
Julian Wise also contributed to this story.