Two Vineyard Haven business success stories
Although many Vineyard Haven businesses have come and gone over the years, owners Jean Dupon of Le Grenier restaurant and Heather Kochin of Rainy Day gift shop have made their Main Street establishments successful mainstays. This year both celebrate milestones, 30 years in business for Le Grenier, and 35 for Rainy Day.
Le Grenier's recipe for success
In 1979 Mr. Dupon sold a restaurant he owned in Lexington and was traveling around the country when a friend called and asked him for a favor. Le Grenier's original owner, who opened the restaurant at 96 Main Street in 1978, prevailed on Mr. Dupon to be his chef the next summer.
"I never thought I'd be here 30 years," said Mr. Dupon, who not only stayed for the summer but also bought the restaurant from his friend in 1979 and the building in 1985.
In a recent interview in the restaurant's dining room on the second floor, Mr. Dupon recalled, "It did not look like this at all. I started very much from scratch. I had one six-burner stove, one refrigerator, no steam table, no dishwasher - nothing, nothing."
In addition to Le Grenier, for about 10 years Mr. Dupon also ran a pastry shop and café serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the first floor where Martha's Vineyard Bagel Authority currently operates. He said he closed it in the early 1990s because finding employees became difficult.
Le Grenier is a family effort that now includes three generations. Mr. Dupon's son Jean Marc works as a chef Thursday nights after finishing his day job at the Land Bank. Jean Marc's 13-year-old son, Zachary, makes salads and desserts, his 14-year-old daughter, Jessica, buses tables, and his former wife, Michele, works as a hostess.
In encouragement of Zachary's aspirations to become a chef, Mr. Dupon said he recently purchased him his own Le Grenier uniform, complete with a black chef jacket. The delighted grandfather notes that Zachary already has mastered some of the restaurant's trademark dishes.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
"What I'm really proud about is my grandchildren, about the family, and a good reputation - not only the reputation but also the support that the community has given us all these years by being customers," he said.
Pointing out that Le Grenier is the Island's longest-running chef-owned restaurant, Mr. Dupon attributes its success to consistency, the menu, and word of mouth. "When I first started, most of the restaurants had only 5 or 6 items on the menu," he said. "I started with a large menu so that people could come back to experience different dishes."
The menu offers 28 entrées, including the show- stopper Steak Au Poivre, set to flames at tableside. Mr. Dupon has kept the menu basically the same for the last 30 years, with good reason. "I tried to change it one year because I wanted to try something different, and then I almost had a mutiny here from my customers," he said, with a laugh. "I did not realize that they came back year after year, that they would come two or three times here, for that meal that they remembered that they liked." As a compromise, he offers new dishes as daily specials.
When asked what changed most for him as a businessman in 30 years, Mr. Dupon cited rising costs on the Island. "For people to come and enjoy themselves here, it's getting to be very, very expensive," he said. "When I started on the Vineyard 30 years ago, 25 years ago, even 15 years ago, I used to see people who used to come here to have dinner, and while they were on vacation here for 2 or 3 weeks, they'd come to the restaurant twice a week. And then it became once a week - and now they come in once, especially given the economy nowadays."
On a busy night, Mr. Dupon estimates Le Grenier serves between 150 and 180 meals. On his busiest night he once prepared 222 dinners. Mr. Dupon's workday starts at 6:30 am, with a break after his lunch, and lasts until closing, anywhere from 11 pm to midnight.
The restaurant is open year-round, serving dinner seven days a week from May through Columbus Day weekend, then five days a week the rest of the year, with the exception of a few weeks in winter.
Mr. Dupon said the defeat of a ballot question last spring to allow beer and wine sales in Tisbury restaurants, which would have provided additional revenue, will weigh into his decision in how many days he will keep Le Grenier open this coming winter.
Although Mr. Dupon said he kids his grandchildren about growing up faster so he can stop working, he added, "I'm still enjoying it, and I'll keep working as long as I can. I don't see myself as retiring and just sitting on the porch."
Rainy Day, an all-weather favorite
Although Ms. Kochin graduated from college with a degree in landscape architecture, the gift store business was in her blood. While growing up in Shelburne Falls, she helped in a gift store owned and operated by her grandfather for 30 years.
Rainy Day's original owners, Ann Milstein and Frank Piccione, opened the store at 66 Main Street in Vineyard Haven in 1973. They hired Ms. Kochin, newly graduated from college, as the manager in 2000.
After managing Rainy Day for two and a half years, Ms. Kochin bought the store in 2002, adding her own touches by upgrading and changing its overall appearance, and introducing early bird specials, coupons in the local papers, and senior citizen and Island Club card discounts. To reward returning customers, she instituted a "frequent buyer" punch card.
In talking about what she thinks has contributed to Rainy Day's success as a year-round business, Ms. Kochin said, "One thing Ann and Frank taught me is to just be reliable as a store everyone knows is open. As much as there are days when there's no one on the street, you can't just choose to close up early, or not open at all."
Ms. Kochin describes herself as "the heart" and Helen MacLeod, who has been the store manager for three years, as "the blood" of the business. Ms. Kochin credits Ms. MacLeod and their team of employees for helping make the store a success by sharing in the responsibilities.
To keep her inventory fresh and new, Ms. Kochin orders merchandise from over 400 companies. "I'm always asking customers questions - what are you looking for, what do you need," she said, adding with a laugh, "I'm a mover and shaker - if I get bored with something, I put it on sale."
However, as Ms. Kochin said she also realizes, "it's important to keep the staples, the things customers know they can rely on Rainy Day for."
Some of the tried and true favorites include wind-up toys, starfish and sea glass, and paper star lights.
Mindful and appreciative of returning customers, Ms. Kochin instituted a "frequent buyer" punch card to reward them, soon after she bought Rainy Day. To improve on the idea, she said she is considering keeping customer appreciation cards on file at the store, because sometimes shoppers forget to bring their punch cards.
Oftentimes Island visitors want to take home gifts and items made on Martha's Vineyard, Ms. Kochin pointed out, and many of them, particularly day-trippers, are unable to shop at venues such as the Artisans Fair. Consequently, one of her goals is to showcase and sell more Island-made merchandise.
"It's a wonderful opportunity for many amazing Island artists," Ms. Kochin said, considering that Rainy Day will handle the advertising and publicity, supply the venue, and sell the products. Those who are interested can contact Ms. MacLeod.
Ms. Kochin said she also is committed to purchasing hand-made, fair trade, environmentally friendly, and made-in-the-U.S. products.
When asked if she had ever bought merchandise she considered a "mistake," Ms. Kochin laughed. "Yes, I have. I bought these huge glass vases that could have been pillar candle holders for a walkway, that were lime green, white and aqua," she confessed. "I couldn't get rid of them. Luckily our manager took them to her house for her daughter's wedding."
On the other hand, an item she didn't expect to be a big success - an extendable backscratcher - has remained a bestseller year after year.
In addition to updating merchandise and store displays, Ms. Kochin said she hosts different events to keep things changing. For example, during the December 2006 holiday season, Rainy Day offered a men's shopping morning, complete with discount coupons, complimentary coffee and donuts, personal shoppers, and free gift-wrapping.
Ms. Kochin said she plans to continue giving back to the community in the form of discounts, giveaways, and donations. "I hope to have the energy of the previous owners, to keep going for another 35 years," she said.