A century of Cronig’s on Martha’s Vineyard

A store that survives so long has to be doing lots of things right.

Cronig's Markets owner Steve Bernier took over the stores from Robert Cronig 31 years ago. - Stacey Rupolo

Cronig’s Markets are 100 years old.

Officially, the two Island supermarkets celebrate their centennial on March 10. Both stores are on State Road, one in Vineyard Haven, known as “Down-Island Cronig’s,” and the other, “Up-Island Cronig’s,” is in West Tisbury. There will not be a lot of fanfare on March 10. Cronig’s will celebrate its 100th with a month-long 30 percent Island Card discount to shoppers.

A retail brand that lasts 100 years — and retains a kindly culture — is increasingly unlikely in our world of corporate retail chess games and takeovers. More unlikely are the origins of Cronig’s, established in 1917 in a Vineyard Haven storefront on Main Street by a quartet of Lithuanian-born immigrant brothers who established a nearly 70-year community culture around their enterprise.

Perhaps most unlikely is that Robert (Robbie) Cronig, the last of his family’s ownership, was able to find a corporate grocer named Steve Bernier who eagerly threw away his corporate suit and tie 31 years ago to embrace and grow the Cronig legacy, who with his wife Constance is raising three kids on the Island.

“When we [Robbie Cronig and I] met, it was like a whoosh, like a vacuum pulling us together. We connected that first day in a way we really never understood, and 20 years later Robbie still had keys to the store and the combination to the safe,” Mr. Bernier, son of a Canadian immigrant, recalled last week in his spectacularly understated office above Down-Island Cronig’s.

“I was at Star Market for more than 20 years, started part time in high school, and in 1985 I was looking around to do something else. A colleague, Dave Howard, a summer resident here, had heard Cronig’s was for sale. He said “You have to meet this guy [Robbie Cronig].”

“So I came over and met Robbie. We talked about grocery stores for 14 straight days — and nights — and agreed to the sale. Neither Robbie nor I ever talked to anyone else about a deal. And we did it on a handshake. At the closing, our attorneys and accountants were astonished that we didn’t have a written [purchase and sale] agreement.

“Before the closing, Robbie had said to me, ‘Steve, only four people in the world can screw this up, our two lawyers and two accountants. I’ll handle mine, you handle yours,’” Mr. Bernier said. “Sure enough, they got to arguing about something and Robbie took me out in the hall, we resolved it ourselves and went back into the room,” he said.

The result of this community-centered business is that the Cronig brand is bigger than its selection of foods and household necessaries. The Cronigs and Mr. Bernier have nurtured and tended community roots beyond the bottom line. Many Cronig’s customers shop there because they have seen Cronig’s partnering and contributions to an Island whose residents long ago learned to rely on each other to survive and thrive. And that has been the case for 100 years at Cronig’s.

Founder Sam Cronig showed up on Martha’s Vineyard in 1911, a refugee fleeing a Russian pogrom against Jews in his Russian-held native Lithuania. The eldest of 10 Krangle children (immigration authorities at Ellis Island re-named him Cronig), Sam Cronig worked in New Bedford, came to the Island as a hand on the Daggett Farm in Eastville, and worked to bring three brothers and a sister to the Island.

Sam Cronig described Islanders to his brothers Ed, Theodore, and

Henry as “the finest people on earth.” When the brothers opened a grocery on Church and Main streets in Vineyard Haven in 1917, it became clear that Sam was right. The boys had $750, a $10 wagon and a $30 horse. Island food wholesaler Driscoll, Church & Hall gave Cronig’s $500 credit toward their first order. The Cronigs offered credit to Islanders and Islanders ate faster than they were able to pay. Shortly, dire financial straits ensued until Ed Symonds, an Island carpenter, walked in unannounced one day and loaned the brothers $500, interest-free, on an open-ended repayment schedule.

We find no further reference to Mr. Symonds, but his action is in accord with the Vineyard principle of trust based on observable character. Sam Cronig was proved a man of character, a competitor who would not stock ice cream because a local woman made ice cream ( “Mrs. LeBeau has got to make a living,” he’s quoted as saying).

A grocery store, the precursor to the present SBS Grain Store, had employed all four Cronig boys on their arrival. As a result, competitor Sam Cronig would not lobby SBS customers for their business — but would sell them his daily special offer.

The Cronigs took care of business and also cared for their community and people, generally anonymously, in response to need: A family burned out of its home, another with medical or financial setbacks.

The Cronigs were entrepreneurs — people who generally are first with ideas and notions that are contrary to the status quo. In 1922, the $10 wagon and $30 horse had evolved into a snappy Reo truck that promised food “at store or from the car.” Cronig’s is cited as a pioneer in food refrigeration, and later became the first East Coast retailer to accept credit cards.

And so it went. Over the years, three brothers became less involved in the business, and Sam became the face of Cronig’s Market. After his retirement in 1957, sons Robert and David ran the business. Down-Island Cronig’s opened on State Road in 1976, the Main Street store closed in 1989, and Up-Island Cronig’s opened in West Tisbury in 1990 under Mr. Bernier’s aegis.

Now, understand that Mr. Bernier is not an egoist. He is a worker, always has been. He had three paper routes at age 13 to help out in a Stoneham home without a TV or a car out front. He went to Northeastern University six years at night for a degree. He works incessantly, and spends a lot of time with his customers and his people. “I’m the steward of this place. We took what Robbie and his family had started and enlarged on it,” he said.

Indeed. In 2004 he added Healthy Additions, a retail store next to Down-Island Cronig’s that sells natural and organic health-enhancing products. In 2012 he put solar-paneled roofs on the parking lot in the Down-Island store, with charging stations for electric hybrid cars. He did the same for the Up-Island store last year. Cronig’s has led on Island farming and green initiatives. Sales of cigarettes, styrofoam products, and plastic bags are off-limits at Cronig’s.

But grasshoppers are huge at Cronig’s. Mr. Bernier is proud of the six-foot-long copper grasshopper weathervane that has perched atop Down-Island Cronig’s roof for the past 20 years. “A customer came up to me in 1994 and said, “You need a weathervane on that roof.” I never saw the guy before or since, but I told Travis Tuck [Island sculptor] about it. He said he was booked for years, but he came in two weeks later with a book of weathervanes dating back to the 18th century. A grasshopper denoted the place for trade.

“Travis did similar weathervanes all over the Island, from Aquinnah to the Vineyard Haven Steamship Authority, with themes representative of the communities. I am not musical or artistic, I can’t play the piano, but I learned the importance of art and culture in the community, and that informed a lot of partnering we do,” he said.

Cronig’s isn’t the cheapest food store on the Island, but Mr. Bernier has leveled the playing field with an assortment of price points among the 32,000 items in stock, and by offering a 20 percent discount to Island residents via the Island Card. “I used to get some heat from summer residents about that, but not now. I explain that this is a year-round community of mostly blue-collar working people. Asked them to try to get through a winter here alone,” he said.

That’s stuff we see. What we don’t see is a basement storage area that was perfectly fine before Cronig’s replaced it with steel and concrete flooring to avoid any chance of leaks into groundwater. Or LED lighting and the use of environmentally friendly freon to replace glycol in refrigeration systems.

The level of the company’s charitable work is also off the radar. We asked for a list of charitable activities in which the stores engage, mostly on-Island, and got an eight-page list of more than 240 causes.

We were invited to wander the store to talk with customers and employees. Their responses, from opposite ends of the transaction, so to speak, were the same. An interview with Norma Blidgen, a floor supervisor, was interrupted by a customer, Charlene Douglas of West Tisbury, who needed to hug Ms. Blidgen.

“Norma is A Number One. Write that down,” Ms. Douglas said. “I’ve been shopping here since 1970. It’s quality, value, and the people. They stand behind their products, even when it’s not their fault,” she laughed, recounting a story of a chowder gone wrong that she thought was a result of Cronig cream that was sour. Her complaint was met with sympathy and an offer to replace the chowder fixins’ — and a tip not to cover a cream-based chowder while it’s cooking. “It wasn’t the cream, it was me,” she said.

“This is a family here,” Ms. Blidgen observed of the chowder story.

People catch on to the Cronig brand quickly. Rick Starr of West Tisbury moved from Connecticut a year and a half ago. “You should be talking with my wife. She’s in here every day, but I would say this is an institution. Other stores have some lower prices, but the Island Card is good and the service and quality here is great,” he said.

Katy Gwynn, 21, working a register when we talked, is a veteran of four years, who left Cronig’s for another job and quickly returned. “I work here for a lot of reasons. This is family. I get to do different things, there’s always something to do. And I eat better here, lots of veggies and organic food I’ve learned about,” she smiled.

Bill MacDonald, 74, is sort of the major-domo at Cronig’s. He mentors managers, does merchandising and store operations. He is a straight-ahead Melrose guy, and the Star Market clerk who took teenage part-timer Steve Bernier under his wing more than 50 years ago.

Mr. MacDonald knows the grocery business as a corporate exec, independent operator, and food industry consultant. He joined his pal 15 years ago at Cronig’s because he wanted to.

“Hands down, the most community-involved business I’ve ever seen. Supportive and generous, a lot of it behind the scenes.

“Corporate culture is different from independents like this. Independents tend to be more closely aligned with the community. The owners live in the community and the investment in the culture is different [from corporate business]. And this business is well beyond that norm.

“There aren’t many places left where you can do it. Margins are thin in this business, where independents are battling with BB guns, hoping the chains won’t turn the howitzers on them. Maybe Marblehead, Manchester, Martha’s Vineyard, places with close-knit communities like that, can do business this way,” he said.

Robbie Cronig lived to work and mentor Steve Bernier in the ways of Island business. He died in 2008. “Robbie would love the store the way it is today. I can say that because we worked side-by-side for 20 years,” Mr. Bernier said.

Doing well by doing good for 100 years. Good work.