Cronig’s Market owner Steve Bernier is selling his entire business. Up-Island Cronig’s in West Tisbury, and down-Island Cronig’s and Healthy Additions in Vineyard Haven will change hands at the start of 2022.
Bernier told The Times succession had been on his mind for a while. Both the pandemic and his serious bout with COVID-19 put into sharper focus the need for him to find somebody to maintain Cronig’s as a community grocery store with the same spirit and conviction that he had exercised after he acquired it from Robbie Cronig in 1985. Established over a century ago, Cronig’s will be owned and captained by Andrea Donnelly, the company’s bookkeeper, who began at the market as a 15-year-old cashier. The deal is designed to preserve the company and stave off supermarket chains and absentee investors, whom Bernier described as “the wrong element.” Bernier will stay on as an employee of Donnelly’s, and as an advisor. Donnelly made it clear the toughest aspect of the deal was convincing her to do it in the first place.
”So when he came to me, I said, ‘What are you, crazy — me?’” Donnelly said. She then said with a bit of humor she asked him to leave her office because he was keeping her from her work.
Bernier joked that she must have thought he’d lost his marbles. Nevertheless, Bernier continued to pitch the idea. “I’ve been trying to tell her how I see her, and she doesn’t believe me,” Bernier said. “I see her as being kind of special and kind of hand-delivered to me from God to do this job.”
Donnelly was finally sold on the deal not when Bernier kept pitching it, but when he stopped pitching it. “I think when he was entertaining somebody else is when I said yes,” Donnelly said. “I was just like, No, I’m not letting anybody else — we’ve got this together. And I probably wouldn’t have said yes if I knew he wasn’t going to be by my side to train and help me figure it out.”
“And to help do it,” Bernier said
“And to help do it,” Donnelly echoed.
Constance Messmer, Bernier’s wife, described Donnelly as “humble, quiet, smart as a whip, and there all along.”
Messmer said she was “in total support” of the deal with Donnelly. “She’s perfect … I am like, Well done, Steven … and especially, I have to say, to a woman — yes! She’s so smart and she’s so on it, and she’s so intuitive and thinks outside the box — lot of aspects similar to Steve. And it just makes so much sense.”
Cronig’s staffers were onboard too. Bernier said he told staff many months ago he was putting Andrea “on the examination table” for possible succession, and asked how they felt about it.
“How many people were in that room?” he asked Donnelly.
“Maybe 15, 15 or 20,” Donnelly said.
“Every one of them, thumbs up,” Bernier said.
“Andrea’s got both feet on the ground,” he added. “She’s down to earth. She’s practicable, she’s sensible, she’s worked here for 26 years. She knows exactly what this place is all about.”
Back when he hashed things out with Robbie Cronig to acquire the business, he said neither of them had been talking to people about such a transaction. Bernier said that the deal was done on a handshake, without a purchase and sale agreement. It was forged on trust and mutual respect.
“And 10 years later, he still had the key to the front door and the combination of the safe,” Bernier said. “The old-fashioned way. I learned from that, and I’m trying to do that same thing with Andrea. And 30 years from now, she’s going to have this job to do all over again. That’s how we keep this a community grocery store, as it should be. As it started out to be.”
As astute as Donnelly is, Bernier said, there are aspects of the business he can’t simply hand her a playbook for, and that’s why he finds it important to allow for a mentoring period.
“Until you get in this seat,” Bernier said, “you can’t learn it. You can talk about it, but it goes nowhere. It doesn’t really sink in. So I think the value of me doing this, not on my deathbed, but being participatory, being caring and at her side, takes care of Constance, takes care of our family, takes care of our community family, takes care of our employee family. And Andrea’s going to help me do all this and keep it in place where it belongs. So I told her half the job’s done by just saying yes.”
Part of the job entails maintaining Cronig’s charitable contributions.
“My donation file here with my Excel spreadsheet is 341 lines long,” Bernier said.
Bernier thinks Robbie Cronig would approve of the deal. “So we’re going to do something unconventional and kind of sweet, kind of community-ish, hugely … I’m going to take back paper for 30 years,” Bernier said. “There’s no down payment. We’re going to do it the old-fashioned way. And I think Robbie is watching over us right now, and is going, ‘Attaboy.’”
Asked if her family knows, Donnelly said they did.
“They were surprised, yes,” she said. “But not too much. I have been here for so long. I’ve always treated it like it was my own business. I’ve lost sleep, you know?”
Donnelly, who lives in Edgartown, said she first started at Cronig’s as a teenage cashier. “I did it a lot for the employees and the community,” she said of the deal, and added there was real fear about the business getting sold off to the highest bidder.
“Or some person with more money than brains out of L.A. or New York or whatever,” Bernier said. “And there’s some lovely people from there, OK, but I can’t play the risk game. Robbie put this store in my hands. I have a responsibility here. And I need to think about how to do that. And if all that I’m thinking about is myself and my family, I end up with the wrong elements. I get investment letters from investment bankers all the time, two or three a month, loving to buy this place. My customers would hang me by my thumbs if they ever heard me entertaining something like that. Me entertaining Andrea and what we’re talking about doing is the apple pie, the American flag, the home run all in one — beautiful as it’s supposed to be.”
Donnelly isn’t enthused to be in the spotlight, and despite all the financial work she does for the company, she discounted the suggestion she is effectively CFO.
”We’re not big on titles here, but sure … I mean, sometimes I don’t give myself enough credit,” she said.
Bernier and Donnelly both declined to discuss the purchase price for the business. Bernier said the deal basically had less to do with money than it did with trust, understanding, and patience: “With no down payment and taking back paper for 30 years, this ain’t a short game. This is a long game.”
Bernier said Cronig’s customers should not notice any difference in the business. The change will only be the power structure in the office.
“How I’ve tried to phrase it to her is up to the 31st of December I have the last vote,” he said. “As of Jan. 1st, she has the last vote.”