Fare Trade

No ideology pushed here; only a desire to provide whole, organic, and local products in a friendly environment

by Julia Lynam

sweet_clover_lead_DSC3294editIn 2003, when Heather Belcher wanted to buy organic food for her family, the closest market was in Burlington — quite a trek from Westford for a new mother. She and Ellen Fox, a friend from college living in St. Albans, brought forth their vision for Sweet Clover Market, a small, friendly place with a wide range of local and organic products that they opened four years ago in Essex.

A lifetime of marching to a different drum has led Heather Belcher to a harvest of Sweet Clover.

That’s the name of the whole-foods store she opened at the Essex Shoppes and Cinema in 2006 with partners Ellen Fox, Shane Desautels, and Michael Reardon.

Belcher finds herself at the helm of a distinctively successful store, she says, because of life choices ranging from studying aerospace engineering at Boston University to serving as dogcatcher in Westford. Flouting perceived wisdom, Sweet Clover is both a basic grocery and a specialty store, and Belcher is very happy with its current size — it has no need to grow, she says.

Soon after the store’s fourth birthday last month, Belcher took a moment to recall Sweet Clover’s genesis. “When I was pregnant in 2003, I made a commitment to eating organic food because I didn’t want to worry about pesticides or chemicals,” she says. “It makes a difference, eating food that has been minimally processed and is free of chemicals. It puts less demand on your body.”

The 3,500-square-foot store is a cross between an old-fashioned country store and a corner grocery. Ali Keener is produce manager; Shane Desautels is an owner; Suzanne Boyajian is grocery buyer; Bobbie Pratt and Beth Kerschner are deli associates; and Toby Ferdyn is a stock person.

Belcher lives in Westford with Desautels, her life partner. In 2003, the closest place to buy organic food was Burlington, and with a baby, they couldn’t imagine driving such a distance just for milk or bread. They needed a local whole-foods store. “Then I realized that there were many more people like us,” she says.

One of those people — also a new mother making choices about healthy food — was her college friend Ellen Fox, living in St. Albans with her husband, Mike Reardon. The two women reckoned that Fox, with retail experience in the Rail City Market, knew how to put together a whole-foods store, and Belcher, with accounting and development experience, could handle the behind-the-scenes part.

Research and development was needed, so the women embarked on an intense 12-month odyssey of discovery while the men provided support, taking over childcare after work to allow the women to develop their business plan.

“It was a really super collaboration,” says Fox, who was largely responsible for the interior design of the store. “Everyone would have ideas. I had more retail experience, and I’m a painter — a visual artist. I’m interested in color as it relates to the environment. Our most fundamental experience of the world is eating, so I wanted some of that to be reflected in the sensory experience of the store.”

Paul Michel, Sweet Clover’s butcher, buys whole carcasses from local farms and breaks them down at the store in order to offer the variety of cuts customers seek. Katie Fiore, the chef, formerly of Sugar Snap in Burlington, is in charge of the prepared food section, which features daily soups and sandwiches and a wide array of salads and gourmet comfort food for taking home.

Focus groups facilitated by Pat Heffernan of Burlington’s Marketing Partners revealed the pent-up demand. “We’ve done research for many years around the state,” recalls Heffernan, “and I can’t think of another case in which focus groups revealed such a strong demand.

“It was very clear that a store like this was needed because of traffic patterns, style, and preference — there was a lot of frustration expressed with the alternatives. People especially wanted staff who were knowledgeable about the products yet were not snooty or rigid about it.

Heffernan was also impressed by their thoughtfulness. “They wanted to offer an alternative for people who cared about the food they ate and about building a relationship with the suppliers. They are not extreme or ideological; they wanted to make it accessible.”

Forging ahead to develop financial projections, Belcher and Fox quickly realized they couldn’t start Sweet Clover Market with conventional financing. They consulted proprietors of other similar markets in Vermont to find creative financing models and decided to solicit small loans from community members.

Among them were Kim and Marc Lang of Essex: “We were so excited when we heard about the market,” says Kim. “I remember going up there to Sweet Clover before it was even open, to find out about it. That’s when I met Heather.”

The Langs, as did about 20 other patron-lenders who include local residents and family members, lent $5,000 for five years. Repayment is due in 2011. “We’ll be refinancing the loans,” says Belcher.

For Kim Lang, her relationship with Sweet Clover has been very positive. “The staff are very knowledgeable and the customer service is better than anything I’ve experienced anywhere,” she says. “The weekly opportunities to sample food are really important, because a lot of the food is not what you’d find in Price Chopper.”

Belcher, 38, born in Illinois and raised in New Orleans, met Fox at the beginning of their freshman year at Boston University. Enrolled to study aerospace because she liked the math, and because not many other people were doing it, Belcher found the science a little taxing and eventually graduated with a combined bachelor of arts and science in business with a financial concentration.

She moved to Westford in 1998, seeing Vermont as a place “where I could live on 10 acres and still have sushi within a 30-minute drive.” There she met Desautels, a Burlington native who’d spent a year exploring southern California but found that the grass was greener at home. He is manager of the mailing department at The Offset House in Essex, which he joined in 1996 as a production worker.

In Vermont, Belcher worked as an accountant for the state, then parlayed her volunteer experience on the board of Women Helping Battered Women into employment as development coordinator for the Burlington nonprofit, along the way acquiring fund-raising skills, which proved useful when seeking financial backing for Sweet Clover.

The local demand for the store was clear: Customers in Essex, Jericho, Underhill, and Westford wanted to shop for local and organic food without having to drive into Burlington or brave the traffic at Essex Junction’s busy Five Corners intersection.

Belcher and Fox continued to develop their vision into reality and opened the doors of their 3,500-square-foot store on Nov. 4, 2006. They chose to locate close to a large supermarket — Hannaford — to provide convenience and to use the supermarket as a gateway, a perception that has proved to be true, as many customers combine a visit to Sweet Clover with a trip to the supermarket.

Fox, although still a joint owner, drew back from everyday involvement with Sweet Clover in 2008, preferring to pursue further involvement in agricultural production. She is now cheese and catalog manager for Shelburne Farms.

Today, Sweet Clover offers groceries, deli, fresh meat and produce, gift and seasonal items, and, since May of this year, prepared foods, including sandwiches, soups and casseroles. Menus are posted daily on Twitter and Facebook.

The addition of prepared foods, which make up about 15 percent of revenue, has, Belcher says, contributed to 20 percent growth in the last year.

This followed a lean year during the 2008-09 economic downturn, although the store weathered that storm intact. “Our industry was particularly well suited to the recession,” Belcher says, “People with sizable disposable incomes shifted from eating out to buying gourmet food to eat at home, so we didn’t see the loss of revenue that many businesses did, but we weren’t seeing strong growth either. However, by that time we’d been open two years and were past the chaos of the initial stages. We were in a position to negotiate with suppliers and fine-tune.”

The fine-tuning continues. Buyer Suzanne Boyajian explains. “The size of this store is special — it’s a cross between an old-fashioned country store and a corner store. We know a lot of our customers and we greet 99 percent of them — we have a policy of communicating.”

A strong management team promotes Sweet Clover’s vision. Boyajian, with considerable retail experience with Cornell Trading in New York City and Burlington, has been with the store since before it opened; chef Katie Fiori, formerly of Sugar Snap in Burlington, is in charge of the prepared food section; administrative assistant Emily Fontaine takes care of the office and human resources functions; and butcher Paul Michel brings skills from having run his own meat market in Enosburg Falls.

“We buy the carcasses,” Belcher says, “and break them down here so that we can offer a whole variety of cuts that people ask for. We’re trying to keep alive the idea of using the whole animal.” They make their own sausages and even sell rabbit meat.

Fiori, Michel, and Boyajian have each run their own businesses in the past. Running again against perceived wisdom, Belcher says, “Hiring people who used to run their own businesses works well; they appreciate what goes into it.”

The friendly atmosphere, welcoming décor, and fascinating range of products demonstrate that a great deal of mature thought and boundless energy have gone into the genesis and development of Sweet Clover.

“It’s a classic, woman-owned business,” says Heffernan. “They considered how they could make the business work around themselves, their families, their lives, and their passion.”

And true to her penchant for the unusual, Belcher has persuaded Michel to teach her how to cut up a carcass of meat. “It’s something not many other people do!” she says, laughing. •