At the Altar of Food

A former church is an apt place for Pierre Menard’s dedication

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

steeple0718In 1999 when Pierre Menard bought the Fairfax grocery that he named Steeple Market, his aim was to bring a trusted source of “really good, homemade food” to the community.

Back in the 1990s, when Pierre Menard was a food buyer for Hillcrest Foods, a wholesale bakery in Fairfax, the local grocery store went up for sale. It seemed like a perfect opportunity for him.

“I worked in town,” says Menard, “and obviously had been into the store, and there was just no place in town where you could get anything exciting for lunch or dinner. My forte is food and cooking, and my thoughts were to get a really good, strong source of homemade food in the community.”

It’s not a stretch to say Menard’s path had been leading him to make this purchase. He grew up in the Northeast Kingdom, where his father had been a dairy farmer, although long before Menard was born, he had left farming to be a long-haul trucker for St. Johnsbury Trucking. “Ironically, he had a devastating fire, and that was the end for him,” Menard says, acknowledging another fire that, many years later, would affect his own direction.

When his father’s first wife died, there were 11 children. Menard and his sister, Carol, came along after his father remarried.

Growing up, he worked odd jobs, haying or mowing lawns for neighbors. All through high school at Sacred Heart in Newport he washed dishes at The Landing Restaurant on Lake Memphremagog, eventually becoming head chef. “My boss there inspired me and felt it would be a real good move to go to New England Culinary Institute,” he says. That boss, Terrence Burdick, took him to Montpelier to tour NECI and meet the chefs.

Menard entered the program in 1986, two years after graduating from high school. After his first year at NECI, he took a year and a half off before returning to finish up the two-year program and became one of the first culinary students to study at The Inn at Essex.

Hired as a chef there after graduation, Menard stayed for about four years before accepting a job in ’93 as executive chef for Green Mountain Inn in Stowe at its Whip Bar & Grill and Main Street Dining Room.

“I met him at The Whip,” says John Tomko, in sales at NPC Processing in Shelburne. Tomko was then selling for Swift Independent Foods, from whom Menard bought meats. “He’s got a very common sense approach to business — demanding at times, but it was because of his customers. Sometimes I would get so upset, say, ‘I can’t do that,’ but at the end of the day it worked out, because I had a new product to sell.”

Four years after joining Green Mountain Inn, seeking a break from working nights, weekends, and holidays, Menard joined Hillcrest Foods in Fairfax. “It was good because it was still in the food business,” he says of his job as a food buyer for the wholesaler. “One of my jobs at The Landing Inn and at NECI was being a buyer. I enjoyed the procurement part of the business, and I think I was pretty good at it.”

When the local grocery store came on the market, Menard saw it as an opportunity to bring his experience to a business of his own while filling the community’s need for a source of homemade food.

Then called Harp Market, the store was housed in a former Catholic church transformed into a grocery by its original owners, the Berardinelli family. With a partner, Bernie Thibeault, Menard bought the business in 1999. He renamed it Steeple Market to reflect the tall steeple that made it a town landmark.

The market operated on a shoestring budget for a time, Menard says. “We kept adding little things. There wasn’t even a cook stove in the little deli.”

Eventually they installed a gas stove, a pizza oven, and a rotisserie oven and were off and running. In 2006, Menard bought out Thibeault’s share.

Things hummed along until Christmas Eve 2008, when fire devoured the building. Menard had just left, headed to his mother’s house in Newport for Christmas. “There was a major storm that night, and they had closed down part of Route 100 or 100B, I think, and cell service was down, so I didn’t hear about it until the evening.”

His brother Raymond picked him up and they drove back to Fairfax. “The building was old, dry, and it just exploded on fire,” says Menard. “By the time we got there, it was a total loss.”

Thus began a trek through the forest of insurance claims, which eventually led to Menard’s hiring a company called Adjusters International. “They’re adjusters who work with people like myself, because the policy is very difficult to understand, and these people know the ins and outs,” he says. “We had to get an attorney, had to fight. Thank God we hired these people because they ended up getting us something.”

After the claim was settled, a contractor began the rebuilding process in mid-2009. “We actually got the building completed and were open on November 12.”

Wanting to keep the look of the original structure, the design included a steeple, although quite a bit smaller than the original. Where the original had apartments on the second floor, the new design featured cathedral ceilings on the main floor.

Rebuilding was a bit of a challenge, but at every turn, he says, the town, the state, even federal agencies came through. The town government helped expedite the permitting, and Act 250 representatives were supportive and expedited the agency’s permitting process. Because the new building would be larger, it reached into the 100-year flood zone, which meant applying to FEMA. “They were really quick,” says Menard. “We just had to bring in some fill to get out of the flood zone.”

Six months before the fire, Menard had hired Shelly White, a Westford resident, as office manager. “I decided I was done with corporate,” says White, who had worked in finance at IBM for seven years. “I thought I knew what I was doing when I came to work for Pierre,” she adds with a laugh.

Continually in mind is a sharp focus on providing what the community wants. Meals have always been the heartbeat of Steeple Market, Menard says, noting that the deli drives everything else and creates a lot of foot traffic. He added gasoline pumps in 2004.

“Gas doesn’t make a lot of money, but it brings people in,” he says. “Get in, get out in a reasonable amount of time. Both husband and wife are working, maybe, and don’t have a lot of time.” In addition to take-and-bake meals like mac and cheese, meatloaf, homemade beef stew, chili, and soups are daily dinner specials Monday through Thursday. Thursday’s is a prime rib dinner with mashed potatoes, vegetables, the works, he says. “Sunday we have pizza.”

The anchor categories are meat and wine, says White. “That’s what we specialize in for our truckload sale.” The truckload sale, held each June and November, features an enormous amount of top-drawer meats such as USDA Choice beef, and a slew of wines, sold at severely discounted prices.

“Our wine business has grown over the years, and it’s not just your typical grocery store wine, but things a little more eclectic,” says Menard. Among White’s many duties is being the “wine person.”

Craft beer is huge, Menard says, indicating a large walk-in cooler he calls the “beer cave.” He enters and picks up a growler customized with Steeple Market’s logo. The market was an early adopter of growlers, at one time a big business, although waning now. The beer cave carries a panoply of craft beers, and the market provides kegs for parties.

Coming up on September 15 is Steeple Market’s third annual brew fest, which benefits the Fire Department. “With a small staff [around 30 employees], we do a lot of crossover, and wear multiple hats.”

Menard does the majority of the buying. Local is the byword here, and although at 5,600 square feet the store is small by supermarket standards, great care is given to products and services that Fairfax residents will appreciate. Fairfax, he says, has evolved over the years, “and now we cater to a more affluent crowd.”

That means coffees from local roasters, produce from local farms, local dog treats. “We could have three times as much space for pet food,” he adds with a chuckle.

The market makes its own sausage and just switched all of its deli meats to Boar’s Head, a high-end brand. “We also do catering, and two times a month we cater the senior luncheons at the fire station. They get 40 to 50 people every week.”

Menard is active in CrossFit and Training for Warriors, an activity he enjoys with his childhood friend Caroline Chaput, who works at Zeke’s Automotive in Essex. “We grew up together, since I was 8 and he was 9,” Chaput says. “He used to work for my father haying, and we’re still close.”

Menard and Chaput get together at least once a month to grab dinner. “He’s amazing. If you ask him for something, he’s just there to help you out. We just built a new house and he knew we had to put in a large lawn. As a housewarming gift, he came with a tractor and did the seeding.

“What he’s done with that store,” she continues, “and going through with what he went through and making sure he took care of the community, I know it was pretty important to him that everybody there needed a store.”

Besides workouts, Menard says he likes to go hiking and biking and loves to travel, mentioning a 10-day trip to France last year with one of his wine vendors. “Food, dinners, entertaining — those are the things I enjoy.”

He could have added running the store, a subject he returns to easily and often. “We’re getting local asparagus now from a guy up the road that’s just phenomenal!” he exclaims. “And we’re getting in local strawberries. It’s always fun when your customers love what you’re doing.” •