Lord of the Fries

An admired food wholesaler’s company turns 50

by Will Lindner

macauley0619In 1969, Roger MacAuley took his dozen years’ experience as a meat-cutter and bought a “peddle truck” business selling meat. Later this year, his granddaughter, Angela MacAuley, will take the reins of MacAuley’s Foodservice, their full-line food distribution business in Barre Town serving Vermont and western New Hampshire.

It was a minor emergency. Actually not so minor for devotees of the unique menu items featured at the Wayside Restaurant and Bakery on the Barre-Montpelier Road in central Vermont.

They were out of tripe.

“I’ll never forget it,” says Brian Zecchinelli, who, along with his wife, Karen, owns the 101-year-old restaurant. As her father, its previous owner, had done before them, the Zecchinellis rely on Roger MacAuley and his staff at MacAuley’s Foodservice in Barre to provide a large quantity of the meats, canned goods, and other victuals they serve daily.

Zecchinelli clearly enjoys telling the story. “Their tripe supplier went out of business,” he says, pausing to let it sink in: “Their tripe supplier! (Probably an acquired taste.) Within weeks, though, they had tracked down another supplier. Pickled honeycomb fried tripe reappeared on the Wayside menu and our regulars were no longer restless.

“Their buyers will search high and low if a customer suggests something they’d like to carry,” Zecchinelli adds. ”They’ll do their best to try to source it for you.”

Just last year, MacAuley’s came to the Wayside’s rescue in a true emergency, when the restaurant’s walk-in freezer died.

“We called for help and who showed up with a freezer truck but Roger, his son, and a grandson?” the owner recalls. “We moved all our frozen items into their truck and kept it overnight. That bought us 24 hours to get the compressor replaced. That,” he says appreciatively, “is how you run a family business.”

The two central Vermont families have been doing business together since MacAuley started his company in 1969.

“My father-in-law was one of Roger’s first customers,” Zecchinelli says. “So we’ve been with him every step of the way, for 50 years and counting.”

It’s not hard to come across stories of MacAuley’s personal service. Just a few weeks ago Jolene Daniels, kitchen manager at the Wilderness Restaurant in Colebrook, New Hampshire, realized on a Friday afternoon that there had been a mix-up on the weekly meat order. So with the weekend looming, she called down to Barre, where MacAuley’s granddaughter, Angela MacAuley, answered the phone.

“I sent him up there at 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” says Angela. The senior MacAuley, who is now 83 and usually works just in the mornings, set off with his wife, Eleanor, in their car, with a replacement load of meat for the Wilderness. Daniels wasn’t there when he arrived, and he was disappointed.

“I’ve been here for 16 years,” Angela says, “and I’ve never met him.”

(In a sign of a good business relationship: both parties said the mistake was their fault.)

“We’re a small fish in a big pond,” MacAuley explains, “so we try to take care of the customer. They’re a heck of a good customer. They buy a decent amount from us and pay their bills on time. We’ll cater to people like that no matter what they ask for.”

MacAuley is quite frank about why. “In this business, there’s no lack of competition.”

That has only gotten more true since 1969, when MacAuley, who had a dozen years’ experience working for others in the meat industry, set out on his own. The son of a granite shed worker, MacAuley had graduated from Spaulding High School in 1954, then gone into the Navy, where he learned to be a metalsmith, repairing naval airplanes.

“That’s what I was going to do when I got out,” he says. But no metalsmithing work could found around Barre, so he worked for a lumber company, then eventually landed a 40-hour-a-week job delivering heavy carcasses of hanging beef for a Montpelier company. (“It was bull strength and ignorance,” he quips.) He and Eleanor, who were married in 1957, began having children, so for extra income he worked an additional 30 hours a week as a meat cutter in the local First National, a chain of modestly sized grocery stores.

Between these two occupations, MacAuley took a liking to the meat trade and, in 1969, purchased a “peddle truck” business, making the rounds each day selling meat to mom-and-pop groceries, butcher shops, and other small customers, who were plentiful then.

But things have changed. Multi-state food suppliers like US Foods and Reinhart Foodservice, which have distribution centers in Vermont, have cornered much of the market. And there are far fewer independent, family-owned groceries. The Price Choppers, Shaw’s, and Hannafords have their own supply networks, and while sometimes they call upon his company to fill an immediate need, MacAuley’s will never make a living catering to them.

“But I figure we’re holding our own,” he says. “And when they get bigger, we’ve got to get bigger.”

One way MacAuley’s has done that is through diversification. At the outset, it was exclusively a meat provider (beef, poultry, pork, and ham) for the butcher shops and groceries.

“Now,” says MacAuley, “we sell to convenience stores, the restaurants, churches …”

Granddaughter Angela mentions Woodridge, a nursing home in nearby Berlin, and the kitchen that runs the cafeteria at Central Vermont Medical Center; the snack shacks that spring to life each summer and close down in the fall.

“Anyone,” MacAuley summarizes, “that serves food.”

Not just food, though. Convenience stores that purchase the breads, meats, and vegetables for making sandwiches also buy the condiments and the paper goods like cups and plates they’re served on. Eggs, milk, potatoes, Cabot cheeses — it’s a full-service response to a changing marketplace, and the fact that it has worked for MacAuley’s is revealed by the company’s growth.

What started out as a peddle-truck operation, and then worked out of a cellar with three chest freezers, is now a company with 28 employees and a fleet of eight trucks, based in a 68,000-square-foot warehouse and office building on Sterling Hill Road in Barre Town.

The day typically starts between 3 and 3:30 a.m., when the drivers arrive to load up their deliveries, a ritual overseen on most mornings by Dick Robbins, MacAuley’s brother-in-law (his wife, Eleanor’s, brother). “I’ve been here for fifty years,” MacAuley points out, “and he’s been here forty-nine-and-a-half years.”

The early start is necessary, because the company serves customers from northern Vermont down to Springfield and Manchester, and in much of western New Hampshire. A team of seven salespeople, most of whom live in their territories, visit customers weekly or more often to compile the orders; additional orders arrive online through the website, and by phone, email, and text.

“We get it all!” says Angela.

MacAuley’s own sources include distributors from various parts of the country, and a small but expanding list of local providers. It’s also a member of a buying group, Atlanta-based UniPro Foodservice.

In an era when organic, grass-fed, locally produced meats and vegetables are particularly prized, MacAuley’s fills an important niche for some of its customers, including Mehuron’s Market in Waitsfield, owned now by Tom Mehuron.

“I used to deliver to his father, Allen,” MacAuley recalls.

Many of Mehuron’s Mad River Valley customers are committed locavores, but not all. “They [MacAuley’s] deal in western steer beef,” Mehuron explains. “We try to offer both western steer, which is more of an economical choice for our customers, and then local beef where the primal cuts are limited and the price is high. That allows us to cover two price categories, which is important.”

Mehuron also signs up for cans of peppers and gallon jugs of condiments for his deli section, and vinyl gloves for the staff.

“They are one of the rare companies where the salesman comes to the store to take the order,” he says. “That’s a level of personal service you don’t see anymore.”

Something else that’s striking about MacAuley’s Foodservice is how many MacAuleys, and other relatives not named MacAuley, work there. Besides Angela, the staff includes the boss’s four sons – Arnold (60), Rick (Angela’s father, who is 58), Mike (50), and Scott (49) – and grandsons Joe (36) and Jason (33). Angela’s husband, Derrick Rouleau, recently left a longtime position with HP Hood, and is learning the ropes at MacAuley’s.

There are no cushy jobs for the family members; they, like the other employees, do the work of loading and driving trucks, compiling orders, and communicating with customers.

And now, two noteworthy events are on the horizon.

On June 18, MacAuley’s will host an open house to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

“We’re inviting the public to come and see everybody and everything here,” says Angela. “We’re cooking lunch, and everybody is welcome.”

The other event, which MacAuley believes will occur by the end of the year, is that Angela, 38 and a mother of two, will become the head and principle owner of the company. “We’re dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s,” says her grandfather.

It’s striking that the primary control will skip a generation, and Roger MacAuley expresses some regret about that. “I’m a hard one to give things up,” he admits. “I started this company, built it, and it’s like a kid to me. It’s just hard to let go. And now I’ve got sons who are almost going to retire before I do. There’s something wrong with that picture!

“From the people I’ve talked to,” he adds, “Angela’s capable of running it. In fact, she’s already pretty much running it. So it’s time, and I’ll be put out to pasture.”

“No,” his granddaughter says quickly. “He’s still gonna have an office and he’s still gonna be here every day. Don’t worry.” •