In the increasingly diverse city of Burlington, North Street has become a destination for immigrants and Vermont-born foodies alike. A fridge at Thai Phat Market houses stacks of banh mi sandwiches. Lentils, spices and Indian snack foods line the shelves of Himalayan Food Market. The street hosts no fewer than three African markets, and on the corner of North Winooski Avenue, newcomer Farah’s Place serves Persian delicacies.
But almost all these businesses opened in the past five years. Before then, North Street wasn’t a culinary destination so much as a place to be. Its small, indigenous community of working-class folks seldom ventured to downtown or suburban markets, relying instead on locally owned convenience stores that sold inexpensive, and sometimes delicious, prepared food and groceries.
A few of these old-school convenience stores still feed the neighborhood, which is proudly lacking in 7-Eleven-style chains. Cheap, accessible and, in some cases, of historical interest, these markets are worth a closer look, whether or not you can walk to the Old North End’s main artery.
Waggy’s Store & Deli, 98 North Avenue, 863-4862
Its address isn’t officially North Street, but this convenience store, attached to McCaffrey’s Sunoco Ultra-Car gas station, is right on the corner of North Street and North Avenue. The largest of the markets we visited, Waggy’s gets its share of car as well as foot traffic, and the stock reflects the varied clientele.
Hand-cut fries and made-to-order breakfast sandwiches are staples at the grill, but bottles of vitamin water marketed to kids also get prime real estate on the take-out counter. The beverage cases are packed with menacing-looking energy drinks and five varieties of trendy Vita Coco coconut water.
Brother and sister duo Scott Wagner and Melissa Short are in the process of taking over ownership of Waggy’s from their parents, Suzanne and Clayton Wagner. The siblings have plenty of experience: Short says they started working at ages 8 and 10 in their parents’ previous store, Wagner’s, on Ward Street. The family built Waggy’s onto the gas station in 1996.
The store always sold plenty of quick eats, Short says, and the menu has just continued to expand. Posted on boards over the counter, it overflows its space and covers part of the adjoining wall. Short says the cheesesteak is her most popular item, citing “the love that goes into it.” Her brother is proud of the fries that are “never, ever, ever frozen” and can come bathed in gravy and cheese. Potato and pasta salads and meaty chili are also homemade.
Wagner, sporting a T-shirt that reads “Easily Distracted,” says he likes to keep the menu fresh. Recent additions include deep-fried cauliflower and fried pickles. For the truly adventurous, we also recommend Herr’s chips in flavors such as ketchup, pork ribs and dill pickle.
Pete’s Ice Cream, 78 North Street, 865-6258
Don’t be fooled by the sign featuring a cone filled with fluffy red soft-serve and a chocolate-coated ice cream bar. If you come in search of frozen treats, owner Bill Breault will tell you the name of his store is something of a misnomer.
Breault, 73, explains in a gravelly rumble that the store first opened in 1938. The original owner made ice cream from scratch, but Breault, a lifelong North Street resident, says it’s been gone so long he can’t recall enjoying a scoop there.
While the store is sparsley stocked, a fact Breault attributes to a devastating 2006 robbery, it still has a small chest freezer filled with cartons of old-school Landmark Ice Cream and frozen novelties, including snow cones in primary colors. Longtime employee Alan Flanders says it’s his dream to reopen the scoop shop at Pete’s one day. When pressed on whether he shares this ambition, Breault casts his piercing blue eyes down and growls, “Not really.”
The store is bright and, unusually for North Street, both carpeted and air-conditioned. It’s the perfect place for Breault and Flanders to hold court with customers such as across-the-street neighbor Cathy Bushey, whom Breault encourages Seven Days to credit simply as “Grandma.”
Picking up a few odds and ends, Bushey says she’s been a loyal customer for 17 of the 18 years that Breault has owned the store, which he purchased from his brother Gary. Part of the appeal, she says, is that “requests are taken — sometimes.”
Perhaps that explains the surprising variety in the beer cooler, which boasts several bottled selections from Morrisville’s Rock Art Brewery as well as growlers of Busch Beer. A few coolers are empty, and the chilled foods are mostly limited to premade sandwiches, lunch meats and shredded cheese.
Breault and Bushey agree that the ATM is one of the store’s most popular features. But when it comes to short-term necessities, from paper towels to dog food, Pete’s has what the neighborhood needs.
JR’s Corner Store, 144 North Street, 881-0548
Pete’s may not offer much ice cream, but locals know where to find it. While QTee’s on North Winooski Avenue sells tons of seasonal soft-serve, JR’s Corner Store has done big business in prepackaged Hershey’s Ice Cream since owner Cheryl Sartelle opened the store on Labor Day 2009. In fact, she says, the Pennsylvania supplier tells her she’s one of its top vendors in Vermont.
The upper floor of the split-level shop is devoted to drinks and two cases of Hershey’s cups, cones and sandwiches. Sartelle is currently renovating to add another, upright ice cream freezer. Vestiges of the space’s previous occupant, Larow’s Market — known for its Like Cola sign — remain on the floor. It features tiled designs shaped like an American flag and a rugged cross, the latter positioned, perhaps editorially, in front of the beer.
Sartelle’s previous lines of work include banking and transcribing for the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. She says she pressed the building’s owner to let her take over 144 North Street “when he wanted something real [in the space].” “I’d never done anything like this before, but I knew I could do it,” says Sartelle. Now she maintains, “We took a bad corner, and we made it something good. When we came in, there was paper on the window and dog poop on the floor.”
JR’s offers plenty of pantry supplies for the college students and busy blue-collar workers of the neighborhood. A whole section is filled with Homestyle Bakes, packaged taco fixings and cans of La Choy chicken chow mein. “It’s everything you need for dinner, with meat and everything, without really having to cook,” says Sartelle. Her small deli sells sandwiches and macaroni salad with peas, tuna and eggs that the owner makes herself.
Catering to locals is lifelong North End resident Sartelle’s goal. Though she refuses to serve a bare-chested man, instructing him to go back to his bike and don a shirt, she says she tries to be understanding to those in dire need. When asked what separates her from other markets on the block, she answers, “I’m lower priced than they are — and more flexible. I was once in the same place [the customers] are, and everyone struggles. If someone comes in and is 10 cents short, I’ll let them go. I know I’ll get it back next time.”
The Shopping Bag, 166 North Street, 658-4790
Ask readers of Food Network Magazine to identify Vermont’s best burger, and they’ll tell you it’s the Shopping Bag’s Scibek Sizzler. That’s thanks to a survey the mag published in 2009 called “50 States, 50 Burgers.” The editors were inspired in their Vermont pick by a 2007 Burlington Free Press article by Melissa Pasanen, who’d written about the Scibek after receiving letters from two of the burger’s many devotees.
What’s so hot about the famous burger? It’s cooked to order and spiced with a “secret blend” that tastes like salty Montréal steak seasoning. Once topped with thick slices of provolone and cheddar, the fatty, crumbly patty is placed on a Koffee Kup Bakery roll with bacon, special sauce and a salad’s worth of lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles.
Cook Douglas Olsaver says he and owner Don Clayton conceived the sandwich as an homage to a former local cop, David Scibek, (name pronounced see-beck) “who kept people from hanging around at the store.”
Of course, some are just hanging around waiting for their orders, which Olsaver admits can take more than half an hour just to hit the grill. But customers are willing to wait. The day before University of Vermont students left for Thanksgiving break last year, says Olsaver, he prepared 88 Scibek Sizzlers, not to mention the other specialty burgers, sandwiches and hand-cut fries on his menu. The popularity of the Shopping Bag gives it a party atmosphere, full of neighbors “shooting the bull,” as Clayton puts it.
In the absence of UVM students, the bulk of the regulars appear to be young and African American. The crowd is also decidedly gourmet, discussing gustatory subjects ranging from new lakefront eatery San Sai Japanese Restaurant to the pickled pigs’ feet that line one shelf at the Shopping Bag.
Once a laundromat called the Rainbow occupied this space. Clayton already owned the land when the colorfully named building exploded in 1973. He and his wife, Pat, owned a store called Fairbanks Grocery in Burlington and knew a similar business would be ideal on North Street, so Clayton rebuilt and opened the Shopping Bag the following year.
Nearly four decades later, he’s devoted to selling his wares at rock-bottom prices. At North Street’s only meat counter (aside from the halal stores that carry goat and camel), Delmonico steaks go for $8.59 a pound. Clayton carries local products when he can offer a good price, he says: The only milk he sells is from Monument Farms Dairy. There’s Cabot cheddar, too.
Clayton says he tries to offer the best product for manageable prices because he respects his low-income customers. “A lot of them are down and out, and they come in, and I treat them as if Richard Tarrant came in — which he has,” brags Clayton. “They really respect that. That’s what I mean by taking care of the neighborhood.”
In their own ways, the owners of each North Street convenience store could say the same.