click to enlarge
- Luke Awtry
- Pam Vezina laughing with a regular customer
By 9 a.m., Chick's Market has already been buzzing for hours on its corner in a Winooski neighborhood, as regulars stop in for morning breakfast sandwiches and a friendly word with the woman behind the counter.
Pam Vezina, who has owned Chick's for 24 years, helms the market for most of its operating hours — which can stretch from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. — at the intersection of Hickok and River streets.
With a purple cap covering her short-cropped white hair, Vezina starts prepping the deli station as soon as she arrives at work. She knows most of her customers so well that she barely looks up as the door rattles open. Nor does she need to ask one of them, Ronnie Spears, what he wants. He's a regular, and so is his Chick's order: a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich.
Spears, a former New Yorker who now lives in Burlington, said he discovered Chick's a decade ago and has frequented the market ever since "to shop, to get food, to communicate." Vezina has become "like family," he said, and he and her grandson are "like brothers."
"I love the store," Spears said. "It makes me feel homey."
Soon, though, that sense of home may fade. A Winooski fixture since 1944, Chick's will undergo a major upheaval when Vezina, 68, retires in May and sells the store. Facing an upcoming foot surgery and a lengthy recovery that she expects to sap her stamina, she said it's the right time to close the chapter on Chick's.
The market and building, which includes two upstairs apartments, are listed for $719,900. Vezina and her husband, Sonny, said they hope the buyer will want to maintain the store and deli. A few people have expressed interest in the property but not in becoming proprietors of a market, though a more recent prospect indicated an inclination toward keeping Chick's intact, Vezina said.
Meanwhile, the possibility of Chick's closing has devastated its devotees, many of them locals who grew up with the market and depend on it for a loaf of bread, a bottle of bleach or a meatball grinder. The whole-size sandwich, a two-hander delicacy big enough for lunch one day and breakfast the next, costs just $11.50.
Vezina said she makes an effort to price products with her most budget-conscious customers in mind. A gallon of milk goes for $4.50, competitive with even the large supermarket chains, to meet the needs of the neighborhood's single moms.
"I keep my stuff low, because I don't want anybody to go hungry," Vezina said on a late January afternoon.
click to enlarge
- Luke Awtry
- A Chick's employee preparing sandwiches at the deli counter
The lone service business on its block, Chick's sits in the middle of a residential area west of Malletts Bay Avenue, a busier thoroughfare with a nearby laundromat and an auto repair shop. From behind the register, Vezina has watched the neighborhood change over 20 years, she said. Outside Chick's door, she witnesses drug use and mental health breakdowns. Allen House, an apartment complex around the corner, is home to adults with serious mental health challenges who are clients of Howard Center, a local provider of mental health and substance-use services.
The market is there for all of them, Vezina said. She knows those customers need a snack or a meal as much as the next person, and she allows some to run a tab and pay when they can.
"These are some of the people that I worry about," Vezina said. "They have not too many people that understand them. [Others] kind of shut them out. I don't do that, because my mother taught me that everybody's the same, no matter what they are or who they are."
On a recent morning, a man entered Chick's muttering to himself and asked for a pack of cigarettes that Vezina didn't carry. She offered him another brand, which he accepted.
"Having a good day?" she asked. He nodded and left.
Not every encounter goes so smoothly, Vezina admitted. "When they do have their moments, it is, you know, scary," she said. "But you just talk them through it. It's all you can do. And then they calm down."
In 1944, Edmund "Chick" Dupont opened his namesake market on West Center Street in the space that now houses Papa Frank's Italian Restaurant. A year later, he moved Chick's to its current corner, where it quickly turned into a hub of heated political debate, as well as hot sandwiches.
A Winooski native and mill worker, Dupont served three terms as the city's mayor. He lived with his wife in one of the apartments above Chick's.
"You talked politics in this building when he was here," said Vezina, who grew up in the Old North End of Burlington.
In 1982, Dupont sold Chick's to his nephew and daughter-in-law, Richard and Carole Corbiere.
Vezina moved to Winooski in 1979 as a single mom. Living close to Chick's, she got a job helping out there and watched Carole working constantly on her feet behind the register or at the deli counter making submarine sandwiches, Vezina said.
When she worked nights, Vezina often saw Dupont hanging out at the market. He'd sit on a stool in the back, bantering with customers and spinning stories.
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- Luke Awtry
- Chick's Market
Vezina wasn't sure she'd like the work at first, she recalled, but she quickly took to it. She loved seeing the local kids and getting to know her neighbors. The market gave her roots in the community.
"Before that, I didn't even know anybody around here," Vezina said, referring to her first years in Winooski, as well as her previous time in Burlington. "I lived down the street for 30 years and didn't know anybody."
She and Sonny, who then lived on Weaver Street, got together in 1985 but only married 15 years ago, he said. They now live nearby on West Street.
In 1999, the Corbieres began looking to retire and offered Vezina the chance to purchase Chick's. They even financed the deal, letting her pay off the purchase in monthly installments over five years. Vezina put in a full kitchen and expanded the deli offerings.
Sonny, 78, has helped out at Chick's over the years. Now retired, he still comes to the market every morning to peel 50 pounds of potatoes — by hand — for the French fries.
"I like to talk," Vezina said, explaining the secret of her success at the market.
"That's what you need in a place like this," her husband added.
These days, the children and grandchildren of Chick's original customers shop at the market. Vezina has watched many of them grow up.
"They tell me all their good news," she said.
Dupont always gave candy to kids who visited. Vezina gives dogs treats. One little dog regularly comes in wearing a shirt and does a dance for his treat, she said.
"She's like family to everyone," said Jaret Chagnon, 22, who frequented Chick's when he was growing up on Hickok Street. Now a Winooski firefighter, he favors the ham, egg and cheese sandwich for $6.55.
Chagnon is one of many customers who rave about the deli fare. Robert Kelly, 34, praised the "gratuitous piles of bacon" he gets with his breakfast order. Dylan Freeman, a U.S. Postal Service carrier in Winooski, usually picks the turkey bacon sub for $13.95.
"They come in every day," Vezina said of the regulars. "When they go to order, we automatically know what they want. Same thing with their smokes. They come in, and you know what they smoke."
If new owners took over Chick's, Spears said, he hopes they'd use the same recipes. But the place will never be the same without Vezina, he added, saying, "It's gonna take away from the community."
Vezina understands that. She feels just as attached to this corner of Winooski — and her customers — as they are to her. And she tears up when she talks of leaving it behind.
"I just can't keep doing it," she said. "I wish I could."
This story was produced for Seven Days in collaboration with Community News Service, a University of Vermont program that works with student reporters to provide content for local news outlets across the state.