Brownsville Butcher & Pantry Rethinks the Country Store

Peter Varkonyi and Lauren Stevens

Here's the challenge that Peter Varkonyi and Lauren Stevens have set for themselves: Create a country store where the food is local, high-quality, and approachably priced. Make it a comfortable gathering place. Meet the needs of old-time Vermont families that have been here since the hills and the expectations of newcomers who've settled down but still hanker for a bit of what they left behind in the city. Make sure people who just want to grab a cup of coffee and read the newspaper feel as welcome as people stopping in for a full meal or shopping for groceries they don't want to drive a half hour to find.

Oh, and while you're at it, disrupt the whole American idea of what a food store can be. Though they think of it differently. "'Disrupt?'" says Peter. "I don't say we're 'disrupting.' I say we're 'fixing.'"

You'll find Brownsville Butcher & Pantry by the corner of Route 44 and Brownsville-Hartland Road in Brownsville, which is part of West Windsor. It was supposed be opening about now: The sign in front still says "Opening late summer 2018." But that was before Peter and Lauren had to reckon with what every optimistic food-business entrepreneur reckons with: Everything takes longer than you think. In this case, because the old Brownsville General Store--which was built in 1970 but had come to take on the look of some been-there-forever feature of the landscape--had structural issues. Now they're hoping for early October. 

The construction time has been useful. It's let people in the community -- a good number of whom have more than just a casual stake in the store's success -- weigh in. So the part that'll be a cafe, for instance, has expanded a bit. "We really want to be not just what we want, but what the community needs," says Lauren. "Our priorities are to feed the people and enjoy what we do every day,"

How does this work out in the blueprints? A cafe, eventually open for all three meals, every day of the week. A deli, behind which you'll find an open meat-cutting room--the carcasses will come in whole and get turned into custom cuts, housemade deli, grab-and-go sandwiches, frozen meals... Also seafood (never frozen, from New England waters), sandwiches, frozen foods (made in-store). And finally, a more traditional marketplace where you'll find everything from vinegars and oils to laundry detergent, bicycle inner tubes, and fresh-baked bread, desserts, bagels, etc.

Some day, this'll be the cafe.

I know what you're thinking. Either: Why isn't this open right now? Or, this is smacking of some too-self-conscious-by-half Brooklyn eatery.  So there are two things you need to know right off.

First, West Windsor isn't Brooklyn. "Price point is very real in this community and always will be," Peter says. "Our goal is to compete with the Price Choppers and the Hannafords -- and provide the quality that is expected and has come to be appreciated at a co-op or a farmer’s market."

Second, Peter was executive chef for several years at the Home Hill Inn in Plainfield. He's also a baker (his grandfather owned a couple of bakeries in Queens). And, maybe most important, he's a self-taught butcher -- with some time refining the craft in Denver at beast + bottle. He thinks creatively about food, and he's going to carry a lot of the load himself, though he and Lauren just hired their first full-time employee, a baker (who grew up in Cornish). Lauren spent several years, both out west and in Vermont, working on farms and getting to know firsthand how good food brings people together. Together, they understand the entire food chain, from farm to mouth.

Which is why they're confident they can find ways of cutting costs and still feeding people well. "We feel we can create meals that are approachable and affordable," Peter says. "It doesn't have to be $30 an entree. We can have really great fried chicken and house-barbecued meats and simple matzo ball soup."

And by working with local farmers, using every bit of an animal that can be used, and carefully thinking through every aspect of how they prepare and use food, he and Lauren think they can provide food that people want at a price they won't snub. "If I can get a consistent (meat) product at a consistent price," says Peter, "we’re bypassing the expense of a USDA slaughterhouse and bypassing the meat sitting in a freezer and losing flavor. We’re making ground beef, cutting steaks, curing and smoking briskets. Each portion will have a purpose: in the cafe, in the meat case, in catering."

Will all this work? Really, you've got to hope so. It's insane that "local" has come to mean "expensive." If Brownsville Butcher & Pantry can show country stores a different path--even if it's a hard one--it'll have done this corner of the world a huge favor. "We look at this as a 20-year endeavor," says Peter. "This is not get-it-open-and-make-a-quick-buck. Because it's not going to happen that way."

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