Dan & Whit’s in downtown Norwich, VT has many different cultures inside and outside its doors. There are secret rooms for conversations that need some level of confidentiality. Behind a wooden gate and up a step or two is the office, where nearly every customer has gone at some point with a query or a comment or an idea. When you are browsing the boots upstairs or perusing the wooden axe handles in the back of the hardware department, the world of fresh milk and produce feel far away. In summer, sitting on a bench eating a soft serve ice cream, you’re a customer experiencing this store al fresco.
Nowhere is a microculture more evident than in the world of the deli. Here, behind a counter, in the back room, in front of the coolers, a human hive of activity flourishes from before opening until after darkness falls.
Like other parts of the store, this section has experienced major evolution. Ask old timers if they could have imagined line-caught cod fish from Iceland or a laptop computer tracking deliveries and they’ll look at you like you’re, well, out to lunch.
Take a minute on your next trip into the store and watch what happens around this stretch of real estate. Through some sort of D&W’s jiu jitsu, a deli, a grill, a meat department, a fresh seafood spot, a sandwich shop, a pizza parlor, a soup emporium, a quesadilla casa, and a hot lunch kitchen are crammed into a few dozen square feet.
How, really, could it be any different? In a store that has candy near deodorant, it is only natural that a traditional meat counter has become a lifesaver for hundreds of people every day. If that seems like an exaggeration, ask yourself if this sounds familiar: you’re at Marion Cross School for an early evening holiday concert. As your pride in your offspring brings you to your feet at the end of the show, a panic seizes you as you realize you have nothing planned for dinner. And your hungry, excited child is running towards you with the world’s most important question on his lips: “What’s for dinner?”
Don’t kid yourself: You know you’re going through the electric doors, up the concrete ramp, past the registers, and straight down the produce aisle to the deli, where you’re grabbing a pizza -- made with Norwich’s own King Arthur Flour and ready in about five minutes -- or a roast chicken or some broiled salmon with lemon and butter to placate your crew.
Luckily, nearly a dozen staff members are there to help you out over the course of your day. Some have been there since the 1990s or earlier; some simply come and pinch hit for a few weeks when they are home from college on break. They are Janes and Jacks of All Trades, able to crank out McWhit’s (one worker’s personal record is 168 in a day; Thursdays, when a free coffee is offered with every McWhit, are especially busy), make Moroccan turkey soup, or slice some Swiss with ease. More than that, they all seem to meet the same core job qualifications: willingness to laugh, smile, talk some smack, work hard, and go with the ebb and flow of customer requests. One smiling young man says, simply, “It’s a great place to work.”
Lisa, who presides over the managed chaos, explains just what it’s like to plan and predict in this country store in rural Vermont. “Fish deliveries are on Tuesdays and Fridays,” she says. After a slight pause, she continues, “Except when it’s Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
And with a smile and a small shrug, she conveys everything one needs to know about the difference between a small business and a retail giant. She hints at more evolutions to come, pointing at the blank expanse of white wall, saying she has plans and she and the crew are working through them together. “It’s like a promise we put up there,” she says. "Before we put it up, we’ve got to make sure we can really do it!”
Somehow, at something as utilitarian as a deli counter, there remains a sense of something big at work that pervades the place. Next to instructions about how to track the dates on products is the tally sheet for Pizza Wednesdays, a small idea spiraling into a big one whereby every pizza purchased on Wednesday generates a one dollar donation to a local charitable organization.
It’s such a simple thing, and yet it is a reminder that behind all the products and margins and inventory, Dan & Whit’s remains, first and foremost, a place about people, about caring, about community.
“We work hard and have fun,” Lisa says. “We do a lot of singin’. You gotta have fun with it; life’s short. Not have fun at work? Good grief!”
Note: This is the fourth in a series of stories about Dan & Whit's. Previous stories are available here.