In Elmore, A General Store Evolves
Just five miles from the largest town in Lamoille County is the Elmore General Store.
In continuous operation since the early 19th century, Warren and Kathy Miller have owned the Elmore Store for the past 31 years. The store, like so many in the state, has struggled to stay in business.
“We needed to mix it up and make some real changes to compete in today’s world,” said Warren Miller. “I’ve been away for a long time working out of the store and I came back and said, 'We’ve got to do something to spark some new interest.'”
Earlier this spring Warren and Kathy sent out a survey asking what changes customers would like to see at the store and if they would buy local chef-made breakfast sandwiches, and other prepared food. The last question was, “Or would you rather see Elmore Store close?”
The support was overwhelming and people responded with great enthusiasm to the proposed changes.
“We’ve made a lot of changes in the last few weeks,” Warren Miller says. “We have prepared meals now. We’re entering into an agreement with Kristin and John Howell – we’ve named this business Firetower Pizza. We have a pizza oven now so we’re going to be doing real high quality pizza with Elmore Mountain Bread dough balls.”
General stores are often seen and appreciated aesthetically, as relics from the past, a bygone era of our grandparents and great grandparents. But there are plenty of other places to get a coffee or buy batteries or a gallon of milk. What is the value of a general store today?
Paul Bruhn is the executive director of Preservation Trust of Vermont, a state-wide non-profit that primarily focuses on strengthening village centers and downtowns. He says general stores, when they work best, are the real heart of communities. He calls places like the Elmore Store the “third place.”
"We needed to mix it up and make some real changes to compete in today's world." - Warren Miller, Elmore Store owner
"There’s your home and there’s your place of work, and then there’s the place where you really participate in community,” said Bruhn. “That’s why all of these places are so important to their community.”
Kathy Miller, a fifth generation Elmore resident, sees her store as also providing a valuable service to old and newcomers alike.
“We’re here to provide lunches for the kids, you need a 911 call, someone new moves to town. You don’t look things up in the phone book,” said Kathy Miller. “You don’t Google things … let’s call the Elmore Store!
In order to understand what other successful general stores are doing to stay relevant and thrive, Warren took a road trip this past winter to do some research. He saw many stores close and people struggling but he was also inspired to try something new.
“This little pizza shop in a country store is an up and coming thing,” said Warren Miller. “You know, we can do that in Elmore – we have a beautiful lake, there’d be outdoor seating for the summer, phase two will be indoor seating for the winter.”
It’s not only the pizza oven they are trying out. New products are appearing on their shelves that Warren Miller – a big meat and potatoes kind of guy – couldn’t have imagined a few years ago.
“Friday night was sushi night! Something that I thought was really out there,” said Miller. “We sell tofu now and avocados. You know, we’re mixing it up, we’re trying to bring things in that people want.”
But he is keen to satisfy all his customers and so will be setting up a BBQ outside this summer and grilling up all kinds of prime cuts of meat.
Paul Bruhn says the key to making these operations successful is knowing your market. For example, in Castleton a large wine selection is a big draw; in Guilford they focus on catering and a café with lots of prepared foods since they are only a mile from a grocery store. These are services that bring people in and help general stores make money.