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Buying Takeout Frozen Pizza From A Troy Store Trying To Hold On

A person in a red plaid shirt and gloves in a store.
Erica Heilman
Boutin's Mini Market in North Troy is usually the local hangout, but these days, owner Jason Boutin has closed the door to foot traffic.

The village of North Troy is about a mile from the Canadian border, on a gorge carved out by the Missisquoi River. It used to be a successful mill town. Now it’s got a Dollar General, a school, and about two miles out of town, on Route 101, there’s Boutin’s Mini Market. Erica Heilman stopped in last week to check in with owner Jason Boutin. 

Boutin’s is the local, where you can get gas and coffee, milk and frozen pizza, and good sandwiches. And like everywhere else, it’s trying to figure out how to survive a pandemic.

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Jason: “What is tough right now is trying to convince an entire community to take the same seriousness in the matter. That’s been our hardest play.”  

Me: “How does that look?” 

Jason: “Closing the door to foot traffic was very difficult, because lot of customer our base are locals, they go out into the woods, they’re sugaring, they’re doing logging, they’re social distancing innately. So they have a hard time with the fact that they can’t come in, have a breakfast sandwich, hang out, do their general shopping.

“This is kind of a hangout. There’s not a lot in North Troy. There’s not a lot in the Kingdom. So when you create a routine in peoples’ lives, that they come every morning for a cup of coffee and a conversation, and you remove that, it’s really hard to convince people that this is the right course of action. But really it feels like the only one right now. We have 15 employees here. We’re trying to make sure that they’re all safe while the rest of the world is shutting down and told it’s not safe to go out. One of the lowest-paid sectors in private commerce is asked to continue to soldier on.”  

Me: “There have to be so many people who don’t know how they’re going to pay their bills next month, or tomorrow. What’s the presence of that? That you’re seeing right now?” 

Jason: “I would say a lot of our customer base were Jay Peak employees. We’ve always marketed ourselves as the local option, as less the tourists. So we haven’t felt the tourists dissipate as much because we don’t really rely on them. But what we have seen with a lot of our Jay Peak employees, and you know people who did get laid off in that initial round, is that they’re still waiting on their unemployment. And cash reserves have pretty much dissipated.

More from VPR: 'It's A Big Hit': Even With Federal Aid, Vermont Businesses Worry About Surviving COVID-19

“And I can say even in my businesses, I can say the same. We’re drawing deficits every week, trying to keep people employed, trying to keep full paychecks in people’s pockets, but the traffic isn’t here. People aren’t buying gas because they don’t have to go to work. People are less apt to order takeout because they haven’t seen a paycheck in a month. They need to save those funds so that the internet and the electricity stay on.”  

Me: “A local store is where people can find each other. How has this thing impacted your relationship to this place? What you feel your job is, or what your role in this town is?”  

Jason: “Being somebody with some resources to share, I would say I’ve got a heightened sense of obligation to the community to try and be here. It would’ve been a lot easier to close. Furlough the entire staff. And I could’ve collected unemployment myself.

“It just didn’t feel like the right thing to do, because if we all do that, then literally the last front line of … tax base for the state, and employment for the state, and community for my friends and family around here, that would’ve all gone away. Our customer base is very loyal, and we’re trying to just pay that back right now.”  

Jason got busy. I stepped outside to the store porch where there was a takeout window, and I ordered a frozen pizza. I was pretty excited about it. Buying things at stores now is kind of like a sport. Garret Draper took my order, and we talked for a minute.  

Me: “What are you worried about?” 

Garret: “I was worried about unemployment, I was having a lot of difficulty with that. I was working at Jay Peak Ski Resort. Luckily Jason, through my fiancé, knows me, and said, ‘I need help in the store,’ so instead of going on unemployment or trying to go through that line, I just stopped and started working again. Jason does a good job of keeping us safe and everything else. I’ve got a 1-year-old. Doing what I can do for my family.”  

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Me: “It’s a very personal question but, how bare-bones is it right now?” 

Garret: “It’s a little bit bare bones. I have a somewhat newer car and I called Kia financing yesterday … and I actually pushed my payment back a month, so they’re helping a lot, which is good. I’m keeping in contact with people. Like my landlord, I let them know what was happening. So everyone seems to be understanding what’s going on, in my case anyways. Just letting people know what my struggles are and people are working with people, helping out. Just trying to survive.” 

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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