Buying groceries is always on the minds of islanders. Mainland trips often end with a carload of fresh fruits and vegetables and specialty items. Planning meals ahead becomes paramount. And the island store can be both a lifeline and source of anxiety.
The “For Sale” sign at North Haven Grocery and Inn was a source of anxiety for residents who often make the 12-mile trip to the mainland to stock up but rely on the store for last minute purchases, non-perishables, and coffee breaks. For Laura Doran and David McDougal, it was also a surprising source of inspiration.
The couple, who had been living and working on Nantucket for several years, connected with the Maine islands through visits to Deer Isle and Vinalhaven.
“We’re trying to … make it a grocery store, not a convenience store.”
“On our way back from Deer Isle we stopped on Vinalhaven one year and met Kris Davidson,” Doran said.
“We felt like we had met this amazing person we wanted to be friends with,” said McDougal. After the popular Vinalhaven restaurant Salt closed, Doran and McDougal considered starting a business there, but said no well-suited properties became available.
“In July I saw the [North Haven] store came on the market and in August David and I talked about it,” said Doran. “I was like, ‘Let’s just go see it when we’re heading up to Deer Isle at the end of September. If we’re meant to see it, it will still be there.’”
That the store and inn were still available was the first of three affirmations that the transition was meant to be, McDougal said. The second came when they visited the island in the fall and winter to assess the feasibility of the purchase and renovation of the business.
“Our first instinct was that it was a lot, it was a big task, that maybe it was too much to take on, but our second trip here we met so many amazing people who offered support and help and kind of talked us off the ledge,” said McDougal.
The third affirmation was the preschool, K-12 school, and the community itself.
“The stars aligned. It’s something we want to do, it’s something the community wants to do, and it’s an amazing community to raise a family in,” McDougal said.
Once the decision was made, McDougal and Doran got support from the Island Institute, the Maine Small Business Center for Development, and CEI to secure financing and begin the extensive renovations to ensure the longevity of the store and inn.
The floors have been redone, some interior walls have been taken down, and structural issues have been addressed. The inn remains open, though Doran and McDougal caution guests that renovations are underway.
The grocery store reopened in late March, with hours and stock gradually ramping up through early Spring. Results from a community survey McDougal and Doran shared on social media pointed to an important priority—fresh, locally produced food.
“The resounding opinion was people want more sustainable brands, more support of local farms and fishermen, healthier options, fresher produce. We’re trying to take all that into consideration and actually make it a grocery store, not a convenience store,” said Doran.
Once the store reopens, McDougal and Doran plan to focus on longer-term goals, including freshly-made take out items, a welcoming seating area, high-speed internet, and eventually, a sit-down diner.
“It will be an evolution,” said McDougal.
OTHER ISLANDS, OTHER STORES
For residents of Cliff Island in Casco Bay, life without a store is the norm from late September until Memorial Day. Owner Hope MacVane-Tray teaches on the mainland and operates the Cliff Island Store Café during shoulder-season weekends and daily during her summer vacations.
“There are only about 40 people year-round, might be 45, hard to stay open year-round,” she said. Hannaford and other mainland stores pack orders to-go weekly and deliver them to the ferry, which takes over an hour to go from Cliff to Portland.
When the store is open, it offers locally produced goods from Toot’s Ice Cream in Yarmouth and Bumbleroot Farm in Windham, and a popular café serving sweet treats, sandwiches, and lobster rolls.
To keep its grocery store open, Isle au Haut, which has a year-round population of around 55, has twice elected to support it with town money, according to manager Mike Delchamp.
“COVID hit all of us hard in 2020, and then last year we needed to replace our fuel truck which was 50 years old. We also were able to start the process of making the store more energy efficient by replacing one of our residential freezers with a commercial, glass-front freezer as well as building a walk-in cooler that gives us more storage space,” Delchamp said. “I think most people recognize that the store, the boat company, the power company, and the church are important pieces to the sustainability of the island.”
The role a store plays in the sustainability of an unbridged island isn’t lost on McDougal and Doran.
“We feel a huge responsibility as the island’s purveyor of products,” McDougal said.