Stowe foodies will soon have a new field to harvest: Commodities Natural Market, an organic grocery, is being cultivated on the Mountain Road.
Proprietor Michael Hughes, a New York native, fell in love with Stowe years ago. He met Stowe entrepreneur and icon Marvin Gameroff walking in Wiessner Woods one late-summer afternoon. Hughes walked there often with his retriever, Lucky Dog, encountering Gameroff several times on the trails.
“He said, ‘What are you doing here, kid? How do you make your money?’” Michael told him he had a natural foods store in New York, and Gameroff, inquisitive and motivational, suggested he open one in Stowe. Encouraged, Michael and his wife, Audra, started looking for a location.
They looked at other spaces long before choosing 512 Mountain Road, formerly Oxygen yoga and pilates studio.
It’s a good fit for them. The location on the Mountain Road is ideal; nearby businesses are complementary to the healthy/foodie lifestyle of their target market (including PHiT Performance, Skiershop, and Stowe Seafood).
New York story
Hughes started early in the world of natural grocery. He was in business school and, following a recession, found the job market in the early 1990s to be terrible. His stepmother owned a small natural foods store in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan, and offered Michael the chance to run it at age 21. So he ran with it.
“It was a crazy life experience, but a good one,” he recalls.
Hughes opened his own store in the East Village of New York City in 1993. Nearly a decade passed, and in 2002 Commodities Natural Market was thriving. Hughes wooed his future wife at a gym with a bag of organic groceries.
Audra Kahn was employed at Sony Music, and had a connection with the Jones family from Stowe, working with the brothers who started the sports media company Teton Gravity Research. When Audra married Michael in 2003, she asked the Jones brothers for a Stowe real estate referral. They recommended their mother, Linda Jones, and the Hugheses bought a condo at Mountain View in 2004.
The Hugheses loved living in New York City, loved it as a young, active couple with a dog, but the birth of their first child introduced a new set of feelings and challenges, leading to a move to Ridgewood, N.J., in 2007.
“Once you have a child … your senses change,” said Michael. “It was always on my mind to get out of the rat race.”
They were adjusting to suburban life when their daughter Sylvie, then 3 and a half, was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer in early 2009.
Audra recalls feelings of victory some months later when they got the doctors’ OK to travel back to Vermont. “If Sylvie had said to us, ‘Mommy, Daddy, I don’t ever want to leave mountain house,’ we literally would have never, ever gone back to New Jersey. We would have called a broker and said, ‘Sell our house, we’re never coming back.’”
That day never came; Sylvie died in late 2009.
The couple was devastated. Some wounds never heal, but eventually they were able to pick up their lives. And, in 2010, Audra and Michael welcomed twin boys.
Soon came the realization that hectic city life was becoming more and more difficult with their expanding family. Michael’s well-laid commuting plans unraveled at the hands of the two small boys, the morning push to leave the house at 6 a.m. turning to 7, spitting him into a traffic nightmare.
He said, “What am I doing? This is not the life I pictured.”
The Hugheses began seriously considering a permanent move to the mountains.
A big jump
Audra and Michael loved the relaxed, bucolic setting of Stowe, but were hesitant to make the transfer. They didn’t know any other young families.
They were at a farmers’ market at Stowe Mountain Resort in 2011 when they spotted a couple also toting twin babies, no more than a few weeks old. Audra made a beeline for them with her own small brood, asking, “Does it get any easier here?” The couple turned out to be McKee and Jen Macdonald; he’s a real-estate broker in Stowe.
Audra recalls, “McKee said, ‘I want to be friends with you. I want you guys to be here. I’m going to do everything I can to get you to live here.’”
The wheels began turning, pieces falling into place as the Hugheses managed to sell their outgrown condo at Mountain View and find a more suitable house off West Hill Road for their expanding family. A daughter was born in 2013, joining the twins, who are now nearly 4 years old.
The Stowe market
Today, the Hugheses are ecstatic to be working on the store they’ve dreamed of for years. They have found the Vermont state government welcoming and helpful as they go through the process of opening a new business, and the community of Stowe supportive and receptive.
“I remember exactly what I don’t want to do,” said Michael of planning the new store’s layout. “Don’t put the registers here, because then everybody’s cold when the door opens.”
Some elements are still in flux, although the concept is solid: a traditional natural foods store with fresh, 100 percent organic produce from as many local purveyors as possible, a comprehensive bulk foods section, and, once details are worked out, fresh-pressed juices and health-conscious ready-to-eat sandwiches, soups and meals. As of now, there won’t be a kitchen space to speak of, but the Hugheses are brainstorming with local individuals and organizations to produce prepared foods off site.
They have about 5,000 items in the New York store, and want to bring a similar amount and variety to Stowe, including household products from Seventh Generation and Ecover, natural baby products and vitamins.
In New York, the Hugheses partner with a cooperative that allows small farms to have access to larger distributors, and are thrilled by the proximity of many farms in Vermont and the ability to easily stock a multitude of ultra-local products.
They will use many of the same distributors as the New York store, and already carry many Vermont products — Deep Root Organic Co-Op, Mount Mansfield Creamery, Vermont Butter & Cheese, Vermont Smoke & Cure, Neighborly Farms and Fat Toad Farm, to name a few. But Michael says they’re excited to work with smaller purveyors and distributors — Brave Coffee, farms in Lamoille county, Black River Produce, Best of Vermont — whose products they haven’t been able to stock in New York.
The Hugheses are passionate about organic food.
“It’s different, it’s unique, and it usually tastes better,” Michael said. He wants to give customers a chance to experience organic food and say, “‘Wow, this is organic, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever had.’”
The new market will welcome customers using the Vermont Express EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card through 3SquaresVT, Vermont’s branch of the federal program formerly known as food stamps, joining only three retailers in Stowe that accept the cards, according to the federal website.
“It’s hard to have a one-stop shopping experience, here or anywhere,” said Audra. “ Organic, healthful and affordable is a challenge. We are hoping to change the organic shopping experience and make it a lot better.”
Commodities market in New York employs about 30 people, and the Hughes anticipate about 10 employees, many part-time, for the Stowe store.
A fall opening date is planned, before Thanksgiving if possible, but certainly before the end of the year.
Michael’s brother, Ed, will take the helm of the New York market.
Currently, Audra stays full-time in Stowe; Michael goes back and forth between Vermont and New York. Their sons will start preschool soon, at Apple Tree.
Michael notes that, while the city life was good, Stowe is the right place for their family and for their business.
“Here, it gives me the opportunity to be more civic-minded. I think this is what the town needs, and I’m happy I can provide it.”