After a 46-year career that touched all corners of the retail grocery industry, Don Baker is calling it quits.
Or, not quitting as much as entering into a well-deserved retirement.
“I have more family stuff at home I’d like to do,” said Baker, who, on Saturday, worked his last day at Village Market of Waterbury. “I really should have retired a year ago, but they talked me into coming back. It’s a great place to work, and I’ve had a lot of good years here.”
Baker, 67, was born in Northfield, grew up in Montpelier and graduated from Montpelier High School. After a brief tenure performing undercoating for a car dealership, he went to work for what was then called Martin’s Foods in Berlin. He started out working part-time in the deli department; within two weeks, he was the deli manager.
The store was purchased by grocery chain P&C, which sent Baker to Cornell University to study management.
From there, he came to Waterbury, where he spent four years as assistant manager of the P&C location in town, now the Village Market. That stint was followed by another four years as assistant manager for P&C in Morrisville at the current location of Price Chopper.
“But then, they were having trouble at the deli in Berlin again, so they talked me into going back to be the deli manager and I stayed there for three more years, and then went up to Colchester, and I was deli manager there for 17 years.”
In 2007, when P&C sold to R.J. George — who named the store RJ’s Friendly Market — Baker returned to Waterbury. Four years later, George sold the market to Mike Comeau, who owned Richmond Market & Beverage.
Comeau built a small Vermont empire of five independent grocery outlets — Village Market of Waterbury, Johnson’s Sterling Market, Shelburne Market, Richmond Market & Beverage, and Jericho Market — which he sold in December 2017 to Associated Grocers, a 300-member-strong cooperative formed by local grocers who wanted to combine for greater buying power and a better distribution network.
“My employees were a big reason for the sale,” Comeau said at the time. “I’ve reached a pivot point where I have a good group, but they are looking for more opportunities. They will have a lot more access to opportunities like better health insurance than I can currently offer, better 401K plans and benefits, and chances to move up the ladder.”
Baker has witnessed the store change hands no fewer than six times, including a tenure as a Grand Union.
With any business, a change in ownership can be challenging for employees, but Baker has nothing but kind words to say for all of the former owners, and the current one, for that matter.
“What kept me here mainly was the people — the people I worked with and the customers. I know everybody, and it’s fun,” Baker said. “All the companies I worked for, they were all great, they all treated me well. So, it was a good life with them.”
Baker’s wife teaches at Orchard Valley Waldorf School in East Montpelier, and their daughter works at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe.
“We also have an Airbnb, so it will be a job to work on that,” Baker said.
Over the years, Baker has seen many changes in customers’ shopping habits.
“The main trend right now is the organic — coconut milk, almond milk, the healthier, the better. Years ago, it used to be just plain-old milk, but now it’s all this organic milk, oat milk. It didn’t grow overnight. Sometimes, it fails, but have to keep working on it,” Baker said. “The organic meat, it sells like crazy.”
Baker has also been around long enough to watch generations of families come though the store.
“I’ve seen the little babies in the cart, and now they’re taller than I am,” Baker said.
While Saturday was his last day, people familiar with Baker can expect to see his smiling face around town. He has no plans to leave Waterbury — and as for the market, he’ll never say never.
“Maybe this fall, I might come back part time,” he said.