Vegetable Corner: Harpswell’s ‘original farmers’ market’

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HARPSWELL — People have been stopping at the intersection of Route 123 and Mountain Road at a family-owned market for three decades in search of essentials for picnics, cookouts, dinners, and more.

Vegetable Corner provides staples to the community, and has, over the course of time, evolved into a community staple itself – in part, because owner Ray Tetreault has spent his life learning about and working with food.

In 1929, his father and uncle opened Tetreault’s Market in Brunswick, a meat market in what is now Union Street Bakery. Tetreault began learning how to cut meat with his father in 1955 and attended a specialty meat-cutting school in Toledo, Ohio, in 1961.

Tetreault and his brother eventually took over ownership of the market in 1971, where Tetreault worked until 1981, when he went to work for Bowdoin College as a meat cutter. After a brief stint in Waterville, Tetreault and his family bought a house on the property that would become the future home of Vegetable Corner.

The business couldn’t have started in a more organic way.

In 1989, Tetreault’s 12-year-old daughter expressed an interest in selling strawberries from their front lawn. Tetreault said he took it upon himself to pick 100 quarts of strawberries on a friend’s farm in Bowdoinham every morning from 4-6:30 a.m. before going to work at Bowdoin College and Shaw’s supermarket.

The strawberries, which sold out everyday, were only the beginning.

Tetreault’s wife Violet began baking English muffin bread to sell alongside the strawberries, in addition to cucumbers and tomatoes from their garden. Soon a farmer from Lewiston stopped by and asked if the Tetreaults would be willing to sell corn from his farm; they, of course, agreed. Tetreault also began making nightly trips to local farms to pick up a variety of produce, including blueberries and potatoes.

“I should call this the original farmers’ market,” he said. “… We just wanted to sell local vegetables from local farmers. We still do.”

Tetreault’s homegrown business continued to evolve naturally, one step at a time.

On one occasion, a few men drove by with a wooden counter from Bailey’s Store in Harpswell Center, which was closing down. They asked Violet if she had any use for the counter, and she couldn’t turn it down. The Tetreaults’ operation had grown to include a card table and the newly acquired counter (which is still in use today).

Soon, the family business expanded to include the card table, the counter, and two awnings, which eventually became three awnings. The following year, demand had grown so much that they moved their woodshed (with a refrigerator) from the backyard to the road and incorporated it into their operation.

In 1992, they made the leap from a seasonal business to a year-round establishment when they built a garage, half of which was to be used for their car. That part of the plan, however, never reached fruition.

In the process of building the garage, Tetreault said he received not one, but two offers that he couldn’t refuse: a meat case and a vegetable case, both less than 6 months old.

Vegetable Corner was in business.

For the past three decades, Tetreault has made it his mission to support small businesses and the local community. He said he strives to carry as many local products as possible, including Maine Maple Products of Madison, Ray’s Mustard of Eastport, and Morse’s Sauerkraut, which was sold at his father’s market.

As a connoisseur of meats, however, Tetreault said he settles for nothing less than the best; he buys only prime beef from Nebraska. He continues to offer as much local produce as possible, and supplements with a local wholesaler for non-native products, including lemons and grapefruit. Seafood is locally sourced and halibut, specifically, is provided by Harpswell fishermen.

Tetreault said he doesn’t just want to make a product, he wants to perfect it. The meat cutter makes several kinds of sausage, including breakfast and Italian, and hopes to make as many as 50 different varieties in the near future, including kielbasa. He recently invested in a smoker and looks forward to smoking chicken and turkey, and also hopes to expand his beef jerky production.

Tetreault gladly speaks French with the French-Canadian ladies who once frequented his father’s market; they come in search of pork pies and creton, a traditional pork spread, and are never disappointed.

One of his regular customers has been requesting scrapple for a few years, which is a traditional Pennsylvania-Dutch dish made with pork and cornmeal; his patience was rewarded recently when he tried Tetreault’s scrapple and gave it his seal of approval.

Tetreault said he enjoys the challenge of perfecting his craft, while testing the popularity of new products. And he not only values the quality of food, but also recognizes the value of connecting with customers through food.

“Sometimes I’ll be cutting something, and it reminds me of the customer that always buys it,” he said. “I have a customer from Brunswick who is my age. When she was young, her father would come to our store to buy beef liver. The doctor told her to have raw beef liver once a week. Every time I slice beef liver, I think of her. That was 50 years ago. It makes you really have a connection with people.”

To say Vegetable Corner has become part of the Harpswell community over the last three decades is an understatement; Vegetable Corner has, in a sense, helped define the Harpswell community.

In a seasonal town where year-round establishments are few and far between, Vegetable Corner has nurtured its relationship with the individuals who value the character of the community.

“I won’t say I like it; I love it, I love the people,” Tetreault said. “… The people here today, I see them every day. I get to know them. That’s a wonderful life. That’s what I like to do.”

Ray Tetreault at Vegetable Corner in Harpswell, behind the counter that originally came from Bailey’s Store, which opened in 1901.

Vegetable Corner owner Ray Tetreault said his mission is to support small businesses and the local community. He tries to carry as many local products as possible.

This sign at the Vegetable Corner in Harpswell sums up what the business is all about.

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