Valley Bounty: Keystone Market
Published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, February 26, 2022
For Krunal Patel, owner of Keystone Market in Shelburne Falls, selling local food is his form of civic engagement. “I want to be part of this community I live in,” he says, “and here in western Massachusetts, local farms are a big part of it. I want to be the person in the middle, where farmers can bring me what they grow, and I can pass it on to customers.”
Keystone Market is a full-service grocery store with a storied history. “It used to be called the Freezer Locker,” Patel explains. “Before people had home refrigeration, you could rent a locker to keep your food cold. We still have the old sign, and some of the old walk-in coolers.”
These days, Patel shares, “we sell produce, dairy, and fresh meat. We have a deli with hot lunches, deli salads, and desserts all made from scratch at the store.”
Patel took over this longstanding local business in 2015, buying it from a family friend and moving up from New Jersey with his wife and children. “I had never heard of Shelburne Falls, but when we came to see the place before we bought it, it took us literally 10 minutes to fall in love,” he says. “First with the business and the town, then with the people.”
“My wife and I were standing at the register, and customers passing by wanted to know our names,” shares Patel. “Growing up in New Jersey, my neighbor’s house was 6 feet from ours, and I still don’t know their name.” They bought the store and moved two weeks later, and his parents soon followed.
Today, Keystone Market is open seven days a week, 7am – 7pm Monday through Saturday and 10am – 6pm on Sundays. Patel is there every minute of it, often joined by his wife, who oversees the deli, his parents, and around a dozen employees, many of whom have worked there longer than he has.
Lots of local food finds its way to Keystone’s shelves throughout the year. Maple syrup, honey, ferments from Real Pickles in Greenfield, coffee from Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters (which they also brew and sell by the cup), and eggs from a handful of local farms – these can almost always be found.
“Pine Hill Orchards – any product they have, any season, we’ll carry it,” says Patel. “We have apples and cider now. When they have peaches or other fruit, I’ll get that too. And yogurt from Sidehill Farm in Hawley is something we’ve carried since I started.”
These relatively shelf-stable items are simpler to stock because there’s less pressure to get the quantity and timing of his ordering just right. With perishable items like produce, it becomes it bit trickier, Patel says. When he buys produce wholesale – whether directly from farmers or from food distributors – what he’s looking for is someone who can supply 1) proper volume, 2) consistent availability, and 3) simple logistics.
Volume and consistency are important because Patel wants customers to know they can rely on Keystone Market to have particular items. For example, they can expect to find berries from Nourse Farms in Whately every summer. “I carry a ton of their strawberries when they’re in season,” he says, “because they can bring 120 containers of strawberries every other day.”
“Customers want local produce,” he continues. “If I can get any, it will sell out. But I can’t have it once and not a second time.”
If local sellers can’t provide enough volume consistently, Patel has to fill in the gaps, and that can become complex very quickly. When one local farm can’t come through, he might turn to the distribution company he uses for other grocery items. “But they have ordering deadlines on Saturday night for Monday deliveries,” he explains. “If I’ve already missed that deadline, I won’t have what I need. There will be lost business and upset customers.”
One the flipside, if he orders something from his distributor just in case and the local farmer brings some too, “now I have two different types,” he continues. “And trust me, one of them will go bad.” Either way, he would have lost money and gained a headache.
Complexity, both in the ordering process and number of people he orders from, is something Patel tries to avoid. As a small business owner, he already has so much on his plate. He doesn’t have department managers to delegate to. If an employee calls out of a shift, it falls to him to cover.
“I cannot work with so many different local farmers to get my produce,” he says. “I want to, but it makes much more work and I have many other things to focus on.”
The point isn’t that it’s always too complicated for small local grocery stores to carry large amounts of local produce. There are some challenges to realizing this vision, but Patel is still trying. He wants to buy and sell local food to be part of his community, support other small businesses in the local economy, and offer customers the best quality food he can – produce or otherwise.
In the end it comes back to people. “I love being on the register talking to customers,” says Patel. “Every day at least two or three people say thank you for being here. That appreciation from the community – that keeps me going.”
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about independent grocery stores selling food grown right here in the Valley, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally