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Market Driven

The new boss at Burlington's co-op has an appetitie for entrepreneurship


Published October 4, 2006 at 5:25 p.m.

You get a whole different perspective on the rush-hour crush from the second-floor offices inside Burlington's City Market. But Clem Nilan isn't lording anything over anybody. The door to his private, windowless office is open. The ID around his neck reveals his first name but not his title. Since City Market opened four years ago, Nilan has quietly risen through the ranks, from fill-in cheese buyer to the top spot of general manager. And there's reason to believe he'll fare better than his seven predecessors. He brings good taste, local business sense and back-of-the-house humility to his brand-new job.

Nilan, 59, is no stranger to local food aficionados - particularly those who remember Burlington when it had redneck bars, not café culture. Right out of college, the Notre Dame grad and a group of UVM and St. Mike's alums started a watering hole called Finbar's in the location currently occupied by Manhattan Pizza. "Maybe you would have called it a 'fern bar' back then," Nilan recalls, noting Finbar's was a different kind of gathering place where all kinds of people, including women, felt comfortable.

Despite the brisk beverage sales, food was a priority. "Spinach salad was on the menu - things like that you never saw. Soups were made fresh all the time," he says.

The only comparable thing in the area was the now-legendary Black Rose Café, which was thriving in Winooski under the creative ownership of Jack Hurley and Ken Russack. Together with Nilan, the trio spawned Sneakers - also a winning bar-restaurant combo. The unorthodox egg dishes brought people in for breakfast; the evening clientele, albeit bar-centered, was hipper than any other on Main Street. Soon after signing the lease, Nilan remembers watching EMTs remove a guy on a stretcher from the pub next door.

After running Sneakers successfully for a few years, Nilan, Russack and Hurley saw an opportunity across the river. Together, they bought a building on Center Street and opened the Daily Planet. For the better part of a decade, it was the place to be, whether you were in the colorful bar enjoying music and local art or waiting for a sought-after table in the intimate dining room.

The food was outstanding - and affordable - in both rooms. The Planet introduced stir-fries, creative salads, tofu dishes and brown rice to Queen City cuisine. "It was really healthy, California-inspired cooking," Nilan notes, crediting the first chef, Mimi Frey of the California vintner family, for pioneering the menu. "We got a plot down in the Intervale and were growing vegetables there . . . before anybody had thought of that stuff."

"That stuff" has been foremost on Nilan's mind since he started work at City Market. As the cheese buyer and then the store's overall purchaser, Nilan didn't just showcase local food sources; he went looking for them. "That's my thing," he says. He's responsible for bringing Shelburne's LaPlatte River Angus into City Market. "It's a huge seller now. We get four sides a week of that stuff in here," he notes.

Ditto with local honey. "When I came here, I noticed there wasn't any," says Nilan, an amateur beekeeper himself. "Since that time, I went to the Champlain Valley Fair and wrote down the names of all the people who won the prizes; I went on the Internet looking." Now only two out-of-state honey brands remain on the shelves. Signs point customers in the direction of the Vermont products.

Spurred on more recently by "localvores" seeking an indigenous source of cider vinegar, Nilan scoured the state until he hit pay dirt in East Washington. "If you look at this bottle, there's no UPC, there's nothing on there," says Nilan, producing a bottle of "Honest-to-Goodness" cider vinegar. "You could never get that in Hannaford or Price Chopper. If you don't have bar codes on the product, they won't even look at it."

"The beauty of this store is that you can carry little guys like this," Nilan says. "We can get them in here and selling their stuff fairly easily."

He knows firsthand what such small food businesses are up against. He's structured courses around those challenges, too. After Nilan sold the Daily Planet in the early '90s, he taught classes in "Entrepreneurship" "Starting a Business," and "Food and Beverage Cost Control" at the New England Culinary Institute. His students are running restaurants such as Sauce, Kitchen Table, Sonoma and L'Amante.

City Market's own business growth has been anything but textbook. Sales have never been a problem; with a projected $20 million in annual revenues, it's now the second-largest single-store co-op in the country. But cost containment was an afterthought. "There was nobody with a handle on that," Nilan concedes. When the board of directors hired former General Manager Earl Bell in 2004 to stop the hemorrhaging, labor struggles ensued. Bell was fired last April, and in August filed suit against City Market for breach of contract.

Nilan gives Bell credit for bringing discipline to the downtown grocery store. "Now that we're no longer in danger of going under every single month, we can start focusing," he says. To some degree, that means using the store's significant buying power to shape supply. With approximately $50,000 a day in sales, City Market can directly impact Vermont agriculture by creating markets for local products.

It's already happening. Nilan conceived the Vermont Co-op Milk project with Monument Farms Dairy - one of the last sizable dairies in the area that bottles its own all-Vermont milk. Now he's looking for local chickens; demand at City Market exceeds what Misty Knoll Farms can supply. "There's gotta be somebody in the area who could do it the right way," Nilan muses. "We'd love it to be organic and free-range, you know, in a humane environment. We certainly could do a ton of business with them." Hear that, ag department?