An Interview with Katy Lesser
A sign on a bathroom door at Healthy Living Market in South Burlington queries: “Customer or guest? Anyone who walks through our doors is a guest. We want to welcome them respectfully and demonstrate hospitality. It’s our number one responsibility every day. Because we understand what it means to go above and beyond.”
“Running a good business means taking care of people,” says Katy Lesser, her dark eyes sparkling with intensity. The founder of Healthy Living Market lives by that principle. She looks out for her staff, her guests, her vendors and her truck drivers. Especially her truck drivers. “They’re our lifeline!” Twice a year, she celebrates “Trucker Appreciation Day” with hats, T-shirts and lunch, and she always has free coffee and baked goods for the hardworking haulers.
“One of my favorite things is to help unload the trucks at our loading dock,” she says. A broken wrist from a ski accident this winter kept Katy from hefting those cartons but didn’t stop this dynamo from sweeping floors, working the registers, bagging groceries and cleaning out grease traps. “If I ask my employees to do something, then I should be willing to do it myself. And I’d rather be out on the floor than up in the office!”
Healthy Living. If you break apart the phrase, it also reads “Heal thy Living.” A calligrapher pointed that out to Katy one day, and Katy smacked herself on the head: “That’s it exactly! This place can help ‘heal thy living.’ I’ve tried to create an oasis here.”
Posters throughout the store offer inspiring quotes about food and the culinary arts from luminaries such as Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, Jacques Pépin and Wylie Dufresne. You can enjoy a snack in the café, take a cooking class at the Learning Center or talk with a sales associate who may have toured the farm that produced the cheese, veggies, meat or poultry you are about to buy. Wander the maze of abundant and artfully stocked shelves, the antithesis to straight-row fluorescent supermarkets. The rambling layout invites chance encounters with products you didn’t know you needed, like those quinoa chips…
And if you get lost, one of the sales associates will cheerfully guide you to your destination. Now that’s hospitality!
Edible Green Mountains: What inspired you to leave previous careers as an English teacher and a psychotherapist to open a store in 1986?
Katy Lesser: Therein lies the mystery. After being in the grocery industry for many years, I started to look back and realized that 1. My family had owned markets and butcher shops for generations (we have pictures of my great-grandfather standing in front of the Lesser Brothers Meat Market in Brooklyn, New York, with horse-drawn carts by the curb); 2. I had always loved being in food markets; and 3. Wherever I traveled, I would always visit the local markets, big and small; I was always fascinated by them. There were also moments when my kids were small, when in the midst of a crazy child-centered day, I would feel strangely peaceful standing in the aisle of a food market. I wasn’t sure if I was going crazy or getting some sort of message. Now I think I was getting a message. So it seems that the stars were aligning.
EGM: How has the Vermont food scene changed since you opened Healthy Living in 1986?
KL: Radically. In 1986 my go-to food shops were the Onion River Co-op and the A&P in Essex Junction. Why the A&P? Because growing up that was always “our” store and my mother refused to go to any other market. Onion River seemed radical because there were bulk foods and mysterious things like tofu. Other than that, the food scene was typically American. So when I took on Healthy Living, people thought I was crazy.
EGM: Most challenging aspects you face?
KL: Staff, always staff.
EGM: Most rewarding?
KL: Staff, always staff.
EGM: How would you describe yourself as a leader?
KL: I lead for several reasons. First, to develop a team of people who know and love food, food systems, cooking and everything about the world of food. Second, to teach a group of people the art of hospitality and the joy of service. I really explore the meaning of true service in our community. Third, to teach them how to be part of a dynamic team of fellow workers and see it as a daily practice that is not always easy. When I’m successful, it feels like so much more than just selling tofu.
EGM: Healthy Living is truly a family business, with you as founder and co-owned with your two kids, Eli and Nina. What’s it like to run this enterprise as a family?
KL: Mostly wonderful and very unexpected. I never assumed they would want to work in the business after college. And there are moments when we clash. But we are really committed to working things out and getting back to loving each other. We’re trying to spread joy about food and farms and cooking, so we really need to stay in the love zone with each other!
EGM: If you weren’t running Healthy Living, what would you be?
KL: A farmer or a chef.
EGM: You have access to some of the most nutritious and delicious foods imaginable in your store. Name a few “lifeboat” provisions.
KL: Fresh local produce from farmers I know. Really good-quality nuts, which I eat a ton of. Delicious, amazing local cheeses.
EGM: You’re a passionate gardener and love having your hands in the soil or on the wheel of your Kubota tractor. Why do these activities bring you such joy?
KL: I love everything about living rurally. Even the deepest, hardest winter inspires me. I like the feeling of caring for a piece of land and using what it gives me back. I love the changing seasons … everything from the deepest snow to the squishiest mud to the most intensely green summer!
EGM: Describe your summer eating style.
KL: Grill everything. Simple food. Meat, fish, veggies. Olive oil, salt and pepper. A few herbs.
EGM: Any guilty food or drink pleasures?
KL: I do adore wine.
EGM: How would you describe yourself as an eater and/or as a cook?
KL: As an eater, everything in moderation. I don’t want to be a fanatic. As a cook, I LOVE to cook and people are always amazed that I go home after a day at work and cook a real dinner. I am so lucky to have my daughter, Nina, and her husband, Zach, in my family; both are talented, brilliant chefs who have taught me so much.
EGM: What’s an ideal weekend?
KL: Cooking, eating, drinking wine, skiing in winter, gardening in summer, always being at my house. Home is sanctuary.
EGM: What advice would you offer to someone considering a major career change like you did in 1986?
KL: The advice “do something you love” has merit, but I can’t stress enough how important SOME business knowledge is. In my case, I had a ton of passion and zero business experience. I “drove without headlights” for many years, and it’s somewhat of a miracle that I held on and got to where I am today. You need extreme tenacity and bountiful energy plus a belief that if it’s possible in the world, then it’s possible for you. But knowing how to read a balance sheet, understanding margins, being willing to delegate and be tough with staff … these are good things to know that will make your journey a teeny tiny bit easier. But let’s face it, it’s never easy!
Spending time with Katy Lesser reminds Maria Reade never to underestimate the power of a determined business woman who can also drive tractors.