She filled out an eight-page questionnaire, had a lengthy phone interview, survived some grueling questioning from a panel of community and business experts, and was selected from the final three applicants. But Kristen Rabourdin, the new owner of the Batesville Market, may have had her toughest test yet when she faced the “community town hall” held at the market on the sunny last Sunday of February.
Rabourdin introduced herself and fielded questions from neighbors who crowded into the historic landmark to meet her. The sale had been a quirky transaction, as commercial business sales go, but it perfectly suited Batesville. Using local news sources, word of mouth, and signs at the store, Batesville Market owners Alex Struminger, an IT consultant and entrepreneur, and Patricia Dougherty, a nurse practitioner at the Virginia Department of Health, sought to recruit a buyer for the business that’s been the heart of Batesville since its opening in 1914. Struminger and Dougherty have operated it since 2017.
The final choice was based not on the price (it was fixed at $1), but on who was best suited to run the historic store. In the face of intense scrutiny, Rabourdin demonstrated that she had the right knowledge and experience in grocery management and community dynamics to serve the needs of a wildly diverse community.
One particularly tough question was how to stock the store to accommodate both those seeking high-end fresh and prepared food and a population dependent on a nearby, inexpensive source of staple items: a population, a questioner suggested, that does not presently patronize the store. Besides 16 years at Whole Foods, Rabourdin said she had a long-time interest in food justice and was involved in the design and construction of “The Market at 25th,” a community center and grocery built in one of Richmond’s “food deserts.”
While acknowledging that serving the retail needs of everyone, all the time, is impossible, she noted that one thing she learned in her experience with low-income shoppers is that they may have only $10 to spend in one visit. “So, not only do we need to stock staples that are inexpensive, we need small sizes,” she said: “Milk, peanut butter, apples and bread, for instance.”
She agreed that it is especially important that these people come into the store. “Here’s where we find out who is in need, or who is sick, or who just needs to talk to someone,” she said.
To increase the income from those who can afford more, she proposed increasing the appeal of available items. “If someone comes in for pub night and buys one extra thing; or if someone is here for music night and buys dinner—that’s what we need.”
As far as the stock of local crafts and locally made food products, she suggested an equally practical approach. “We’ll watch closely what sells and what doesn’t,” she said. Although her aim is eventually to increase hours, she will also take a cautious approach to that. “We may open Thursday first and see how that goes, then maybe Mondays,” she said. “But we’ll ease into it.”
Rabourdin said she understands the value of consistency. “If we say we’re open Thursdays, we have to be open Thursdays all the time,” she said.
Despite her prudent, incremental approach, Rabourdin allowed herself to dream big at moments. In a perfect world, she’d like to accommodate morning commuters by handing them coffee and pre-ordered muffins outside the store; offer music lessons; install an outdoor bar; offer farm-to-table dinners and pot lucks, and serve the hiking and biking communities with picnic boxes, perhaps even serve as a drop for Appalachian Trail through-hikers.
Rabourdin has a long commitment to locally based, ethical food systems. She has nearly 30 years working with retail strategies, community engagement, marketing, and communications, including 16 years at Whole Foods in Charlottesville. She’s worked in underserved communities on shelter and hunger relief, including work programs for welfare mothers in Philadelphia, programs for imprisoned young people, impoverished inner city residents, and rural Appalachian children. She’s also helped communities create sustainable food programs and hands-on gardening programs at schools. She has been part of Charlottesville’s Food Justice Network, with the goal of food access and food justice for all.
Despite her experience, Rabourdin said she does not want to assume anything: “I have learned not to believe I know what people need,” she said. “I’ll learn by observing, testing and assessing.”
Rabourdin said there will be a transition period, with the store fully functional under her leadership in mid-March, and a grand opening at Batesville Days in May.