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ON THE SCENE: Keene residents celebrate opening of new Stewart’s

Store Manager Ceara Duval, second from left, cuts the ribbon Friday, Dec. 4 during the grand opening of the Stewart’s Shops store in Keene. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

The Stewart’s Shops store on state Route 73 is more than a convenience store for Keene. It’s a bit of a town center where locals can connect, get a handmade sub, sandwich, or cup of coffee, gas, and, of course, ice cream.

It’s one of those places like McDonough’s Valley Hardware and the Post Office, where everyone goes, sometimes on multiple occasions during a day.

“We live just across the street, so it’s more than a family or regional convenience store,” said Rocci Aguirre. “It’s a place for the community. Stewart’s as neighbors is good that way. We recognize the role that they play in the community. It’s more than just a gas store, and we love the ice cream. The challenge of living next door to Stewart’s is how good their ice cream is, and today it’s for 50 cents.”

Sharing this hub with the many visitors traveling to or from Lake Placid, Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington, and beyond, the first or last place to get gas going to or from the Adirondack Northway, resulted in very cramped parking, gas lines and waits to check out items purchased, especially throughout the summer, weekends and winter holidays. Consequently, Stewart’s has long wanted to expand the store and number of pumps but was blocked by the town planning board more than a dozen years ago.

This year, a nice-to-have expansion went to a need-to-have expansion as more people have been pouring through the Route 73 corridor to hike, ski and partake in other recreational activities during the coronavirus pandemic. Adding to that need was the relocation of the Keene Fire House right across the road, a facility that further complicated pulling in and out of Stewart’s and raised the need to reduce any traffic backup from a fire and rescue safety point of view. Stewart’s having a larger parking lot and more gas pumps meant improved traffic flow and, with it, public safety.

From left are state Sen. Betty Little, Keene town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson Jr. and Assemblyman Dan Stec pose at the grand opening of the new Stewart's Shops store in Keene Friday, Dec. 4 (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

As timing would have it, the leadership at Stewart’s decided to invest $25 million in upgrading 10 of their Adirondack stores that included a larger, more attractive building for Keene. Other examples include stores in Chestertown, Elizabethtown, North Creek, Port Henry and Schroon Lake.

“These upgrades have worked out well for Stewart’s,” said Erica Komoroske, director of public affairs for Stewart’s Shops. “These are destination resort towns, and they need a place where people can get their essentials, whether it be coffee or a quick protein-packed snack for their hike. People look to Stewart’s for their essentials, and we’re here for them. And then, there is always the ice cream.”

On Friday, Dec. 4, a new Stewart’s Shop in Keene joined these ranks with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and welcoming remarks by state Sen. Betty Little, Assemblyman Dan Stec, and Keene town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson Jr. The grand re-opening also featured 10 cents off a gallon of gas for the day, 50-cent ice cream cones and other discounted items like subs and coffee.

Keene Store Manager Ceara Duval cut the ribbon as local political leaders, Stewart’s representatives, and customers looked on.

“I love Stewart’s. It’s a fantastic company to work for,” said Duval. “I love all aspects of the work, products and service we provide. Living in such a small town, it’s nice to have more grocery-style offerings, fresh produce and more gas pumps. I think the improvements will be great for the community, and especially welcomed in the summer.”

Emily Eisman and Rocci Aguirre pose at the grand opening of the new Stewart's Shops store in Keene Friday, Dec. 4 (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Stewart’s represents far more than offering essentials; it provides good-paying jobs with health and retirement benefits. Further, Stewart’s re-invests in the communities they serve through matching gift programs that’s given out over $30 million coupled with over $7.5 million contributed annually in direct support to many area non-profits. Added to that, the staff and leadership at Stewart’s often serve on various community boards and back special events with food and coffee donations.

“We are one of the largest employers in the state,” said Komoroske. “In the Adirondacks, there is not a ton of business, especially in the off-season. Between each store, we are employing between 15 and 20 people. We pay for half of their YMCA memberships and half of their childcare expenses at the YMCA for full-time employees. We offer education scholarships for our partner’s children.”

Working at Stewart’s has excellent benefits, but it’s a demanding job. You don’t find stools behind the counters or in the back for the employees to sit on. They don’t have the time. It’s an on-the-go operation, an energy output that the staff is willing to give as they own over 40% of the company and get bonuses at years end. Thus, everyone is motivated to provide quality service, keep the stores clean, shelves stacked and customers happy.

Another benefit highlighted by Sen. Little in her welcoming remarks is Stewart’s helping to address the growing scarcity of places to purchase food in many Adirondack small towns as family-owned grocery stores die out. To help counter that, Stewart’s is offering a limited amount of fresh produce that’s expected to increase in time depending on demand and support.

“Stewart’s Shops are located all over the North Country,” said Little. “They save our communities because every community can no longer have a grocery store. Stores like this are so important, stores that Stewart’s are expanding in size so they can offer some groceries, fresh vegetables, and things like that. They are helping address the food deserts in the North Country. They are investing not just in buildings; they are investing in people.”

Erica Komoroske, Stewart’s Shops director of public affairs poses with Adirondack Regional Manager Damian Kloss pose at the grand opening of the new Stewart's Shops store in Keene Friday, Dec. 4 (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“I use Stewart’s about every day for coffee and other stuff,” said Larry Scovell of Keene Valley. “Anything we need real quick, we come here. I asked the regional manager if their chickens are free-range, and he said yes.”

Keene residents Emily Eisman, Chris Frazier and Dre Roebuck all echoed Scovell’s comments, with Roebuck, visiting for the first time, praising the added space and how bright the store was inside. Eisman said that she loves the ice cream, especially anything with Moka or peanut butter in it.

“Stewart’s is appreciated here in Keene,” said Wilson. “Stewart’s is a wonderful part of our community supporting local groups and activities. I want to thank the store staff who’ve been on the front lines through the past eight months of the public health crisis, they’re still serving our community. We really appreciate that.”

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)