By Art Petrosemolo
ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS – Customers of The Little Red Store say a visit is like stepping back in time.
As good as it is, unless you are a local or happen by, the store isn’t the easiest place to find. Formerly known as the Navesink Country Store, it sits halfway up or down Navesink River Road hill between Atlantic Highlands and the Oceanic Bridge. It’s off the beaten path.
The store has been in owner Pat Verange’s family for 54 years. Verange remembers working at age 4 when his dad had him making change from customer’s $20 bills. Verange says with a smile, “I was a born to do this.”
Originally called the Navesink Food Center, the store was a place for area residents to shop for fruits and vegetables and everything else – from dog food to lightbulbs.
As times changed so did the store but never its look or feel. “My dad wanted a small, friendly country store and so do I,” Verange says.
Founder John Verange understood marketing more than 50 years ago, his son says. “Dad rented part of the building to the post office for $1 a year; residents stopped in to get their mail and pick up groceries, meats and the like. When the postal service wanted more space, my dad offered to enlarge the space in the building and keep the rent at $1, but they declined and moved.”
The senior Verange then rented the space to other commercial ventures.
“In the late 1980s, as we were moving more and more toward a deli,” the younger Verange says, “I took the space and turned it into a ‘chew and chat’ location with tables and chairs. The old-timers would come in for coffee, breakfast or lunch and sit for hours.”
Shaking his head, Verange laments that there aren’t too many old-timers left and young people are always in a hurry, late or in a rush. “They stop in, pick something up and run. No one sits down to ‘chew and chat’ for breakfast anymore.”
Today Verange sees customer traffic pick up at 10 a.m. and he’s busy for lunch and right through 7 p.m. “I actually could stay open until 9 p.m.,” he says, “but I am already here 80 to 90 hours a week.”
Verange has three grown sons and each helped behind the counter while growing up. “My boys are all adults and working now,” he says, “but I have loyal part-time help who have been with me for years.”
Verange’s sister-in-law Peggy has worked with him for decades and knows every regular. “You need good help who recognizes the customers and takes care of them quickly,” Verange says. “Good help is the key.”
Pat’s brother John also worked at the store for years until he retired.
To grow the deli business, Verange added homemade salads to go with cold cuts and sandwiches. About 2005, he decided to add soup to the deli menu and with its success, he wonders why he didn’t think of it sooner.
Partnering with Hale and Hearty, a chain of New York City soup shops, Verange has fresh soup delivered to the store. “We offer five choices a day,” he says, “and I get calls from customers every day asking what the soups are.”
The store favorites are sweet corn chowder and tomato cheddar, though he says a curry-butternut-squash combination he sold recently was very popular.
A savvy businessman who handles most of the ordering and customer contact from a cellphone, Verange admits he is still really old- school and has resisted, for now, the high-tech world of social media.
Verange maintains a large telephone list and has blast-faxed the soups and specials to his regular customers and area offices for years. His techie customers know that a Facebook page, where he will post his soup list and specials, can’t be too far in the future.
“The good thing about a family-run operation,” Verange says, “is the bad thing about a family-run operation.” He says that if he is away from the counter or store when a customer is asked something like how he wants his coffee, the answer might be: “I don’t know – Pat always fixes it for me.”
Verange says there is no free time except Sunday because the store is open 12 hours a day, six days a week.
Verange doesn’t need a sophisticated survey to know most of his customers come from within a 5-mile radius. “Yes, we get people heading here or there who spot us and stop but most of our customers are locals and regulars.”
When asked about the name Little Red Store, he jokes, “People would be on their cellphones and I’d hear them say, ‘I’m at the little red store,’ so I said, if that’s what they call us, let’s make it official.” He did so a few years back.
Verange is adamant about maintaining the “country-store tradition.” Don’t look for the Little Red Store to add a new storefront and bright lights to compete with 7-Eleven or Wawa anytime soon.
The store exterior – and for that matter the interior – hasn’t changed much in years. Billboard signs advertise the soups and specials outside; inside, shelves are packed with what sells and the walls are filled with photos and collectibles. There isn’t an open nook in the store’s 1,100 square feet.
Verange, a no-nonsense guy, tells his customers “say what you want about the store as long as it is true. If something is not right, I want to know so I can fix it. I am not someone to change something just to change it. I’m going with what works,” he says. His customers agree.