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Second-generation shopkeeper Paul Kozey keeps Walt’s Market on Main Street, Old Saybrook, going through good times and crises like the current pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Paul Kozey )
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Sixty years ago, before Paul Kozey was born, his father, Walter Kozey, established Walt’s Market on Main Street in Old Saybrook. Paul, the third of five children, worked in the store as his siblings did, starting with sweeping floor and washing dishes when he was in the 6th grade.
“Slowly I started working with the knives,” he recalls. “I used to work on boning out neck bones to build up my skills.”
He would work full time in the summer and part time during school. In 1981, he graduated from Old Saybrook High School and began to work full time at the store. He was apprenticed to the meat cutter.
“He was waiting for me to” graduate from high school, Paul explains. When Paul finished his training, the meat cutter “went off and...opened up a place of his own and I took over running the meat department.”
Although his siblings also worked at the market, Paul was the only who stuck with it. He took over from his father in 1993 and has run the store ever since.
Walt’s is an Old Saybrook landmark, the sort of old-fashioned, family-owned small grocery that’s disappeared from too many American towns. Its specialty is meat and Paul still ensures that the meat sold there is of excellent quality, even as times have changed.
“We used to break sides of beef,” he says. “We sold a lot of hind and backs...That’s where you get your T-bone and your porterhouse and rounds...short ribs, and hanging rib roast, the seven-bone rib roast.”
Over time, “hanging beef just got to be too much to do, too labor intensive. And then people hurting” financially made it too expensive for many, he says. “The shipping costs and everything else went up, so they pretty much did away with it everyplace.
“That’s when IBP [the former name of Tyson Foods] boxed beef started coming out,” he says. Termed “primal cuts,” these were intermediate cuts that the retailer would cut down further for sale to customers.
Paul continues to purchase primal cuts for Walt’s meat department.
“You get a whole chop sirloin or a whole New York strip steak or a whole rib eye, whole pork loins. You cut them down,” he says. “You do a lot of cutting to order—people want a specialty steak. Only a few stores do that. You can get it [elsewhere] but this is [what] this store is built on. For us, it’s nothing.” Other stores “don’t have the people set up to do that.”
Walt’s beef is “high quality certified Black Angus, choice and prime,” Paul explains. “Back in the ‘80s, it was quantity, not quality. Now it’s quality, not quantity.”
The emphasis on quality these days is good for a store like Walt’s, whose customers know they’re getting what they pay for.
“All you need is four to eight ounces per person to have a steak,” he says. “People eat differently than years ago. It goes in cycles.”
As for Walt’s customers, “They pay a little bit more but they know what they’re getting,” he says. When you compare “a nice piece of marbled beef versus a lean piece, you know just by looking how chewy it will be or how tough it will be.
“Certified Black Angus is nationwide, but not everybody carries it because it’s expensive,” he says. “You can buy something cheaper. But customers know.
“Over the years you develop a trust with the customer,” he adds. “They know.”
The Local Star
Paul recalls the days when Katharine Hepburn was a regular presence at Walt’s.
“She was a good customer,” he says. “Back when she retired, she or her people working for her were in the store pretty much every day, every other day. She would come in herself. And I would wait on her.
“She was a good, fun customer,” he continues. “One time me and my brother John—we were just kids—we were running the store. I’m going way back but she goes, ‘Hey, can I...show you how I want my cold cuts sliced?’
“I let her come behind the counter, she came behind the counter, grabbed some genoa salami. She sliced it,” Paul says.
“‘This is how I want it sliced. Every time,’” Hepburn told them.
“Sometimes the other customers would give way to her, let her go first,” he remembers. “She got a little special treatment.
“My father was very close to her,” he continues. “He used to deliver to her. She’d make out a grocery list. I should have saved them. She signed pictures.”
Fortunately, Paul’s mother, Madelyn, has saved some of those mementos, Paul says.
A Big Anniversary
Paul seems a bit surprised by the fact that Walt’s turns 60 this year.
“That’s a milestone in itself and it’s kind of like an icon,” he says of the store. “A lot of people have grown up with it, maybe three generations, I’m guessing.”
There are no doubt customers who came in the store as children when his father ran it, he says.
“They’re the elders now and they’re still shopping at the store,” Paul says. “It’s a family business and there’s a lot of customers, they’re like family. They’ve been with the store and they’ve watched me grow up, I’ve watched them grow up, so a little bit of both.
Paul also highly values good employees.
“A lot of times, employees are hard to come by and the ones that you have you have to treat them good so you can hold on to them,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many employees I’ve had since 1981. On the low end, probably 600 people. We do get a turnover. That’s the kind of business it is. This is kind of a stepping stone; it helps people get through high school and college and then they move on.”
But there are, of course, employees who have stuck with Walt’s, like “Jim Light—he’s been with me for 20 years,” Paul says. “I’ve had other key employees who’ve worked, like, 15 years, like Kevin Stone.
“You gotta work with employees. In a small business...there are good times and there are hardships. You got to try and help [employees] out when they’re going through hard times. They help me out. It goes both ways.”
Coping with a Pandemic
It’s become a cliché to say that these are unprecedented times. But they are times that can make or break a small business. Fortunately, for Paul and for Walt’s employees and customers, food is necessary and grocery stores are essential.
“Business is strong,” he says. “There’s plenty of parking now—this store has very limited parking spots. That always affected business.”
Walt’s has done all it can to ensure that customers and employees don’t get sick. Plexiglass shields have been placed at the cash register and tape placed on the floor so that customers stand six feet apart while in line.
“Knock on wood, everybody’s healthy,” he says of his staff and customers. “We’re all wearing masks. We...sanitize all the door handles and try to keep everything wiped down and clean. We respect everybody’s space. We’re all doing the best we can. It’s not easy.”
Store hours have been cut down an hour “on each side” to allow time for cleaning, Paul says. The shelves are stocked, but there are constant shortages to contend with.
“Some products, it’s tough—you order them and they don’t come,” he says. “A lot of groceries you just can’t keep up with. People are buying them from coast to coast. The paper goods: paper towels, toilet paper, Clorox wipes. I haven’t been able to get Clorox wipes for six, eight weeks.”
Because so many offices are closed, suppliers are trying to sell grocers their overstock of commercial grade paper towels and toilet paper, Paul explained. Among food items, pasta is difficult to find.
“The main thing is yeast and flour,” he says. “Everybody’s home baking bread and you can’t buy it. Everybody’s out of yeast. The whole town, except for me. We’re using the one-pound yeast, what restaurants would use. You can’t get the little packets of yeast.”
Paul is also purchasing 50-pound bags of flour and then bagging it up in five-pound bags for customers.
“A big chain’s not going to do that. We’re trying to help the customer out that way,” he says.
Paul has two stepchildren, who are grown and living on their own. His daughter, Hannah, a sophomore in high school, works at the store a couple of days a week.
“A family business like the retail business, it’s not an easy business. It’s weekends, it’s holidays, it’s nights,” he says.
“A lot of times, I don’t know if I want my child to be in this business because it’s a sacrifice,” he says. “I’ve worked every Saturday and Sunday since 7th grade. And that’s the truth. It’s crazy. That’s how these small businesses are, there’s not enough revenue that you can hire people to do your job.
“There’s never downtime in these stores,” he continues. “Back in the old days, there wasn’t boxed beef and there was just hanging meat. You bring in beef, that’s got to be worked on and sold or you’re throwing it away and you’re going to lose money.”
Paul remembers celebrating family Christmases largely without his dad.
“We’d open up Christmas presents, he’d tap you on the top of the head and say, ‘I’m going to work,’” he recalls. Although the store wasn’t open that day, his father had to get in “to clean up the mess.”
When holidays approach, “[e]verybody’s taking off and you got to gear up to take care of them,” he says. “Every holiday—there’s no rest.”
And when a hurricane is approaching, most people stock up and hunker down. But a grocery store has to remain open. And Walt’s almost never loses power.
One time, when his father was still running the store, Walt’s lost power for “maybe 20 hours,” Paul says.
“We had an ice machine and after the hurricane come through, he was giving away free ice to people,” he says. “It wasn’t a lot, but it was something.”
Looking back on spending his entire adult life working full time for and then running Walt’s, Paul seems to be content.
“It hasn’t been easy,” he says. “There’s ups and downs and that stuff. But all in all, it all went well.”
Walt’s temporarily abbreviated hours are Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.