It could be argued that no one in Saint John is more passionate about produce than Darren Lavigne.
Lavigne is the owner of Pete’s Frootique in the Saint John City Market.
“Every day I come in and it’s different,” he said, talking not about the atmosphere or the personalities, but about the products he sells.
“Fruits and vegetables are beautiful,” he said.
Lavigne bought the local business about seven years ago, but he’s been working at the popular produce stand for 25 years.
“When I was in high school I had a paper route and stuff like that, but this was my first job,” he said.
His brother, who worked at Pete’s before him, helped him get the job in 1993, and Lavigne kept working for the business through his high school and university years.
“After university, my boss asked me to come on as a manager, so I did, and the rest is history,” he said.
As much as Lavigne enjoys the people he gets to interact with each day, the staff he works with and what he calls the “cool vibe” of the Saint John City Market, it’s the produce that has kept him excited about the business for two and a half decades.
Lavigne loves creating the colourful displays of fruits and vegetables on the red-painted boards of his market booth.
“I unload the truck in the morning, I open up the box and the brussel sprouts look beautiful. It makes me happy.”
His favourite time of day is first thing in the morning when he’s receiving his orders and nobody else is around. He enjoys turning on some music and getting right to work setting up the displays. As the people begin to file in and sales begin for the day, the job of merchandising the produce isn’t over. It’s never over.
“I think Pete used to say ‘Your product is dying by the second,’ so you’ve constantly got to work your product, Lavigne said.
His traditional produce stand doesn’t have the coolers found in large grocery stories so, particularly in the summer heat, it’s important to move product quickly.
“It’s a lot of work. It’s very high maintenance, but I think that’s why I like it,” he said.
Being in the Saint John City Market is also key to his enjoyment of the business. As much as he loves the products, he recognizes that the friendly, social setting is what makes the business special.
“I wouldn’t be here is I was stuck in a mall or something like that,” he said. “The market is great. The people are great. The customers are great.”
Lavigne thrives during the busiest seasons.
“My adrenaline gets pumping when I know it’s going to be a busy day. I can’t even sleep some nights because I know I’ve got so much to do the next day.”
Good luck finding a produce manager quite so passionate at box stores.
Lavigne said, while he understands the appeal of one-stop-shopping at big box grocery stores—he goes to one himself less than once a month—he hopes people realize the benefits of shopping at the Saint John City Market.
“The prices are comparative, that’s for sure. The selection is comparative. And it’s just more of a social aspect,” he said.
And if those aren’t reasons enough, he would remind shoppers that a trip to the City Market puts money directly into the pockets of hard-working, local small business owners.
“Everybody in here is a local business owner,” he said, referring to his fellow vendors lining the sloped aisles of the historic market.
Lavigne said he puts in 50 to 60 hours a week working at his business, and has only had a couple of days off in the last 10 months. He said other vendors work just as hard, or harder—many supporting families.
Shopping at Pete’s also supports local farmers. While Lavigne carries an assortment of exotic imported produce like jack fruit, cactus pears and Spanish olives, the majority of his fruits and vegetables are sourced locally from nearby farms. Some of those farms have been selling their goods to Pete’s Frootique for 30 years.
The produce stand at the bottom end of the City Market, near the Germain Street doors, also features a juice bar, selling fresh-made juice and smoothies. As well, the store also carries a selection of imported British goods.
Pete’s Frootique garnered fame in the 80s when former owner Pete Luckett became a bit of maritime celebrity through appearances on CBC television, and then a regular spot on ATV’s Live at 5, after relocating to Halifax in 1990. Lavigne never worked directly with Luckett, because the former owner sold the Saint John store prior to Lavigne joining the business.
Lavigne, who is in his early 40s, said he plans to continue plugging away at the business for a few more years at least.
by Daniel Mark Wheaton