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11.14.22

All in the Family

For three generations and counting, the Pachecos of Oak Bluffs have been setting the table for their Island neighbors.

Robert “Bob” Pacheco arrived at Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs at 7:00 a.m. on September 3, 2022, to work, just like he always does. He put on his white butcher coat, tied on his white butcher apron, walked over to the meat counter, and started grinding hamburger, weighing it and packaging it up along with ribs, loins, sirloins, rounds, shanks, even meatballs to stock the store that would soon open at 8:30 a.m. The day progressed like any other day, with Bob keeping to his routine of butchering meat, filling orders, greeting customers, and running the grocery store along with his wife, Donna, and their two children, Jennifer “Jen” Pacheco Freeman and Eddie Pacheco.

The only difference was on that day, September 3, there was a cake. “It was my birthday,” said Bob, who turned seventy-five. A customer baked him a large vanilla sheet cake, and his family, staff, and loyal customers sang him “Happy Birthday.” “Other than that, it was a regular day,” he said, adding that he spent the day “cutting meat.”

Seventy-five is a significant number not just for Bob but for his entire family, his grocery store, and the town of Oak Bluffs. This year, Reliable Market, the mainstay grocery store at 36 Circuit Avenue, also turned seventy-five, adding a milestone to the rich history of a business first started in 1947. Though these days Reliable can feel like an old-fashioned main street grocery store – a throwback in the best nostalgic sort of way – when it opened it was something of newfangled novelty. According to an article announcing the forthcoming opening in the Vineyard Gazette on November 15, 1946, it was “a fine example of the modern city grocery,” adding, “It is finished entirely in white enamel and maple, with racks of shelving, display islands and counters all arranged to facilitate self-service.”

First generation: Irene “Helen” and Armando “Eddie” Pacheco at Reliable Market, circa 1950.
Courtesy the Pacheco Family

It was those last two words, “self-service,” that made Reliable different from the other grocers on the Island at the time. The norm was still for customers to hand a list to a clerk, who would retrieve items off the shelves for them. The store also carried a wider variety of meats and provisions.

In other ways, Reliable’s origin story sounds remarkably contemporary: a young person from off-Island spends a few summers working on Martha’s Vineyard and decides to figure out a way not to leave the Island. That person was Bob’s father, Armando “Eddie” Pacheco.

The son of immigrant parents from the Azores in Portugal, Eddie grew up in Warren, Rhode Island, along with his eight siblings. After graduating high school, he spent a couple of summers on the Vineyard working as an employee at a friend’s grocery store. In the winter, he returned to Rhode Island to work as a salesman for Coca-Cola, which is how he met Irene “Helen” Santos, whose family owned a grocery store on Eddie’s route in Middletown, Rhode Island. Her parents were also immigrants from the Azores. She had ten siblings. She grew up immersed in the food industry. They fell in love.

Life moved fast. The couple married in 1945 with the dream, as retold on the Reliable Market website and in framed newspaper clippings on the store’s walls, of opening their own grocery store together on Martha’s Vineyard. That store opened in early 1947 in what the Gazette described as “the new post office building,” which is now the location of Basics Clothing Company. That same year, Eddie and Helen welcomed their first and only child, Robert “Bob” Pacheco. He grew up like most children whose parents owned a business: spending countless days after school lending a hand wherever needed.

Robert “Bob” Pacheco and son, Eddie, in the meat department.
Randi Baird

“There were no child labor laws then so I would hang around the store after school, on summer vacations when I was in high school,” said Bob on a September Saturday in a small cubicle business office located in the back of the store. He sat in one of the two office computer chairs. Behind him on the walls were inventory lists, an intercom code sheet, and a laminated black and white picture of his younger self standing three-and-a-half crates tall in the stockroom in front of stacks of Autocrat Coffee cans for 99 cents. It’s taped onto the wall with a caption that reads: BOB 1955, AGE 8.

In the fall of 1960, when Bob was thirteen, his parents moved the grocery store up the street to three adjacent buildings, combining them all into one and allowing the market to expand. Shortly after that, they purchased the two buildings behind the store and tore them down to build a spacious parking lot.

He learned much in the store watching his parents that he couldn’t get from reading books: an appreciation for hard work, people skills, resilience, patience, and the importance of customer service. But, he said, he didn’t initially think he would always work at the grocery store. The question of what else he might do answered itself when both he and the store turned eighteen.

“My dad had a brain tumor when I was a senior in high school,” Bob said matter-of-factly. “I graduated in June of 1965 and he passed away in October of 1965.”

Daughter Jen Pacheco Freeman (left) is a reliable source of customer service.
Randi Baird

Along with his mother and various relatives, including Helen’s sister Mary Pinto, Bob continued to work at the store. He also attended the National School of Meat Cutting in Toledo, Ohio. Every Monday night throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, he drove a truck off-Island to collect a load of groceries, milk, produce, and meat, returning to the store on the Vineyard the next morning.

Around that time, Donna Day, a nurse who worked in cardiac care at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, walked into Reliable Market to shop. For Bob it was love at first sight. They married in 1973. A year later they welcomed their first child, a daughter named Jennifer, who was followed by a son, Eddie, named after his grandfather, in 1976. In 1983, when Jen and Eddie were old enough to attend school, Donna started working at the store with her husband and mother in law. Both Jen and Eddie left the Island to attend college, graduating in 1995 and 1998, respectively. Both returned home to work for the family business. In 2005, Bob’s mother, Helen, died.

Bob never predicted this path of life – that he would continue running the family business long after his parents were gone. “Nobody can read into the future,” he said sarcastically. But, he admitted a few minutes later, there was always an inkling this would be something he would continue to do. “The grocery business kind of grows on you. It’s not a business you can fake your way through, so to speak, you know? The people who are in this business really like it. It’s for people who wake up in the morning and don’t mind going to work.”

Lucky for Bob, there are plenty of people who fit that description in his own family. “I like coming to work,” said Jen, Bob’s daughter, on a different September day. “I do a lot here. I mean, I get all kinds of titles and not raises,” she said with a laugh.

Clockwise from top left: A photo of Bob, age eight in 1955, hangs in the store’s office; Helen, working the register in 1996, was often seen in her trademark gloves; Eddie and Jen grew up alongside their parents, Bob and Donna, in the store, circa late 1970s.
Photographs courtesy the Pacheco family except Helen Pacheco by Mark Alan Lovewell

Running a grocery store requires work, even in a modern “self-serve” market. “I do everything from overall manager to overseeing the front end, making sure there’s enough change, paying the vendor bills,” she said. “I order the dairy department and I make sure the grocer order gets placed; I do whatever needs to be done at the time it needs to be done. Sometimes I help wrap meat; sometimes I stock shelves. I clean...

“Whatever needs to be done is what you need in a family business,” she concluded. 

Her brother, Eddie, runs the meat department. He covers everything that goes with the salads, sandwiches, and ready-to-heat dinners that sell out daily. He also manages the dairy department and the specialty cheese wraps.

Donna, the former cardiac nurse, deals with the numbers. “Mom handles the corporate side of things,” said Jen. “She is in charge of all the higher-level things that need to be done, like the sales tax that needs to be paid and the payroll.”

Donna Pacheco handles the corporate side of the business – dealing with sales tax, preparing payroll, and other administrative duties.
Randi Baird

And Bob? “Bob runs the kingdom,” said Jen proudly. “He is in charge of everything. He’s the final decision, the final say. His main thing is he stays in the meat room to cut the meat and we try to help him out with everything else.”

Like their father before them, Jen and Eddie grew up in the store. “Do you want me to talk about when I first started working here, or when they first started paying me?” Jen joked, adding, “It’s a family business; you always work.”

As young students at the old Oak Bluffs School (where the town hall is today), Jen and Eddie would walk after school through the Camp Ground to Reliable Market to help their parents with the store – anything from carrying carrots in from the parking lot to arranging the bananas for display. They became official employees when they legally could, when each turned fourteen.

But some of their best memories were before that. “The store has always closed at 1:00 p.m. on Sundays, and my mom would send us with my dad to the store so that she could have some alone time. This is probably my favorite memory: my brother and I were little, and we had these tricycles called Big Wheels and once the store was closed my dad would let us drive our Big Wheels all around the store. We would zoom them around the aisles and if we managed to hit a display and knock it over then they would take the display down. The theory was, if we could hit it with our bicycles, then a customer could knock it down. So we were kind of like test dummies for the displays. It’s a fun memory I have, test riding bicycles around the store when it was closed.”

A portrait of the late Helen Pacheco watches over Reliable Market.
Randi Baird

Pacheco children are no longer riding bicycles around the store to test displays after hours, but a lot of what Jen remembers from growing up inside the market has remained the same. “You know, people still need to eat. And that hasn’t changed no matter who is in charge of what company or how big a company is. People are still looking for big value to feed their family and it doesn’t matter what supplier we have or how many; people still go to the grocery store to shop for food,” said Jen.

“What we do is still very much the same from what we’ve always done,” she continued. “We try to bring as many products at the best price for our customers and that’s never changed.”

Inevitably, of course, some changes have been introduced, on both the small and large level. “Technology. The way we do inventory, the way we check out, and especially the cash registers to ring people out. I mean, my poor Grandma Pacheco started with a cigar box – that was her cash register – and then the big pull-the-lever-down-to-punch cash register, then the scanners. She did all of that in her lifetime. She was determined. I remember she was in her eighties when she learned to use the scanner. I remember her saying, ‘I am going to learn this! This is what I’m going to learn!’ And she did,” said Jen.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the Pachecos had to adjust to the changing world with year-round and summer residents spending more money at grocery stores than ever before. With that demand, a shortage of food and labor came into play. “We tried to keep things as normal as possible. That was always our goal, to not make people’s lives any more difficult. We did experience staffing issues, and we still struggle to find help like everyone else on the Island right now, but we did the best we could and our customers were incredibly understanding and patient with us and we were so grateful for that,” said Jen.

The brother and sister team of Jen (above) and Eddie (below) keep the story going, marking the third generation of grocers.
Randi Baird

Perhaps the biggest change for the market is still to come. Earlier this year, in June, the Pacheco family purchased the building housing Phillips Hardware, Reliable Market’s neighbors, at 30 Circuit Avenue for $2.3 million from sisters Donna Leon and Susan Phillips under the name 30 Circuit LLC. The agreement allows the sisters to remain in the building for at least three years, which also means that Circuit Avenue will continue to have a hardware store during this time. For the Pacheco family, purchasing the building was a way to continue contributing to the infrastructure of downtown Oak Bluffs, where mainstay businesses in the heart of town remain open all year long.

Bob has always had a great working relationship with the sisters and saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “The girls – Donna and Susan – wanted to sell it, but not quite yet. So, we were able to negotiate a deal for three years to decide what we want to do,” said Bob. “There’s a lot of red tape, there’s a permitting process, and three years buys us time. It’s good for the girls, and it’s good for the town.

“We didn’t want the property to sit empty; that doesn’t help anybody,” said Bob. “Plus, it’s an anchor business. After three years there will be a plan in motion, but for now, there is no solid plan yet,” he said, except to keep the building occupied year-round and the business running.

“The town in the dead of winter only has a handful of businesses always running: we have the hardware store, us, daRosa Corporation, and Basics Clothing [Company] that are open all year round. There aren’t that many year-round businesses, and if you took those businesses away, what do you have?” he asked.

Randi Baird

There’s also a full-circle moment happening with the purchase. Jen said the history of the two families dates much earlier. “In the parking lot at Reliable, the Phillips building kind of juts out,” Jen explained. “That was actually Reliable property, but my grandfather sold it to Mr. Phillips, so when this sale happened, I thought, ‘Wait a minute – it’s like we’re buying back our own property,’” she said with a laugh.

For now, Bob isn’t stressing out – or talking much – about the future of 30 Circuit Avenue. He says it’s because he knows it’ll fall into place with the right amount of research, planning, and time, something he hasn’t had much of since the purchase. “It happened so late in the spring – in June – so we had to gear up for summer,” he said.

“I work 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. most days,” said Bob. At the end of the day, after closing, Bob and Donna go home and have dinner together. They also spend plenty of time with their children and grandchildren, who, unsurprisingly, are following in their parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps.

“My son, Eddie, he has twin boys [Robby and Teddy] who worked here at the store all summer and that was great,” said Bob. But, he said, they are still young students in school with their whole lives ahead of them. While it wouldn’t be a surprise for them to continue working for the family business, it’s a choice they’ll make for themselves later on.

In the meantime, plenty of people have made the choice to work at the store. Bob reliably employs between ten to twenty people, depending on the season, to keep the store running – some of whom are related to him, some who have worked there for many years. Regardless of their affiliation, everyone at the store feels like family, a quality he looks for when hiring staff.

“I like people; I like working with them and I even like waiting on them. I like the interaction with people,” he said. “I see myself doing this for a long time.” 

Comments (14)

Ernie Chavrs
Vineyard Haven
Great family, great article. Happy 75th anniversary, Reliable mkt, & Pacheco family.
November 22, 2022 - 6:04am
Jean Whitney Vinci
OB
My Mother, Barbara Whitney, was friends with Helen since the store opened and I grew up Summers knowing her and her Son Bobby. I am so happy the family is still running the store! They helped my Mom when she got older and couldn’t get her groceries herself anymore and they delivered them to her kitchen in the Campgrounds. Forever grateful for all the years of wonderful service! Thank you
November 22, 2022 - 6:45am
Joyce
Oak Bluffs
My favorite store run by a wonderful family. The friendly atmosphere is always a treat.
November 22, 2022 - 6:48am
david finkelstein
West Tisbury
A great family. Always helpful.
November 22, 2022 - 7:36am
schlegel Elena
OB
Love the Reliable Market! So happy to read this article
November 22, 2022 - 7:47am
Patricia Tyra
Edgartown and Dania Beach, FL
Wonderful family story and a delightful store. Have shopped there all my live with fond memories of the weekly delivery of Portuguese Sweet Bread! Thanks so much to all the family for their dedication.
November 22, 2022 - 8:09am
Suzy
Ny/ob
Wonderful article about a great family business. I wish them continued success
November 22, 2022 - 8:35am
Steven Certlman
VH
Beautiful story. Businesses that survive three generations are not easy to find!
November 22, 2022 - 9:03am
Jessica B. Harris
MVY/ NY/New Orleans
Best butcher ever!!!!!! Incredible family! Incredible store. We are so lucky to have them.
November 22, 2022 - 11:31am
Janet Grout
Keene, NH
I had the pleasure of working with this family before recently retiring. It’s the people I miss the most, and Reliable was top on my list. All hard working and dedicated to their business and customers, they are always a joy to be around. Congrats on 75 years!!
November 22, 2022 - 7:05pm
Ed Jackson
Colorado
I have many memories of the family while making deliveries to them daily for over 15 years. Great people. Moved to Colorado 10 years ago. Miss them. Rock on Reliable.
November 23, 2022 - 7:16am
Joanne Lambert
Oak Bluffs
Oak Bluffs would not be Oak Bluffs without Reliable! Grateful for the Pacheco family and all that they do for our community.
November 23, 2022 - 7:26am
Anna Alley
West Tisbury
Thanks for this great history of this significant store and the wonderful family that owns and runs it. Hard working great people. We are lucky to have them. Congratulations and best wishes.
November 23, 2022 - 9:38am
Jack law
Oak bluffs
Great store, great family. Wonde rful asset to our town.
November 23, 2022 - 10:04am