Debbie Chouinard, far left, said that her regular customers are like family to her. “They tease me all the time,” she said. BENJAMIN C. KLEIN At far left, graphic shows that while the Robie's Country Deli and Store has been open since the 1800s, the building has been rebuilt twice due to being completely destroyed by fires. COURTESY
Robie's Country Store owner struggling to stay open in Hooksett
HOOKSETT — Working long hours seven days a week, Robie's Country Store owner Debbie Chouinard is trying her best to keep the local institution alive in the face of dwindling consumer traffic.
First opened in 1800s, the store has been designated in both the state and national registers of historic places due to its long, colorful and important history. Stepping into the store feels like stepping into the past, with old wooden floors, campaign posters from the early 1900s on the walls and an aesthetic that screams classic Americana.
The food is homemade, plentiful and cheap. Those not acclimated to the store's plate portions might be foolish enough to order the Farmer's Breakfast because it is so cheap, only to be shocked when mountains of eggs, potatoes, meat and French toast come their way.
The store, owned by the Robie family for more than 100 years before they were forced to sell about 10 years ago, has a contingent of loyal customers who travel daily to eat breakfast with their fellow diehards. Despite that, Chouinard said it is a daily struggle to keep her business open.
"It's very hard to keep this place open. We have lots of loyal customers but not enough traffic flow, especially since the area lost a lot of its manufacturing jobs," Chouinard said.
While Chouinard owns the business, she is in an unusual agreement in that she leases the building from the Robie's Country Store Historic Preservation Corp.
Robert Schroeder, president of the preservation group, said the nonprofit bought the building in 2000 from the Robie family to ensure the legacy of the store continued. The current incarnation of the building has been in existence since 1906 after it burnt down for the second time.
Despite the business being sold three times since 2000, Schroeder said he is happy that Chouinard, who bought the business in 2004, has been able to keep the store alive.
"I come here almost every day, so I would say I'm happy," he said.
As part of the agreement, the walls, the floors and ceiling can't be touched, but the layout is entirely up to Chouinard.
"It used to be more of a grocery store. Now it is more about serving food," Schroeder said.
Despite not owning the building, Chouinard said, "there wouldn't be anything here without the business; it would just be an empty building."
Despite no longer owning the store that bears her husband's family name, Dorothy Robie, 95, still tries to make it to the store for breakfast whenever she can."For over 30 years, my husband and I worked here for seven days a week until he got Alzheimer's and we had to sell. On our last day, more than 400 people showed up to say goodbye. We are very happy that the legacy of this place is being kept alive," Robie said.
She added that she still gets goose bumps when she walks into the store. "I feel like I should be doing something when I am here," Robie said.
For many of the customers, part of the fun of eating at the store is Chouinard's granddaughter Paityn, who can often be seen eating with customers, striking up conversations or riding her big wheel happily through the store.
Kerry Molin of Bow has been coming almost daily for the past five or six years, "and it's the camaraderie that keeps me coming back," he said.
Richard Juneau said he has been coming to the store since 1970, but now that he he is retired he finds himself spending more time than ever there.
For Chouinard, her business feels like home.
"The customers tease me and make me coffee when I get busy," she said. "The people here are more like a family."
Robie's, at 9 Riverside St., Hooksett, is open seven days a week, Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.