Herb’s Country Store explores closing its doors
Montville ― Businesses like Herb’s Country Store are few and far between.
Soon, there may be one fewer.
The store has been a staple of Route 32 in Uncasville for the past 54 years. But now, 92-year-old owner Herb Plotnick and his son, Jeffrey Plotnick, believe it’s time to move on. They have listed the 1.3-acre property for sale to get a feel for the market, with a $699,000 price tag.
The Plotnicks have not received an offer on the property and do not have a plan in place to close the store. The move to put the store on the market was to “test the waters” in a time where Jeffrey is ready to explore other passions.
“I thought it was a good idea,” Herb said of his son’s idea to sell the store. “I was a little surprised, but I thought it was a good idea.”
Jeffrey Plotnick, 61, has volunteered his time to help his dad with the store after retiring from a 20-year career with the state. Jeffrey travels across Connecticut to pick up locally grown fruits, vegetables, flowers and more from places like Scott Orchards and Nursery in Glastonbury, to fill the store. Jeffrey takes the ferry to Long Island every week to pick up more produce. This time of year, it’s mostly corn and pumpkins from Long Island.
Jeffrey said the current store sees 2,000-3,000 customers per week with a large portion stopping in after eating at the restaurant.
But the work has taken a toll on him. The store is open seven days a week, and as much as Jeffrey enjoys keeping the name and the “legacy of Herb” going, he feels it’s time. He said he hasn’t taken a paycheck since 1999.
“I look at it like, in 20 years I’m going to be 80,” Jeffrey said. “I kinda want to be able to enjoy myself.”
It’s a sentiment his father understands.
“That’s what killed these knees, jumping off the truck over 100 times a day,” Herb said, who now uses a wheelchair.
Jeffrey’s sister, Ellen P. Curtin, 63, who runs Herb’s Restaurant and Deli on the abutting property, said the workload can be daunting. She’s been running the restaurant for the last 30 years and even though she’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, she’s often there seven days a week.
“We both love what we do, it’s just a lot of work,” Ellen said. “There’s no free time.”
Ellen confirmed that the restaurant is not going anywhere at this time. It’s just the store that is listed for sale.
Ellen called it a “sad day” when it comes time for her to sell the restaurant. She has two children who aren’t interested in taking over the business. Jeffrey has no children to consider for the country store.
The brother-sister duo has been involved in the family business for most of their lives. Before the store and restaurant they grew up with existed, Herb delivered groceries out of a truck.
In 1957, two years after he was finished serving in the U.S. Army as a cook, Herb decided to start his business. He and his wife, Frances, had grown up on family farms and so he decided to sell eggs, fruit, vegetables, pumpkins and turkeys for Thanksgiving out of a truck, door-to-door style, he said, “like a milkman.”
Herb credits Frances for her support in the early days. The 29-year Ledyard school teacher — who went on to also work at Foxwoods Resort Casino, sing with the Eastern Symphony Chorus in New London, and even enlisted in the Israel Army for a few years — was the breadwinner of the family when Herb first started the business. Ellen recalled her mother working the books for her father. Frances passed away six years ago.
Herb said he grew from one truck to a fleet of five. He ran the business that way for 12 years, with each truck running five routes from Preston to Madison. Herb recalled having a clientele of about 3,600.
“There aren’t too many roads that I won’t know if you told me where you were going,” Herb said. “Unless it was built since I’ve been off the road.”
Herb recalled gas was 69 cents at that time, eventually going up to $1.19,
“That really bit into my business,” he said. So, he shrunk the fleet down to one, state-of-the-art truck that he ran the business out of for about five years.
He found a property available at 538 Norwich-New London Turnpike, where Cade’s Nursery used to be and where the McDonald’s currently stands, as a location for his store.
Ellen remembered she was 9 when the store first opened. She recalled working the register on the weekends and after school, side by side with her mother. Even after she went away to school and started a career working in the insurance industry, she always came back to the family business.
“She was with me from Day 1,” Herb said of his daughter.
But in 1974, McDonald’s purchased the property on which Herb’s store and deli sat and told Herb he could stay on the property for $100 per day. He decided to look elsewhere. Down the road a bit was an old gas station for sale.
Herb purchased the property and moved the business to where it stands today, although it was just the restaurant at first. The small deli at the previous location drew in the most traffic, so Herb said he went where the money was and opened the restaurant before the store. Roughly 10 years later, Herb was able to buy the country store property.
“His heart was always in the country store,” Ellen said.
Jeffrey recalled how his father installed a truck mirror on the side of the restaurant so when he wasn’t cooking, he could see customers pull up to the store and run over to serve them. They did not get as many customers back then, Jeffrey said, so his father would run both places at the same time.
Herb cooked at the restaurant well into his 70s, Ellen said, before she started to run the business full-time. Herb said it was a lot of work, but he’s glad he did it and had the support of his family.
“I’m very happy,” Herb said. “Now, they’re taking care of me. Left them in a good position. A lot of work, but it was worth it.”
Jeffrey said he and his father are going to be “picky choosey” when deciding who they sell the business to. Though they have not received an offer to this point, Jeffrey would like to see someone in the same industry buy the property. He said he would even like the new owner to keep the same name, though he knows he has no control over that.
“It’s going to be a sad day if I drive by and see ‘Phil’s Bait Shop’ or something,” he said.
Ellen did not share the same sentiment.
“I don’t think I could drive by and have it say Herb’s,” she said.