Every morning, Michael Levandowski wakes up thinking about dinner. One eye is open, and he’s already planning what to make for supper. It’s the only time of day he and his wife, April, can reliably spend together.

“We are cookers. We cook, and we cook a lot,” Michael says. “We have a pretty diverse portfolio of things. The interesting thing is we go home after a long day and we always cook a great meal. We don’t skimp. It’s the way we unwind.”

“It’s sort of our entertainment, and even though we work together in a business, we’re not working on the same thing,” April says. “At dinner, we’re working on the same thing: I might be chopping and dicing, and Michael’s cooking and assembling. Michael’s really good on the entrée, and I focus on dessert.”

Michael’s love for cooking started in Cambridge, where he took classes twice a week, starting at 6 p.m. and going until midnight. The six hours were a much-needed respite from his job with a software consulting company, which involved traveling across the country. Now cooking is part of their everyday routine.

Everything is always made from scratch, and always easy, healthy meals. Their favorites change monthly – the meal of the moment is pan-roasted halibut served over white beans and tomatoes in a white wine broth with sautéed greens (the recipe follows along with some other favorites to make a complete meal).

Michael and April have channeled their personal passion into three thriving housewares stores with an emphasis on good cookware – in Vineyard Haven, Portland, Maine, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Their stores are filled with fun cooking gadgets, like olive pitters and corn zippers, but sometimes it’s the simplest tools that are most appreciated. Michael’s favorite implement is an excellent knife; April loves a good zester/grater. But there’s one thing neither of them can live without: tongs.
“We probably have eight to ten sets of tongs in our drawer, and I could always have more,” April says.

“And they’re always dirty at the end of a meal,” Michael adds.

“I don’t know how we functioned without them years ago,” says April.

It was only by accident that April and Michael stepped foot on the Vineyard on Patriot’s Day weekend in the spring of 1980. The couple originally had planned a vacation on Cape Ann, but when their hotel ended up being under construction, the Levandowskis turned around and headed toward Cape Cod. They pulled into a gas station and asked a state policeman where they should go; he suggested the Vineyard, and they were the last car on the ferry that night.

Summer visitors for years after that, April and Michael decided to leave their corporate jobs in Boston (April had been a human resources systems manager at a bank) and have now been living on the Island full time for twenty-three years.

The Levandowskis have learned by trial, error, and faith how to successfully manage a Vineyard business. Through a diverse range of enterprises, including selling ladies’ undergarments, managing an inn, and operating a convenience store, the couple have fine-tuned a small business model with their off-Island sensibility. They now have three flourishing kitchen/ housewares stores, with potentially more to come – and a new shoppable website, www.lerouxkitchen.com, that launched in September.

Rising in retail

In the mid-eighties, the Levandowskis operated the Crocker House Inn in Vineyard Haven, first while commuting from Boston on the weekends, and later while living in a little house on Chappaquiddick. It’s hard enough for Chappy residents to have a connection to the “mainland” of Edgartown, let alone make the commute to Vineyard Haven to manage a business, but the Levandowskis took it up a notch. When no nearby property was available to expand the inn, they looked to other businesses in town. LeRoux Clothing, then owned by Jim LeRoux of West Tisbury, was for sale, and they took the opportunity to delve into the unknown world of retail.

It was a difficult balancing act: April was answering the phone for the Crocker House while setting up shop at the Main Street boutique. “I was pretty busy. Michael would call looking for me and the only time I had to do the windows at the clothing store was when all the guests were asleep around midnight or one in the morning,” April remembers.

But the Levandowskis had a plan. Instead of trying to support themselves running one Island enterprise, they decided a selection of small businesses would be the most profitable venture.

Over the next few years, Michael and April owned myriad different enterprises, most based in Vineyard Haven. They purchased the long-standing department store Vineyard Dry Goods. With it came merchandise they’d never dealt with before: cribs, strollers, girdles, prom gowns, furniture, and housewares. Michael had a custom-cabinetry business. They’ve had a children’s store, a shoe store, Woodland Market (a café and convenience store on State Road in Vineyard Haven), and a store in Falmouth, all while living on Chappaquiddick.

“It was pretty insane,” Michael says. “We were very fortunate to have that corporate training and we brought that and financial training discipline with us....It always evolved. We always tried new things and we were working really hard, hours-wise. We put a lot of time into these businesses.”

It wasn’t long before they decided it was a bit too much and started taking steps to consolidate the disparate elements of their lives. They dissolved Vineyard Dry Goods, integrating its clothing department into LeRoux Clothing, where the Green Room is today. They also moved off Chappaquiddick to Vineyard Haven, and today live on William Street, a block from downtown.

Then in 1998, a three-story Main Street storefront in a prime location became available. They saw an opportunity and took it. “Once we were [living year-round] on the Island, we found it really impossible to find any good cookware,” April says, explaining they had long talked about how to turn their passion for cooking into a successful enterprise. So they set up shop in the Main Street location, and LeRoux at Home opened its doors.

Once the kitchen and housewares store began to take off, the Levandowskis further refined their business philosophy, thinning out more of their other business interests. They decided to focus on developing the housewares company, first by opening a second store in an area with a broader season. Portland, Maine, was a natural choice. In addition to the seaside city’s stronger spring and fall seasons, another opportunity presented itself when a long-standing housewares store there came up for sale. In 2001 they opened Portland’s LeRoux Kitchen, which sells kitchenware, gourmet food, beer, and wine.

Finding the right recipe

Success can come in many forms, but the Levandowskis have perfected their formula. It takes quality products and service, loyal employees, and a solid business partnership to make the LeRoux franchise work.

April and Michael have impeccable taste and an appreciation for variety. Their three stores offer similar options for cooking pots and pans, baking needs, tea kettles, funky cooking gadgets, glassware, cookbooks, and serving platters, to name a few. Some may say it’s cheaper to buy these sorts of things off-Island and haul them back, but the Levandowskis take a minimum advertised pricing (MAP) approach. They sell merchandise at the lowest prices set by manufacturers, which allows customers to buy competitively priced products on-Island, resulting in less schlepping and no shipping fees. They also try to accommodate shoppers’ different budgets.

“We offer two things – product and service,” Michael says. “We’ve assorted the store with the good, better, best philosophy. You can buy, within each category, a range of items.”

“We have all of those customers,” April adds. “You have people who are just renting and they don’t like the blankets and sheets or the pillows smell, but they’re only here for a week, so they want to buy something they can use for a week. Or somebody who’s here year-round wants something moderately priced.”

Michael doesn’t eat gluten, so some of their inventory reflects their own cooking repertoire. A tasting bar of olive oils and vinegars, a variety of specialty chocolates, and gluten-free pastas are some of the non-wheat products they offer and find sell well.

April and Michael spend a lot of time at trade shows and reading journals to find the best quality items available at different price points, and go even further to cultivate partnerships with their vendors, as well as other housewares retailers. “You really need to have strong relationship with your vendors,” Michael says. “Your vendors are crucial.”

The Levandowskis are committed to every customer who walks in their doors, the day-tripper or the year-rounder. Having one of the largest storefronts on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, they always felt it was imperative to be open year-round.

Coming from corporate life, they worked Monday through Saturday, giving them only Sunday to shop. They understand the need for flexible hours, and are open 363 days of the year (they’re closed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas, but try to be open on New Year’s and Easter depending on staff availability).

“Here there are so many businesses closed for winter; it’s a part of our community responsibility to be open,” April says. “If we’re going to occupy a space on Main Street, we have to be here for our customers.” They also provide year-round jobs – another key to the LeRoux success story. April and Michael are as committed to their employees as their employees are to them.

“One of the things that makes LeRoux work is dedication and willingness to change with what’s going on around you,” Michael says. “We are dedicated to our business and we’re dedicated to our employees.” And most of all they’re dedicated to each other.

Celebrating their thirty-first wedding anniversary this year, Michael describes their relationship as “best friends [who] work together all day and live together. It has the makings of a nightmare, but it turns out to be a fabulous relationship. We are so lucky; we’re incredibly happy.”

Expanding the menu

Visiting trade shows, working at the Vineyard Haven store, and squeezing in some down time leaves little space for much else. The Levandowskis visit their other stores regularly but rely heavily on a core management team – something that became even more significant after a failed sprinkler system nearly destroyed the Portland store in 2001, only a year and a half after it opened.

It was a busy Columbus Day weekend when the failed system flooded the entire store and ruined much of the merchandise. The insurance company recommended letting the staff go, but April and Michael decided to pay them out of their own pocket until the store was ready to open again. By keeping their employees on, the Levandowskis provided them with work as well as a stake in the process – the Portland employees helped fix up the store.

“Everyone participated in the rebuilding,” Michael says, “and what does that mean? That means you have a countertop that’s varnished and if you don’t understand all the work that goes into that sort of thing, you might put boxes on it and not treat it like it should be treated, but these guys varnished the stuff [themselves]. So when the store reopened they were so excited.”

“And so proud,” April adds.

During the rebuilding process, many of their management team came down to the Vineyard to work the busy Christmas rush. “Out of this horrible thing, there was a silver lining, and it’s one of the benefits of having different locations,” April says. “If you do some cross training and meetings and sharing, it works as one big engine, which is really nice.”

Since the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, location opened in 2007, the Levandowskis have three stores that are very similar, offering many of the same products (although the Vineyard store is the only location with bedding and linens). Having multiple locations also allows for stock balancing – if one store is out of something, there’s a fair chance one of the other stores has it. In the model the Levandowskis have created, satisfying the employees helps ensure satisfied customers as well.

“The employees are more inclined to have a relationship [with the other stores], so they really make sure they get the product to transfer and make sure it happens,” April says. “Even though we have three stores, it’s like one company with three doors.”

Three doors are likely to turn into five or six in the next few years, Michael says. Though April is a little resistant to letting her husband work more than he already does, Michael is looking to open another two or three stores in the next five years. Additional locations could include Cape Cod, Maine, or anywhere in the corridor between, so the Levandowskis will continue to have easy access to their stores. In the last year alone, Michael has seriously considered ten locations but none of them had the right combination of elements.

“It has to be a good deal for everybody,” Michael explains about their criteria for opening a new business. “I think one of the reasons retail stores don’t succeed is they can’t afford to succeed.”

“All of the pieces have to be right, that’s something we’ve learned from all the years in business – that it takes a while to establish a new business,” April says. “And if you start out with something nearly unachievable, it’s going to be a long road.”

Having good relationships with the bank, vendors, employees, and the community it serves is the key to a successful business on the Vineyard or anywhere. For LeRoux it means staying open year-round, providing high-quality products and service, and building strong connections with the people upon whom they rely and who rely on them.

“You have to have a sense of purpose,” Michael says. “We’re thankful that we’re supported by our community; we don’t ever forget that. That’s the formula that works for us.”

Off-season cooking classes heat up the kitchen

With the changing of the seasons comes the changing of the taste buds. Your soul and stomach crave something hot and hearty, but sometimes it’s challenging to get inspired as the cold temperatures set in. Fear not, longtime cooks and newbies – the Vineyard has a smorgasbord of cooking classes to help give your kitchen repertoire an extra kick-start.

On Wednesdays from September through April, LeRoux at Home offers free cooking demonstrations ranging from Indian cuisine and farm-to-table recipes to French food and Thai techniques. The demonstrations have become increasingly popular and an easy way for shoppers to learn new skills (and get inspired by the plethora of cooking implements around them). For details, see www.lerouxkitchen.com.

“When we started these a few years ago, they were attended by six people. Now they’re attended by thirty or forty people,” Michael says. “We’re considering putting it somewhere else with a larger audience because it gets a little crowded. It starts at 11 a.m. and people show up at 10 a.m. to get a seat.”

“The chefs get a chance to be spotlighted as well,” April says. “It’s created a very nice relationship for us with other local businesses.”

For those looking for a more hands-on experience, cooking classes are offered throughout the off-season. Adult and Community Education of Martha’s Vineyard (ACE MV) hosts classes specific to certain cuisines and techniques, and invites chefs from Island restaurants to personally introduce their recipes to their patrons and students.

ACE MV classes cater to those just starting out, and those learning specific skills such as how to skillfully wield a knife or pastry bag, as well as those looking for a change of pace in the wintertime. Many times at the end of a class, the group enjoys their meal together, where cooking tips are shared and finger-licking is encouraged.

Popular past classes include Atria’s Christian Thornton cooking up a storm at his home behind his Edgartown restaurant, and Marvin Jones’s South American class in which students learned how to prepare arepas (a kind of corn cake) and empanadas. Marvin will teach Frugal Soup Fundamentals this fall. (Be sure to bring a container for leftovers.)

Have you ever admired those cakes in the bakery display window and wanted to try out a pastry bag yourself? It’ll be easy to experience the aesthetic pleasures of sugar frosting in Eniko Delisle’s class, where she teaches how to frost cakes with borders, stars, shells, rosettes, and basket weave, as well as the trick to creating great roses. (Here’s a hint: It takes more than a metal frosting tip to perfect those petals.)

More classes will be added throughout the fall, so be sure to check out www.acemv.org for a full listing.

Other Island cooking class options include learning how to prepare some delectable signature dishes from l’étoile in Edgartown. Chef and owner Michael Brisson offers fall group classes for ten or more to “take the mystery and fear out of cooking and entertaining.” Check his website, www.letoile.net, and ask to be on his e-mail list for upcoming classes.

Jan Buhrman of Kitchen Porch Catering hosts culinary experiences throughout the year, both privately and for groups. Moroccan dinners, metabolic boot camps, cheese workshops, and raw dinners have all been offered in the past. Jan describes her upcoming classes at www.kitchenporch.com/culinary-experiences.

Whether you’re cooking at home or in a culinary classroom, or you’re watching a master from afar, your own artistry in the kitchen is sure to improve, to the delight of your palate.

The following recipes were originally published with this article:

Pan-Seared Halibut with Tomatoes, White Beans, and Spinach

Crispy Garlic Green Beans (Haricots Vert)

Grilled Artichoke Hearts with Balsamic Glaze

Simple Flourless Chocolate Cake