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Need groceries? Instacart, Peapod, Mercato . . . or a masked venture out into a brick and mortar supermarket? The COVID-19 pandemic highlights how grocery shopping has changed in 2020. Thinking about this and the era before large chains put many local, ethnic grocery stores out of business reminded me of our visit to one such ethnic market that has managed to stay in existence and thrive.
As part of our Folk Arts and Heritage Program, we do fieldwork to learn about cultural traditions. In 2010, we visited Cote’s Market as local markets are often hubs for ethnic communities.
Until two years ago, Cotes Market in Lowell’s Acre neighborhood was run by three generations of the same family. But in June 2018, Roger Levasseur sold the 100-year old family business to new owners, Kevin Dong and his mother Wei Jiang. The change in ownership reflects the shift in the ethnic make-up of the neighborhood from one of primarily French Canadians to Southeast Asians. Although the store has changed hands, its famous baked beans that carry on the tradition of Frankie Rochette’s original recipe, meat pies, and other French-Canadian staples will continue, keeping a foodways tradition in existence for over 100 years.
“The reason why we exist is because of pork scrap and Lowell’s famous baked beans. Pork pies. We have a little niche that has kept us in business since 1917,” said Roger.
Roger’s son Kurt told us that his great-grandfather, Elphege Coté had opened the corner store in 1917. This was well before the existence of large chain grocery stores or a car for every household, when it was customary for local markets to do home deliveries. Kurt’s grandfather Wilfrid Levasseur took over, and eventually he relinquished the store to Kurt’s father, Roger.
An additional ingredient was customer service. Kurt noted, “The clientele is basically neighborhood folks – people who have lived in Lowell their whole lives and shopped at Cote’s their whole life. In the old days, it was all big families, so it was all, like, huge orders of pork chops and beef. Everybody had standing orders every week. . . they would make runs to all these families’ houses. My father had a big beach wagon and they would go around to all the different families and drop off all their food.”
Kurt added, “We have elderly people who have been shopping here 60, 70 years. Women in their 80s and 90s who have literally been coming here since they were kids . . . we will bend over backwards for people. . . they call us and we shop for them . . .We bring it over. And if there’s heavy gallons of milk, we’ll take them out and put them right in the fridge for them. What store will do that for you now? We deliver to some people who are invalids that can’t get out. My dad even gets tickets on his car when he goes to deliver to these poor people.”
In the decade since we documented Cote’s Market, grocery shopping has changed in a big way. Home deliveries have made a come back, yet perhaps not with the care and personal touch that the Levasseur family once provided.
“I’ve been doing beans since forever, almost. It seems forever. We started buying [beans] from Frankie Rochette and then he took in my father, who was like a son. Frankie Rochette, who pioneered the Lowellian type of bean, was known as ‘King of Beans.’”
So what makes Cote’s beans so special?
Perhaps it is the use of small Californian white beans, which have been aged for up to three years. Or the extremely fresh salt pork imported from Canada. Whatever it is, the beans made at this local corner market have found a way into locals’ hearts for generations.
Even people who have moved away from the neighborhood will come back every Saturday to get their beans and their brown bread.
“Recently, we had one woman who was moving to California, not out of choice. She was beside herself that she could not get Cote’s beans every Saturday. It was something that she did as a child, something that’s ingrained in her French-Canadian roots, and she was literally in tears. . . she liked my grandfather’s homemade sauce. We sent her off with six quarts of sauce; I think she had more food than luggage.” said Roger.
When Frankie Rochette handed the recipe over to Roger Levasseur of Cote’s Market, he told him, “Don’t ever change the recipe. And always keep my secret.” Roger adds, “Of course, the secret is pretty obvious. The secret is, use the best ingredients and you’ll be in business 30 years from now.” Roger is now in his early 60s and Kurt is helping to carry on the business. While big chain supermarkets have all but put small local grocers out of business, Cote’s is thriving.
Some of Kurt’s earliest memories are of helping to make beans in the store. “I started when I was very, very small. [My father] would make the beans at night around seven, eight o’clock. Which would seem really late to us at night.” From helping his father scoop the dry navy beans, to pouring the beans in the pot, or stamping bags, Kurt has been in this store since he could walk. Below you see him holding the “special scooper” used in measuring out the beans. “Gosh, if I lose that scooper it would be World War III. That thing has to have a GPS on it. It’s like an heirloom.”
“My father is 62 years old. He’s worked really, really, really hard his whole life. I’ve watched him work, watched the sweat roll off his forehead, to give us a good childhood. He worked hard, so I want to give back now and take care of my mother and father, just like he does with his.”
This blog post originally appeared on our Keepers of Tradition blog on June 7, 2010.
Hear the full interview with Kurt and Roger Levasseur, and read the transcription on the Massachusetts Digital Repository.