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July 31, 2013

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem




Pioneer Market is almost the first thing you see when you step off the ferry in Fair Harbor, a modest hamlet on Fire Island known for family friendly charm. Just off the pier and past the wine shop, the grocery’s door is always open, letting in the sea breezes and summer air.

Low-slung and shingled like the bungalows that surround it, Pioneer is the kind of place where Tina Fey can scrutinize tubs of hummus unnoticed and unbothered — as she did on a recent Saturday afternoon. A small knot of teenagers cruised the aisles for Solo cups, while men wearing nothing but board shorts and tans lined up for deli sandwiches. Outside, girls in bikinis lolled against the store’s ice cream window — cheekily called “Unfriendly’s” — licking melting cones.

Shirts and shoes are optional here: customers often roam barefoot, trailing sand from the beach as they load Coors Light and tortellini salad into their carts. Jason Griffith, a financial trader from Manhattan, was among those who had forsaken footwear on Saturday. “I come here a couple times a day,” said Mr. Griffith, who has had a house in town for 13 years. He had long memories of Pioneer’s original owner, Bobby Whitney, who died in April. “Bob used to stand outside all day and hand out ice cream cones to the kids,” he recalled.

Mr. Whitney and his wife opened Pioneer in 1968. Today the business is owned by the couple’s sons, Robbie, 51, and Frankie, 54, both of whom live on Long Island, and a cousin and a family friend. Altogether, the four have more than a century’s experience in the grocery business, something that came in handy after Hurricane Sandy.

Fire Island is a narrow ribbon of sand between the ocean and the bay, and the October storm flooded the market with almost three feet of water.

“We got clobbered,” Robbie Whitney said, taking a quick break from his work behind the deli counter. “I came here, saw a 300-pound ice cream case float by, put the key in the door, and left.” The interior was largely destroyed, and they spent the winter rebuilding.

The storm did come with a silver lining, though: when some cousins of the Whitneys decided not to reopen their own damaged store in the neighboring village of Saltaire, Pioneer’s client list gained a few hundred houses. The subsequent jump in business has allowed the Whitneys to lower their prices and tweak their inventory to keep pace with changing tastes.

“My volume has increased, people are happy and they’re saving money — it’s a win-win,” Frankie Whitney said. He has added organic fruits and vegetables and a refrigerator full of carefully tended herbs to the store’s repertory, which has also grown to include shelves of gluten-free flours and cake mixes, breads from Eli’s and Sullivan Street, and meats from D’Artagnan. Now, he said, “I see people who haven’t been here in 20 years,” along with wealthy newer arrivals who populate the aisles during the store’s season: the last week in April through Columbus Day.

Leonard Schwartz, a psychologist from Brightwaters, across Great South Bay, counts himself among Pioneer’s stalwarts. “I’ve been living here for 45 years,” he said of his summer home, in nearby Lonelyville. “I raised my kids here. Now they have their own house, and we get together on weekends at 4 p.m.” He motioned to his cart, which was filled with cheese and crackers. “I’m collecting my materials.”

“The customers make it,” Frankie Whitney said of his family’s business. “I always tell them, ‘This is your store, not my store.’ ” And then, as if on cue, he turned to help a woman who was holding a piece of jicama, waiting for Mr. Whitney to tell her what it tasted like.