LEWISTON — Leon Ward started working at Bourque’s Market at 16, stocking shelves and sweeping floors at the small Pine Street grocery store. He got married, had children, built his life — and never left.

In December, 29 years later, he bought the place.

Over the decades, he’d consider, briefly, trying something different — selling real estate, opening his own grocery store on Minot Avenue — but nothing seemed as good a match.

Early on, “I saw the value of being an employee and not a number,” said Ward, 45. “I can say for the 30 years, I’ve been happy 29¾ of them.”

Bourque’s officially became Ward’s Neighborhood Market on Jan. 1. New signs will arrive in a few weeks.

Ward grew up in Greene and attended Leavitt Area High School. His best friend got a job at Bourque’s and told him about an opening. He started as a stock boy in December 1986.

“Filling coolers, sweeping floors — whatever they told me to do,” he said. “I liked the job; I liked working with the public.”

Just before graduation, owner Roger Royer offered him a full-time job as produce manager. Ward wasn’t sure of his plans, so he accepted. From there, he moved up to the deli, then to assistant store manager. He was promoted to store manager more than 10 years ago.

“When I was 25, I was ready to buy it, absolutely,” Ward said. “We never had a conversation about it until about three to four years ago.”

Delaine Fugere of Sabattus, one of his 16 employees, has worked in the office at Bourque’s, now Ward’s, off and on for 20 years. She proudly pointed out that Ward has never called in sick one day.

“I’m excited with him buying it,” she said. “I can see a lot of good coming from it.”

Staff had a lot to do with making such a big decision, Ward said. “I would not have done this had I not had a loyal staff,” he said.

Roughly 75 percent of Ward’s customers come from the immediate neighborhood. Others are attracted to the long meat counter that runs the length of the back wall, one of the last full-service meat counters left in Maine.

“Nothing is wrapped in plastic,” Ward said. “If you want a half-pound of hamburger, they wrap it up in front of you. All of our hamburger is ground fresh hourly. That has always been a calling card for the store.”

Decades before the 5,000-square-foot grocery store with apartments above it became Bourque’s in 1974, it was Carbonneau’s Market. Ward has plans for a major renovation within the next 10 years.

“My plan is to modernize the building from the ground up,” he said. “Really pretty much from the front door back.”

He’ll move a few things around, make a few tweaks. One thing that won’t change: It’s a hot spot for Pepsi. Bourque’s has been the champion independent grocery store in Maine for Pepsi sales for the past two years, according to Ward.

Between Pepsi and Coke, his store sells about 17,000 cases a year.

As he did when he was store manager, Ward spends his days making sure things run smoothly, ordering inventory and talking with salesmen. The exception is Wednesday, when the store is suddenly swamped. There’s a long-running Wednesday Italian sandwich special that predates even him. For decades, Bourque’s offered 99-cent footlong Italians. A few years ago, he raised the price to $1.39.

At the mid-week point, he’s in the thick of it, directing deli traffic and taking orders. On that single day, the staff regularly makes a thousand Italians.

“We don’t make any money on it,” Ward said. “(But) I think the city would revolt if we didn’t have it.”

He’s already thinking ahead, slightly. He’d like to retire in his early 60s, capping, by then, nearly a half-century at the grocery store.

“At that point, hopefully there’s an employee that’s interested, that I could sell to, that would be fantastic, or a child,” Ward said. He has a 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son, so it’s possible, he said.

“Both certainly enjoy being here,” he said. “But it’s different when you’re here every day.”

[email protected] 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: