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Caroga Lakeview Store up and running

Mike Monks, the owner of Caroga Lakeview Store, purposely made the aisles wider, and installed carpeting and wood paneling in the former Grooms Store, which he reopened last spring. "We wanted more of a homey feeling," he said, "instead of feeling you're walking into a laminated workshop." (The Leader-Herald/Charles Erickson)

CAROGA LAKE — Certain events and movements involving trucks are the reasons why Mike Monks purchased the old Grooms Store last winter and reopened it as the Caroga Lakeview Store. 

In the summer of 2020, while Monks and his girlfriend, Melinda Manzer, sold meals out of a food truck at Driftwood Park alongside Great Sacandaga Lake, they discussed quitting their full-time jobs and jointly working in a place that was permanently affixed to the ground. 

“I always found I couldn’t work with my significant other,” Manzer recalled recently, “but we were in synch when we ran the food truck.”

The couple needed to decide on a form of commerce and where to open for business. 

Monks, 54, a salesman for a Johnstown building supplies company, noticed an increase in trade from customers in and around the hamlet of Caroga Lake. 

Mike Monks left a 35-year career selling building materials to open Caroga Lakeview Store in Caroga Lake. He bought the former Grooms Store last January and opened on April 1. "This was a labor of love over the winter," he said about the renovations he did to the store, including fabricating the countertop out of local pine. (The Leader-Herald/Charles Erickson)

“We went from shipping one truck a week to this area to basically one every day, and some days twice,” he said.  “We saw a huge growth in the area.”

Available for purchase was the former Grooms Store, a market which also sold gasoline and had shut its doors a few years earlier.  Monks and Manzer visited the property and imagined the possibilities.

“We started cleaning up out back the first time we stopped by here,” Manzer said.

Monks closed on the purchase in January and quit his sales job on Feb. 1.  He then spent two months renovating the building, including updating the refrigeration and lighting systems, and installing a large countertop he made from local pine. 

“We had no guidance on where to buy products,” Monks said.  “You’re trying to do a remodel but you’re also trying to educate yourself on where to buy things.”

Melinda Manzer works in the kitchen of Dockside Eats, a food truck set up outside Caroga Lakeview Store in Caroga Lake. As the store's kitchen is fitted out, later this month, food preparation is expected to move inside the store. (The Leader-Herald/Charles Erickson)

The dormant convenience store at 2043 State Highway 10 became active again on April 1. 

“Everything is starting to settle and it’s not as stressful,” Manzer said.  “It took a minute because we never did any of this type of work.”

She then went back outside to the food truck, Dockside Eats, which has been relocated to the convenience store’s parking lot. It will remain the primary source of meals until the store kitchen is ready for use, later this month.  Manzer makes dozens of trips back and forth, from the store to the food truck, every day. 

“I’m the owner,” Monks said, “but she does everything, so she might as well be.”

Monks, with more than 30 years’ experience selling building materials, and Manzer, with decades spent working in nursing, both were used to providing customer service but the marathon hours involved with the store’s operation were something new.

Milk and soda and, once again, beer: Caroga Lakeview Store's ability to sell beer was delayed by a licensing backlog at the State Liquor Authority, according to store owner Mike Monks, and a permanent license was not granted until July 2. (The Leader-Herald/Charles Erickson)

Caroga Lakeview Store is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week. Monks and Manzer are the only employees. They live in residential quarters at the back of the store.

“When you work 120 hours a week and you have no travel time to get to work, it’s a huge bonus,” Monks said. When the kitchen is fully opened, he expects to hire two full-time employees.

Increasing food offerings became a primary focus for Monks after the store’s temporary beer license expired at the end of May. Monks said a backlog at the State Liquor Authority, caused by COVID-19, delayed the store’s permanent license from being issued, via email, on July 2.

“Not having that license during the summer probably took $3,000 a week of revenue out of our pocket,” he said. “I said to Melinda that it was time to concentrate on food. Let’s concentrate on something we can do instead of what we can’t do.”

Convenience-store pizza can be inedible, especially after it becomes petrified from spending time in a countertop warmer case. Monks said the pies from his store will not be standard roadside fare.

Dockside Eats was set up last year at Driftwood Park, on the shores of Great Sacandaga Lake. This year it has been set up in the parking lot of Caroga Lakeview Store, which shares common ownership with the food truck. (The Leader-Herald/Charles Erickson)

“Pizza-making is an art and one of Melinda’s sons is a pizza maker, and he’ll come in and be running that kitchen,” Monks said. “We will be known for our pizza and our food.”

Retail businesses like Caroga Lakeview Store depend on a high sales volume to generate profits. While he chatted with a visitor on a recent Saturday morning, Monks checked out over a dozen customers. None of the transactions topped $15. Margins on gasoline and groceries are small, but higher on foods which are made in-house.

“Once we get the food going, those average sales, I’m hoping, will go to $35,” Monks said.

The contemporary retail model for a convenience store favors larger buildings designed to showcase more inventory. Monks said he may add additional products to his store’s shelves, but does not plan to push the shelves closer together. The lanes between them are wide.

“We’ve got an open floor plan,” he said. “We don’t want people to feel like they’re rubbing up against each other. We just want people to feel at home.”

Caroga Lakeview Store is not open 24 hours a day, but one of its gasoline pumps is configured to dispense fuel at all hours to customers using debit or credit cards. (The Leader-Herald/Charles Erickson)

Caroga Lakeview Store opened on April 1 in the former Grooms Store in Caroga Lake. "Business has been very good," said Mike Monks, the owner. He plans to expand the store's kitchen in order to provide patrons with more food options. (The Leader-Herald/Charles Erickson)

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