Distinctive and unobtrusive — those words could well describe the independent, neighborhood butcher and grocery store, Valko’s AG Store, in South Fork.
Distinctive in its customer service, but unobtrusive in its physical presence, Valko’s grocery prides itself in old-fashioned values: the personal touch, the interests of its customers and neighborly connections.
“There used to be more stores like ours, five or six of them in the area – Acme, Burkey’s, A&P – all belonging to an organization called Associated Grocers,” reminisces Bill Valko, the store’s owner.
But modernization and economies of scale paved the way for big-box food supply chains. Unable to compete with the big boys, most of these independent stores have since gone out of business, he laments, and his shop is probably one of the last of its kind.
Located at 511 Maple Street, the store building and its adjoining parking lot blend almost seamlessly into the surrounding landscape. But for the sign on the side exterior wall, “Valko Grocery,” the store could easily be missed.
While the physical building might seem obscure, the people behind its walls most certainly are not. Valko’s grocery store plays a vital and palpable role in the community, supporting church, charity and community fundraisers, including the Summerhill Volunteer Fire Department’s monthly subs sale.
One of five part-time employees, Nancy Turchak (affectionately called “Aunt Nancy” by the younger set) maintains the store’s Facebook page, interacting with existing and potential customers, offering recipes and season’s greetings and providing updates on sale items and events. She came out of retirement to work at the store about five years ago. One of Bill Valko’s daughters had been offered a full-time job elsewhere and asked if Turchak would consider filling the part-time position she would be vacating. Having been a longtime friend of the Valko family and a customer as well, she gladly took the job and has enjoyed her neighborly work environment since.
An active social media presence seems to be the most forward measure the store has taken.
“We have to move with the times,” Valko says. But at the heart of this advancement lies a deep sense of community and a desire to remain in touch with the people he serves.
At 73 and hardly looking his age, Valko has little intention of slowing down any time soon.
More often seen behind the meat and deli cold case, Valko is in his element cutting up meat, mixing ground meat or salads, or tending to customers who come to the South Fork store from as far as Maryland, he says in his unassuming manner.
Order a whole pork loin or any large cut of meat and he pares it down to steaks or roasts as the customer requests. Some customers he knows so well that all they have to say is, “...the way I like it,” and the order is filled perfectly, Turchak says.
Besides high-quality meats and other refrigerated and freezer items, the store also carries a large array of canned and dry food items. During the broad-based shutdown this past spring, the store never skipped a beat.
“We stayed open as normal,” he says.
“People still need food in a pandemic after all.”
Asked how the store came into being, Valko explains that it once belonged to his Uncle John, who opened it on Main Street in 1923, after having devoted many years to the company store. He subsequently purchased property on Maple Street, built a new store and moved the business from Main Street to Maple Street in 1941.
When the adjacent property – a former movie theater – came up for sale in the ‘70s, Uncle John bought it, tore it down, and expanded the store to its present 2,800 square feet, with the addition of an adjoining parking lot for customers.
Valko, who had already spent several years working for his uncle, bought the store in 1980.
All of his five children (three sons and two daughters) worked there when they were in high school, and four of them now have “good jobs” elsewhere, Valko says. Matthew, however, returned to the store after spending several years working in at an engineering firm. Now a full-time butcher at the shop, Matthew is glad to be back, working alongside his father, and “learning the ropes,” as Turchak puts it. He hopes to continue the legacy that his great-uncle John began in 1923.