When the coronavirus rolled in, businesses large and small closed their doors. As the pandemic stretched from weeks to months, many wondered if they’d ever open their doors again.
Rick Ciccarelli owns Tilly & Salvy’s Bacon Street Farm in Natick, which has welcomed customers for 82 years. The 1,500-square-foot store off Route 27 has a meat department and deli, fresh baked goods, beer and wine, produce, and an outdoor garden center.
Italian immigrants Matilda and Salvatore Ciccarelli opened the store in the late 1930s. Their sons, Bob and Fran, eventually took over before selling it to Rick, whose 31-year-old son, Ryan — “my right-hand man,” according to Rick — represents four generations of Ciccarellis running the store.
Matilda — “Tilly” — lived in a small dwelling above the store until she passed away in 1993 at the age of 87. She rarely missed a day working at the store’s checkout aisle, treating her customers as though they were extended family.
It’s a tradition that has continued. Even as the pandemic swelled this spring, Rick Ciccarelli and his staff scrambled to be of service to their longtime customers from Natick, Framingham, Dover, Weston, Sudbury, Sherborn, Needham, and Wellesley.
At the height of the crisis, Bacon Street Farm closed its doors to the public for six weeks, switching to phone orders and curbside business.
“But all I could think of was we were letting down our customers,” said Ciccarelli. “We could not keep up with their orders. That was the darkest hour for me.”
As fear of the pandemic grew, “People who normally bought a pound of hamburger were buying two, three times as much,” said Scott McGilvray, 44, of Franklin, who has worked at the store since 1992. “People were buying gallons of milk, or anything they could get hold of. We’d stock the shelves. Everything would be gone quick.”
“Right before everything closed, Tilly’s was my last stop,” said regular customer Lindsey Galvao. “I tried to buy as much as I could [to last] for a couple of weeks.”
The store reopened May 16. “I had butterflies that day,” said Ryan. Customers were putting in orders six days in advance. “We were worried. How were we going to be able to get food to the people?” said Ryan. “But there was some relief, interacting with customers again.”
No more than eight mask-wearing customers at a time are allowed to stroll down the aisles. Safety procedures include sanitizing the market’s baskets and constantly wiping down the checkout counter.
Rick Ciccarelli has about 30 employees, most of them high school and college students. Several had previously decided to leave due to personal concerns about the pandemic. “The ones who could work were our saviors,” Rick said.
Kathleen Walz first shopped at Tilly’s over 20 years ago. “I can’t believe how Rick’s been so creative getting things to his customers,” she said. “He reinvented the store.”
He went to the extreme one day when an elderly woman walked up to the glass doors when the store was closed. She kept staring inside, so Rick Ciccarelli let her in. The woman had no credit card or cash, not even a phone to place an order.
Ciccarelli made a list of the items she said she needed. The woman waited outside until he came back with the list all checked off. He handed the order to the woman. And no bill.
Customers have returned that same loyalty as the store inches its way through the pandemic and onto the comeback trail.
“Even with the delays [in deliveries] the customers really stepped up,” said Ciccarelli. “They’d say ‘don’t worry about it.’ They were gracious and faithful to us.”
One day friends delivered five pizzas, sandwiches, and salads to the overworked staff.
“Not making my daily trip to Tilly’s left a big gap,” said Sherry Sandoval. Her husband, Dave Lavalley, makes two or three stops a week. “It’s the kind of place you run into people you know.”
“We just wanted to stay in business,” said McGilvray. “It makes us happy to see the customers again, and they’re happy to see us.”
It’s the wide range of produce and neighborly service that has kept the store a staple in town. “Rick always wants to do the right thing,” said Walz.
The customers keep coming, pandemic or not. Eighty-plus years and counting.