The Alna General Store: The heart of a community beats on
From the very beginning, before Ken and Jane Solorzano were sure, their community was sure: Sure the Solorzanos should buy The Alna Store. Sellers Mike and Amy Preston encouraged them to buy it and told the couple they could learn how to run the business.
So they did. The Solorzanos bought the store Feb. 28 and renamed it The Alna General Store beginning a new chapter in the story of their lives — and the history of the store.
The couple changed the name because they see the store as a general store — it’s has been the social hub of the town for decades, as such stores tend to be. They plan to provide an array of pantry staples folks currently have to drive out of town for, such as flour, sugar, and what other items the community would like to see on the shelves there.
The community members who suggested the Solorzanos buy the store were right there beside them to help get the store ready — cleaning, sanding and painting, working on the floors, whatever it took. Friend and carpenter Sean Day turned a five-inch pine slab into a new counter top and made additional shelving from reclaimed barn board. More shelving is planned.
Neighbor Matthew Tisbert, inspired by the barn board shelving, made a new hemlock table top for one of the dining tables.
“We couldn’t have done it without them all,” Jane said. “There was so much to do to reopen in just one week. I had to turn some people away — we didn’t have enough room inside for all the people who wanted to help. It would have been kind of a nightmare for just the two of us.”
“Our friends are so generous and have helped us be where we are,” added Ken.
Other friends, well, friends and family, are the employees at the store who’ve stayed on with Ken and Jane providing another level of help for the newbies to business — Darci Day, Allison Bailey, Rahina Mcwethy, Dahlia Solorzano (the couple’s niece) and Helena Solorzano (the couple’s daughter). These five women know how the operation operates.
Physical changes include a kitchen space that’s increased by one-third. A new meat cooler has been installed. Hopefully before summer, the Solarzanos plan to create a walk-in cooler out back by enclosing the 12-foot-by-30-foot deck on the back of the building, and a new barn board coffee counter and new hutch in the front of the store are in the works.
The big wood stove at the front of the store will soon be removed, now that heat pumps have been installed. This will make way for the musical entertainment, stand up, poetry readings, and the kids corner. The large blackboard will remain — kids draw on it when they come with their families.
Outside, the Solorzanos would like to expand the front deck five feet and develop parking on the sides of the building, and install solar panels and a 20K generator. If power is lost, people would be able to come to the store for water, at no charge, and to warm up.
To reflect Ken’s cultural background, the Solorzanos have added to the menu the Prestons cooked up. Mexican fare made from family recipes includes tacos — pork, pollo asado, carne asada or potato — beef and/or bean burritos, carne asada, quesadillas – cheese, chicken or super — pollo asado, cheddar, guacamole and salsa; and rice and beans … espléndido!
For the grand opening in early March, many of Ken’s family members flew in from San Diego to help prepare the foods. The event was primarily advertised by word of mouth. The Solorzano clan teamed up with the general store family for the “Mexican Cook Off.” Recalled Jane, “The scents coming from the kitchen ... were delicious. Everyone came to taste-test the new menu choices. It was so much fun!”
“We had 18 pounds of sirloin, chicken, pork, rice and beans. The people were three-deep ordering food. Seven of us were cooking in a Mexican groove, and then ... we got an order for a hot dog ... and that Mexican cooking groove came to a screeching halt,” Ken said laughing. “So far I think people are happy with the change. We have specials including enchiladas, tortas, tostadas, fajitas, chili verde, and soups — chicken caldo, posole (vegetable soup with hominy/ground corn).”
Sean Day has been coming to the store since childhood. He’s a regular for breakfast and sometimes just coffee. “The store’s about the only thing in Alna ... it’s pretty much the extent of my social life,” he said laughing. “I love the Mexican food. I don’t know that I have a favorite but the carne asada fries are pretty deadly!”
To complement the south of the border menu additions, the Solorzanos have added a mix of Spanish and local beers – Dos Equis, Corona, Modello, Pacifico; and soft drinks like Jarritos’ all natural flavored sodas including mango, tamarin, grapefruit and strawberry.
This summer, customers will be able to pick up grilling meats at the store, produce from the Albee Farm (where cilantro will be planted for the Mexican menu), and certified organic products from Ledge Farm and Windy Ledge, the Prestons’ apple orchard with blueberries.
The Solorzanos have been living in Alna since 2011. They have their own small-scale farm, the Milky Way, where they grow cilantro, carrots, potatoes, onions, peppers (pablanos, chili peppers and jalapenos); tomatoes; and tomatillos; and raise pigs and turkeys.
“I think that if we are all contributing and sharing with each other … it just seems magical to me,” said Jane. “That seems sustainable to me.”
Sharing also includes cooking together. The couple envision a Thursday Soldier’s Stew that always starts with a pot of hot water — and a rock. Different folks add what they may have to the stew and … voilà! This offering, and others, will be free for all veterans and Gold Star mothers.
Ken retired in June 2013 from the Maine Army National Guard, 488th Military Police Unit, Sgt. First Class, having served 29 years, 23 of which were active duty. His final deployment was to Afghanistan in the summer of 2012. Giving back to veterans and their families is of great importance to him — and Jane.
“When he was in Afghanistan I was in limbo,” Jane said. “And I didn’t know what would be next for us. I definitely wasn’t thinking this!”
Jane said Alna folks come early each morning followed by a regular group later on who spend a few hours at the store. “We kept the breakfast menu the same and added to the lunch and dinner menus. Some people come in every day and order their usual.”
“We just love it here,” Jane said. “We both became invested in this family-rich community right away. And being here at the store has become a really nice fit for us.”
Darci Day, who’s worked at the store nine years now, agreed. “Jane and Ken have made it very enjoyable to come to work,” she said, then added while laughing, “for now.”
Some community members have even thanked Ken and Jane for buying the store. Many were concerned about what would happen to it when it went up for sale.
“It was paramount for us to make sure the community continued to have a place to meet, to gather, to discuss, and feel safe in having those discussions,” said Ken. “We want to give the community what it has given us.”
The Alna General Store is located at 2 Dock Road, right at the fork with Route 218 — you can’t miss it.