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Vive Bizalion’s! Specialty fine food market turns 15

In the summer of 2003, the Bizalions made a dozen trips to the Berkshires before settling on Great Barrington, where they decided their concept was “doable.”

Great Barrington — The French flag has been flying at 684 Main St. in Great Barrington for 15 years this week thanks to the hard work and excellent taste of Helen and Jean-François Bizalion, who opened Bizalion’s Fine Food in October 2003. The couple — he is French and she is Irish — brought their concept for a specialty foods market in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn to the Berkshires a decade and a half ago and have scarcely looked back since. What began as a small, specialty store with a very limited lunch offering and cappuccino experienced what the business world calls a “pivot” — quickly expanding the offerings to include a full lunch and later breakfast — to the delight of visitors from near and far. Far surpassing a destination for coffee and charcuterie, residents of Great Barrington and beyond have been the beneficiaries of the Bizalions’ warm hospitality, convivial atmosphere, and epicurean offerings ever since they flung their doors open. If you’ve not yet been, go now.

The shelves at Bizalion’s Fine Food in Great Barrington are well-stocked with an array of epicurean grocery items. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

“The Berkshires offers a very interesting, eclectic group of people, allowing a diversity of food culture to thrive,” is how Jean-François sees it. The couple officially opened their doors on the afternoon of Oct. 9, 2003, at 3 p.m. Jean-François feared they were not ready, Helen was confident they were, when in strolled a woman from across the parking lot. Her inquiry was simple: “Are you open?” To which Jean-François replied “no,” and Helen replied “yes;” that woman ended up being the Bizalions’ very first customer. Helen points to a “loyal customer base [and] the same people coming since the day we opened,” as sustaining them through the ensuing years. And, Jean-François adds, the store’s location, “provides a compelling, interesting, stimulating environment of open-minded, knowledgeable and well-traveled individuals.”

Prior to overseeing shelves laden with epicurean groceries, the Bizalions called New York City home. The couple met in 1998 at Nautica, where they worked on men’s fashion shows and ultimately collaborated on a show in Milan. A series of budget cuts by the company ended up being rather auspicious for the pair: “They cut us out,” explained Helen, “so the two of us went to France and Italy,” where she recalls traveling around, stopping into small cafes for espresso and marveling at “these little shops with all this stuff of the shelf.” Upon their return to New York, they loosely tried to open a business in Brooklyn but did not have the cash to do so. In the summer of 2003, they made a dozen trips to the Berkshires before settling on Great Barrington, where they decided their concept was “doable.”

Illustration by Isabelle Bizalion

“When you start a business, no one will actually give you any money,” explained Helen. “You have to be in business to get a loan [and] anything having to do with food is considered very high risk,” she added. Eventually the Bizalions did get several small business loans, financed the brick-and-mortar operation with meager savings and credit cards. “That’s how we got it going,” said Helen, which she wouldn’t recommend. Equal parts perseverance and resilience, on the other hand, has been their model. It’s what Jean-François calls, “Faire le dos rond” or, quite simply, round your back when you have to and then harvest when it comes. Or, as Helen says, “make hay while the sun shines.” Regardless of the translation, the message is clear: The Bizalions’ brick-and-mortar business, in the same location since its inception, is nothing to scoff at.

“The trade we do is intimately tied to the seasons and, more specifically, to the weather,” notes Jean-François. “Winter months present a challenge since we keep our staff year round [even] when the volume of business drops considerably.” Helen pointed to different types of customers: those who shop, those who eat and “the golden kind” who do both — their business is almost 50/50, which means the allure of eating charcuterie and drinking wine on a Saturday afternoon is often matched with the thought of “Now we’ve had lunch, what’s for dinner?” The shelves at Bizalion’s Fine Food are well-stocked with simple pantry staples — think imported pasta, San Marzano tomatoes, capers and anchovies — not to mention coffee, mustard, chocolate and lentils (just to name a few). And then there are more unique offerings like their fully stocked cheese case or frozen duck ravioli. And the piece de resistance: their self-service olive oil bar.

Bottled and bulk extra virgin olive oil is a sought-after staple at Bizalion’s Fine food in Great Barrington. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

Perhaps a decade ago, Jean-François began by importing three varieties of extra virgin olive oil, a business that has now expanded into a wholesale operation. The couple travels extensively, going to Europe once each year, where “we go to markets and get ideas,” said Helen. “It’s inspirational.” At present, one can procure EVOO from France, Spain and Italy from the barrels that line the store’s far wall. The Bizalions are developing relationships with the growers they represent and always make time in their travels to visit the olive oil mills, taste the oil and make connections. The store gets multiple shipments a year of the “fresh, latest harvest” gleaned from small operations that, if Jean-François and Helen have not visited themselves, “then our customers and/or friends have,” said Helen.

French chatter is not uncommon in the store thanks to a huge Francophone culture in the area, and Jean-François willingly engages in his native tongue. “We have a following … and it’s amazing,” said Helen in a nod to customers who come every single day, even if just for a coffee. “It all adds up,” she said, looking back on the store’s tenure in Great Barrington. “We have some serious fans and it’s really lovely.”


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