Business will serve its last donut on Nov. 30

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Doug Peacock sips coffee as he and his friends lament the impending closure of their regular hangout, Koval’s Coffee.

“We’re just disappointed,” says Peacock, who had met with Stanley Morse and Charles Smith early Monday morning for their near-daily coffee and talk. “I’ve bought donuts here for years. This is part of our hometown.”

The restaurant in Taft Corners Shopping Center in Williston will close at end of this month after 19 years of making donuts and serving sandwiches. Customers say they will miss Koval’s, which is as much a spot to socialize as a place to eat.

“It broke my heart,” says Debbie Endresen, a regular customer for the past eight years, of her feelings after learning Koval’s would close. “I don’t know where I’m going to get my coffee. There won’t be a place to talk to my friends.” She glances toward the waitresses and smiles. “And no one to give crap to anymore.”

The operation is run by Marge Koval, with the help of several of her seven children and 10 other employees. She says a soon-to-expire lease, the grind of years of grueling work and rising costs convinced her to call it quits.

Customers, most of whom on this Monday seemed to be on a first-name basis with the staff, mourned the passing of a place that served as an oasis from the modern world. Most of the patrons were older than 40, and the lack of wireless Internet access and mocha lattes seemed just fine with them.

“I’m not picking on Starbucks,” says Peacock. “It’s just not my lifestyle.”

Roger Prior, another long-time customer, comes in most mornings for coffee and donuts. His face lights up as he talks of the wisecracking waitresses and the friendly atmosphere. “I’m sure I’ll find someplace else to go,” he says. “But it won’t have the flavor of this place.”

When Koval’s opened in 1986, there were few restaurants in Williston and cows grazed on land big-box retailers and chain restaurants now occupy. Only two other businesses operated at Taft Corners Shopping Center.

Marge Koval had been running a day-care center and her late husband, Ed, worked at General Electric. But GE was downsizing, so the couple was looking for another way to make a living.

Marge noticed an advertisement for a company called The Whole Donut that was looking to open a franchise in the area. The business was born, first named after the franchise and then changing to Koval’s in the mid-’90s.

Within a few years of opening the Williston shop, the business expanded to include outlets in Essex’s Lang Farm and on State Street in Montpelier. At their peak, family members say they were making thousands of dozens of donuts daily in Williston, enough to supply all their shops as well as wholesalers.

“But these other stores did not take off like the one in Williston,” says Marge Koval. The Essex and Montpelier outlets closed in 1997. Another Koval’s, located in Hinesburg and owned and operated independently by her son, Gary, will remain in business.

Much has changed over the years for Marge Koval. Her husband died in 2001. Competition has grown fierce.

Decades ago, Koval’s was the only place of its kind in Williston. Now there are competitors everywhere.

“The pie is definitely getting cut into smaller pieces,” says Marge Koval. “Every corner gas station and every convenience store has donuts and coffee. And there are so many restaurants.”

At first, Williston’s growing commercial base was a boon for Koval’s, bringing in walk-in customers who frequented other businesses, says son Eric Koval, who makes donuts on the graveyard shift at the restaurant, then goes to work as a disc jockey at The Point, 104.7-FM. But as time went on, the growing number of alternatives in Williston — Starbucks, 99 Restaurant and a host of others — squeezed Koval’s.

“It’s the end of another mom and pop business,” Eric Koval says. “It’s the quickening of corporate America. The whole area is becoming homogenized.”

There’s nothing homogenized about Koval’s, not with comfort food that includes homemade soups and sandwiches and two wisecracking waitresses, Jackie Owen and Pam Young, who regularly serve up a good-natured ribbing.

The atmosphere on Monday morning was nearly giddy. When customer Peggy Larson notes that Koval’s is “an institution,” Young quips, “It’s an institution all right!”

“They love to hear jokes and have us pick on them,” says Young, who has been at Koval’s for three years. She recalls one customer who felt so comfortable with the jokey atmosphere that he mooned her — right on the sidewalk outside the restaurant’s front window.

Both women get moist-eyed as they talk about saying goodbye to Koval’s. “I’m gong to miss my co-workers and my customers,” says Owen, who has worked at the restaurant for 12-1/2 years.

David Koval is also emotional about the closing. It was his full-time job from 1987 to 2000, and he says the experience “took my soul.” He still helps when needed, along with his wife, Monika.

“It’s a great community spot,” he says. “We offered something you don’t see anymore. It’s not a conglomerate. It’s what Williston was.”

Peacock, Smith and Morse, all members of Trinity Baptist Church in Williston, say they don’t know where they’ll meet once Koval’s closes. But they are sure whatever place they choose won’t be as freewheeling.

“There isn’t any other owner that will put up with our shenanigans,” says Morse.

Marge Koval is unsure of what she will do when her coffee shop closes on Nov. 30, only that it will be more relaxing than churning out donuts and sandwiches. She says she will miss her employees and customers as much as they will miss her restaurant.

“It’s a bittersweet moment,” she says. “My heart will be left behind in a lot of ways. But the love of my customers and employees will lead me in my next direction.”