2014-09-05 / Front Page

Legion Square Market celebrates 75 years

By Duke Harrington
Contributing writer


Alan Cardinal, owner since 2012 of Legion Square Market, located on Ocean Street in South Portland, shows off some of the store’s choice cuts, a mainstay of the Legion Square Market’s popular meat department for more than 75 years. (Duke Harrington photo) Alan Cardinal, owner since 2012 of Legion Square Market, located on Ocean Street in South Portland, shows off some of the store’s choice cuts, a mainstay of the Legion Square Market’s popular meat department for more than 75 years. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — While South Portland is rightly famous for its role in churning out the liberty ship supply vessels that helped win World War II, the naval yards are long gone and there’s little doubt that the city of today is a definite post-war economy.

In fact, only a handful of businesses in South Portland predate Pearl Harbor. But one that remains is Legion Square Market, located at 101 Ocean St. in the heart of the city’s historic Knightville District.

This year, the store celebrates its 75th year of continuous operation. Although, to be perfectly accurate, it’s has actually been around for 77 years.


Store Manager Karen Chemard and butcher Aaron Henderson take a moment between customers to stock shelves at Legion Square Market, located on Ocean Street in South Portland and celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. (Duke Harrington photo) Store Manager Karen Chemard and butcher Aaron Henderson take a moment between customers to stock shelves at Legion Square Market, located on Ocean Street in South Portland and celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. (Duke Harrington photo) Legion Square Market began life in 1937 as a two-aisle grocery called Columbia Market. Herb Smaha had earlier founded a store bearing the same name inside the venerable Columbia Hotel on Congress Street in Portland, a building that now serves as a University of Southern Maine dormitory. Often described as the “first real supermarket” in the area, Columbia Market reportedly dwarfed others of its kind not only in size, but also locations. At one point, a chain of 12 Columbia Markets blanketed Greater Portland and, one by one, Smaha’s brothers came up from the family stomping grounds in Lawrence, Mass., to lend a hand as each new branch opened its doors.

“Then in 1939, the opportunity came up for my dad (John Smaha) to buy the South Portland store, and he changed the name to Legion Square Market,” said Tom Smaha, who went to work stocking shelves there as a 14-year-old boy.

John Smaha survived, and even thrived, by catering to his customers. Even when a giant supermarket came in to anchor Maine’s first strip mall, built in the early 1950s just around the corner in Mill Creek Plaza, Smaha’s operation was successful enough to warrant doubling its size to 5,000 square feet. The original store, located in the half that today houses the 48-foot-long meat counter, expanded into what had been a five-and-dime department store.

But by 1967, Tom Smaha had set his sights on bigger things. He moved to Boston to enter the management program for the Stop and Shop chain, fully expecting to follow a corporate career path.

“Well, that lasted for about a year before I realized that was not the kind of life I wanted,” he recalled in a recent interview from his Scarborough home. “Suddenly,” he said, “that little store in South Portland began to look a lot more attractive than it did previously.”

So, Smaha came home, returned to work for his father, and, in 1971, purchased the store in what he describes as “a very sweet deal.”

And so, life went on at Legion Square Market. The city grew to the west as a multi-acre shopping mall popped up on what had once been a pig farm. Meanwhile, in town, commuting patterns changed when the Million Dollar Bridge that linked the Park City to Portland became the Casco Bay Bridge (at a cost of somewhat more than a million dollars). Where once 30,000 per day passed Smaha’s, traffic drained to a trickle. But, said Smaha, that didn’t affect his business much. Most of those cars had barreled by on a one-way, get-meto Portland pace that discouraged most attempts to parallel park in front of his store.

About a decade ago, Smaha expanded his meat department, launching a wholesale business to supply local restaurants and institutions. But otherwise, apart from minor changes in product lines as consumer tastes changed over the decades, Smaha’s remained the same, seemingly frozen in time. And that’s just what Scarborough resident Alan Cardinal was looking for in summer 2012 when Smaha was finally getting ready to retire at age 68.

Tired of jet-setting around the globe as a human resources executive for companies including Wright Express, Hannaford Bros. and Delhaize America, Cardinal and his wife Sylvia Most were looking for a family business to run with their sons, then age 19 and 23.

The timing ended up being perfect for everyone.

“The deal happened relatively quick,” said Smaha, noting Cardinal came calling almost as soon as the store went on the market. “The place sold a lot faster than I thought it probably would.”

“We looked at a few other things, but we thought this was absolutely perfect for us,” Cardinal said.

A Massachusetts native, Cardinal came to Maine as a college student and “fell in love” with the state. He elected to stay, but his work took him all over the globe. Buying Legion Square Market, he said, was an opportunity to stay close to home, where he could focus on family. Today, he’s in the store every day, much as Smaha had been.

He and son Adam, 25, work side-by-side in the store and younger son Mike helps out when not busy in his career as a chef. Most logs time “every day behind the scenes.”

The Cardinals have made some changes since taking over from Smaha, mostly of a cosmetic nature, including a fresh coat of paint and new lighting fixtures.

“It’s amazing how many people come in and ask when we expanded,” said Cardinal, with a laugh. “But I tell them, the building’s the same size it’s always been.”

Otherwise, Legion Square Market remains the same, relying on top quality meats and good prices, kept low by controlling overhead, to draw customers. Another thing that hasn’t changed is the personable, friendly service.

“They’re awesome here,” said Tiffany Thomas, as she helped her husband John fill four shopping carts full of food in order to outfit the boat he captains for a nineday commercial fishing trip.

“We love them, they’re really good to us,” she said. “They know what we need and they have things ready when we come in. They’re great people. They know us.”

“We like the new management. They’re very nice,” agreed Ron Palmquist of Cape Elizabeth as he wheeled his cart out onto the sidewalk, just as the Thomas’ began to unload their booty.

“There’s some differences which show the new owner’s personality,” he said, “but it’s still the same great service and the same good prices — maybe even better, with a little more variety.”

A customer at Legion Square Market for more than 40 years, Palmquist explained why he’s kept coming back, under old and new owners, even with larger supermarkets between his home and Legion Square.

“Simply put, it’s smaller, the prices are better and it’s cleaner,” he said.

Store manager Karen Chamard, a nine- year resident of South Portland, came to Legion Square Market last year after 13 years at a big-box supermarket.

“There was more opportunity here,” she said of the move. “Over there I was just running a department, but over here I get the whole store. I love it. And the community is great. Because it’s such a little store, you get to meet and know everybody. In a big supermarket, the people are in, and they’re out, and there’s not always any interaction.”

“I love it here. It’s nice to be able to talk to people, and get to know your customers on a first-name basis,” agreed butcher Aaron Henderson, who moved to South Portland a year ago from Ellsworth.

“That’s what it was always all about,” said Smaha, who admits to missing the daily interaction with his customers, if not the long hours of running a neighborhood market. “Here, you could buy just four hot dogs, or one pork chop, or have a roast trimmed just the way you like it, and have someone take the time to give you advice on how best to cook it.

“The Cardinals have done a good job refurbishing the place, but so far as I can see, they haven’t changed any of what made the market special. They’ve done a very good job, I think, running it as the same kind of family business it’s been since 1939.”

And, as he helped bag the Thomas’ provisions, Adam Cardinal reflected on the future and what he’s learned since leaving another job last fall to join his father fulltime at the market.

“Two years of business and marketing courses at USM taught me a good amount,” he said, “but I can definitively say you learn way more on the job. This has allowed me to learn business in its true form.”

Now, with five- and 10-year plans beginning to take shape, the younger Cardinal appreciates that his life is something of a parallel of Smaha’s, separated by 45 years. Just as Smaha once took over the market form his father John, Adam expects to once day take over when his father Alan elects to retire.

“That is a very interesting and slightly ironic turn of events,” said Adam Cardinal. “I don’t think I realized that was the case when I moved from what I had been doing to work here with my dad.

“The market is really taking on a new life ,and for something that’s as old as it is, to still stay relevant, and to still stay with the times, that’s very cool to see. It’s very cool to be a part of that.”

Inside

What’s the oldest business in South Portland? Many wonder, so it’s the reader’s turn. Email editor@inthesentry.com with your ideas.

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