WESTERLY — Before there was Walmart, before there was Applebee's and before there was Valenti's, the Dunn's Corners neighborhood of Westerly was considered a sleepy section of town.
"It was the boondocks," said Cheryl Spino one afternoon last week as she sat with her husband, Tony, in the second floor offices of Dunns Corners Market, the booming business the couple has owned and managed for the last 30 years.
But there was Morrone's Mobil gas station — fondly known as Ack Ack's — there was Benny's and there was Chickadee Farms, the busy little grocery store on the corner of Post Road and Dunns Corner Road, where the Russo family sold groceries and eggs from their Woodville farm and fried up buckets of aromatic chicken.
It was there, at Chickadee Farms, that Cheryl Hines met Tony Spino, her fellow employee.
"I started working there when I was 16," said Cheryl, who grew up not far away on Woody Hill Road. "We'll be married 41 years in July."
In the late 1980s, when the Russos decided to sell their property to the Westerly Community Credit Union, the Spinos, at the urging of their customers, decided it was time for them to fly on their own. They bought the vacant lot on Langworthy Road, along with Mark Koswaski and the late Sheryl Koswaski, and began construction soon after.
On May 5, 1989, the couple, along with Tony's brother, Angelo, opened Dunns Corners Market. Earlier that year, in April, the Koswaskis opened Broadview Florist and Garden Center. The two families own the complex together.
With the unmistakable aroma of their secret-recipe fried chicken wafting from the kitchen below, the Spinos, who will officially celebrate their milestone with a 30th anniversary sale this weekend, reflected on that past three decades and emphasized the reasons they've been able to transform their small family market into a beloved tradition in the community. It's all due to their customers and their staff, they said.
Without a doubt, said Tony, who was wearing his uniform: a pair of khakis and a green long-sleeved T-shirt with "Dunns Corners Market" embroidered on the front. He said they couldn't praise enough "our customers and the people in town who keep us going. We're a huge part of this community and we always try to give back."
"Our customers wanted us to continue," he said, "and we did."
"We built this from the ground up," Tony explained, noting that he, Mark Koswaski, and Mark's brother-in-law, Mike Ward, built the building that houses the two businesses.
There have been two renovations to the original building since they opened, he said, along with some interesting changes in the business landscape — like the growth of Valenti's automobile dealerships and the enormous superstore across Route 1.
"They told us we'd be closed within six months when Walmart opened," Tony said.
"It didn't happen," said Cheryl.
"We're still strong and we're still growing," Tony added.
The Spinos, who employ between 42 and 49 people depending on the season, said they not only know most of their customers by name, they have formed friendships with many of them, too.
"He remembers what most people ordered on the last holiday," said Cheryl with a smile, nodding toward her husband.
And of course, there are the loyal employees: Meat manager Ken Brothers, catering director Serina McMaster, food manager Shawn Bittman, and manager Debbie Longo are a few of the longtimers, Cheryl said.
And there was the late John Perkins, the fisherman and loyal employee who died a little over a year ago.
"He worked for us for 24 years," said Cheryl. "That was a big loss."
"God has been good to us," she said, noting that soon after losing John, a mainstay in the meat department, "God sent us a retired meat cutter from Stew Leonard's."
She said that the new employee, Ray Urso, is, like her husband, "an old school meat cutter."
The Spinos have two children: Sarah Spino Bicknell, a physical therapist; and Christopher, an accountant, who helps out on weekends and evenings. Neither has expressed an interest in taking over the business over from their parents.
"We've survived," said Tony. "And we'll continue on into the future."
Next door at Broadview, Mark Koswaski and his son, 37-year-old Christopher, stood inside their greenhouse a few days later, surrounded by rows and rows of colorful spring flowers and trays of herb and vegetable seedlings. The garden center, bustling with customers on this May morning, celebrated its 30th anniversary in April.
Mark said his late wife, Sherry, who died in April of 2016, was a major part of the business and its success.
"She built up the flower shop," he said with a smile, "and gave Christopher his good work ethic."
The father and son team do most of the potting and planting themselves, and tend to the floral needs at both the Ocean House and Weekapaug Inn.
Like the Spinos, Mark and Christopher Koswaski said they owed their success to hard work, loyal customers and good employees.
"You can't do it all by yourself," said Mark.
"We offer personalized service," he added. "It's not a cookie cutter operation ... and we can adjust and move things around."
"We like to greet our customers with a smile," he said.
"We make people smile with flowers," added Christopher.