User's Guide

Duck Soup's banner ad differs from other banner ads in three ways. First, it is seven feet long by three feet high and made of vinyl. Second, it is pinned to a chain-link fence along Route 20, the sole commercial thoroughfare in the country-quiet town of Sudbury, Mass. And third, it is actually driving people to Duck Soup's Web site.

The people it attracts are mostly old friends of the Duck, first- or second-generation customers of the 28-year-old gourmet- and specialty-food store. Many are on hugs-and-kisses terms with its founders/proprietors: Richard Ressler (by his own appellation "the Head Duck") and Pierre Weiss (by Ressler's appellation "the Head Soup"). Some even stood beside Ressler and Weiss on January 2, watching from across the road as Duck Soup and the 18 other small businesses that leased space in Sudbury's 300-year-old Mill Village burned to the ground. "A large part of the town was there," recalls Ressler from the Duck's temporary quarters, a cluttered, charmless office within quacking distance of the old nest. "It was like a big, sad party."

I first visited the Duck seven years ago, on a quest for my husband's favorite English jam. I expected to find another of Boston's ubiquitous upscale markets where every bunch of arugula gets its own cubic foot of space and all the food looks airbrushed. Instead, I walked into Dickens's Old Curiosity Shop. The walls were lined with high, narrow shelves on which bottles and jars swaddled in exotic labels jostled for space. Exquisite, foil-wrapped chocolate Santas spilling from a bin near the door looked like escapees from a Victorian Christmas tree. And, oh yes, they had the jam.

Since then, I've dropped by the Duck whenever I've needed Thai curry paste, ancho chilies, or something special for those rare occasions when we've entertained guests over the age of nine. The shop was always crowded, with knots of people loitering near the counter where the Ducks set out plates of creamy, pungent cheeses and thick slices of crusty bread. There was always conversation. Often there was laughter. I knew, as I gazed at that black hole in the ground last winter, that the town had lost something special.

So more than my professional curiosity was piqued when, a few months after the fire, the Duck unfurled its banner in front of the construction site where a steel-girder phoenix was rising from the ashes. "What's Up at Duck Soup?" the banner queried in large maroon type. "Find out at"

The URL came as something of a shock. What, I wondered, could a business so dependent on the convivial atmosphere stoked by food and conversation possibly do in the cool medium of the Web? I logged on to see. There, beneath the headline "The Night Mill Village Painted the Sky," was the Ducks' description of the fire, followed by Ressler's reflections on his own emotional journey in its aftermath. There was "A Duck Soup History Lesson," short on dates, long on cockeyed details. There were snapshots of people hugging, holding brooms, and changing lightbulbs. There was even an offer to help customers find new suppliers for their favorite gourmet items while the store was being rebuilt.

The site made me simultaneously lonesome for the Ducks and curious about what else they had planned for the Web. So one day in August I stopped by the company's temporary digs to chat with Ressler and his Web-site content designer, Peter Franklin, a former baker who now runs a marketing and E-commerce consultancy for start-up restaurants. For a few weeks after the fire, Ressler told me, he and Weiss considered just giving up. But the phone kept ringing. "Are you OK?" his customers inquired anxiously. "When are you coming back?" Then came the contributions. One particularly large check was a gift from an elderly woman whose Pomeranian, Mishka, was a favorite of the Duck Soup staff. "She said Mishka had died and she wanted to give us the money in the dog's name," says Ressler. "The outpouring from the community told us that we were more than a retail store, and we had better get back to work."

But they wouldn't be able to go all the way back to work until late fall, when the new Mill Village would be ready. So to pass the time productively, they made plans, including plans for a new bread section. That's where Franklin came in.

Franklin, who met with the two partners in February, talked about bread with the Ducks, but he also talked about the Web. The notion of going on-line was alien to Ressler and Weiss, who relished the personal connection they'd had with their customers and had no ambitions to expand. What's more, the $1-million company was defiantly Luddite: at the time its only technology was Weiss's home PC and a fax machine that had entered their lives just 18 months earlier. "I told them what the Web made possible," says Franklin. "Two days after that, Richard called and said, 'Listen, we've got to talk. I think we like this idea."