(Blogger’s Note: Every Friday an excerpt from the soon to be published book, Faux Pas is French for Restaurant, appears on this blog.)
The memory of that first twelve hour day at the Crocus Hill Market is as vivid today as it was then. Kranston and I stood at the front door, panning the store, admiring the out-dated, floor to ceiling shelves that the Health Department was hoping we would rip out. The code violation notices were found weeks later in a desk drawer, but now empty shelves were the major token of our purchase.
The cluttered storage areas boasted mere junk. The burnt-out fluorescent bulbs, circa 1970, were too high to reach with a standard ladder. The forlorn faces on the elderly staff had just watched 50 years of grocery store history walk out the door. It was the end of an era for them. For us, it was the beginning of hell. Without tears, we looked at each sporting expressions of concerned affection, awe struck at what we had done. It may have been a disastrous mistake.
Boxes of outdated canned goods, no longer fit for human consumption, dog and cat food, tuna fish, packed before the days of dolphin safe fishing, baked beans long since solidified, Boston Brown Bread that had turned to brick, and other containers, dented, torn, or crushed, were stacked near the front door for anyone who wanted the merchandise to take. It was Helfman´s way of thanking the neighborhood for support over the years. Strangely, by days end, the entire product was gone.
This didn´t resemble our dream store. Dean and DeLuca´s? Doubtful. Eli would be laughing. Grace-rolling in the aisle.
The renderings of the remodeled market, constantly being reviewed at night as we dreamed of a bright, culinary future, looked nothing like this. Our plan was very simple – move this, paint that, create one of those. Dump the large casket freezers down the center of the store, retile, paint the ceiling, the walls, and varnish the shelves so they shined like the bright work of a classic yacht. Purchase new coolers and present food in a style we were familiar with. Create a cheese department that was more International than individually wrapped American and Swiss slices. Bring in the Stilton, Huntsman, Cow Girl Creamery Blue, and of course import some smooth Brie.
As we continued glancing at the lack of inventory, we realized we could be in serious financial trouble. And, it was only our first day. Props for the most part, what remained shelved were outdated and dusty. It was the stuff nobody wanted.
The transaction to buy the market was simple and although negotiating the price took a long time the actual signing of the papers and the purchase agreement was a mere two pages. We went it alone, without the advice of a lawyer. We had bought the name, the goodwill, the customer list and the receivable that might be collected. We didn´t know at the time that we were buying something more outdated than we had realized. The equipment was worth nothing. It was going to cost more money to have it carted away than we could ever have sold it for. The walk in cooler, a wooden contraption, was soaked with the blood of chicken and beef. The water from the melting ice of the chicken cases permeated the wood and the air. It stunk of spoiled chicken and aged beef. A deep breathe in the cooler could have cost one his life, or at least his lunch. It had seen its last days years before. But none of this really mattered. We were going to remodel the lifestyle of those who shopped at the market.
Kranston and Foley, Purveyors to the Carriage Trade.
By days end, the excitement had hit a fever pitch for the two of us. Not so for the staff. They looked as though they were at the funeral of a loved one. And, they were. Helfman concerned we would change our mind spared no time in leaving as soon as the papers were signed, leaving us to nurse the staff back to life. His parting mantra," Don´t worry, I am going to be around the neighborhood. If you need anything just call. I´ll send you my new number" had been broadcast throughout the day almost hourly.
The reception from the staff at our first company meeting didn´t go well. Unrolling our renderings of the planned remodel was not the smartest thing we cold have done as the new owners. Our progressive plans to increase business, customer traffic, and profits were greeted with blank stares, smirks of disbelief and outwards signs of animosity towards the people that would change history.
"Why are you screwing with our grocery store?" could have been a topic on the agenda.
Linda, Lori, Wayne and Joan -the four lifers at the store-were not happy with our plan. Although enthusiasm had never been a strong suit at the store we hadn´t realized how employees could become so disgruntled over time. We would soon find out.
But we had bigger worries than the staff´s happiness. Finding a contractor on a slim budget, even in 1990, was a monumental task. The store design was a nightmare and everywhere we looked we needed to replace something. We couldn´t close it- we needed the daily revenue. We couldn´t hire a union crew – we didn´t have the money. We couldn´t sell the coolers- they were shot- we couldn´t sell the casket freezers- they were outdated,. We couldn’t even get them out the front door, we had to remove the windows in the front of the store to lift them out with a crane. We were in a patch of sorts. And, of course, because of the infatuation we felt towards the business, we surely didn´t look at any of these obstacles before we bought it. But why would we do that. We might have found something that made us think twice about purchasing our dream.