(Blogger’s Blog: Each Friday an excerpt from the soon to be published book, Faux Pas is French for Restaurants, appears in this space.)
The Crocus Hill Market was a small landmark emporium offering selections of imported jams and jellies, Duncan Hines and Pillsbury cake mixes along with the style of a full service butcher shop. The men in white, naturally, wore smocks and slightly blood stained aprons. A throwback to a slower time the once affluent neighbors of the Hill District enjoyed the services Crocus Hill struggled to maintain.
Although not stocked with the delicacies found in Zabar´s or Balducci´s, the produce and specialty products that the market´s owner, Bill Helfman offered the clientele was an impressive lot. And would suffice in pleasing the palates of Summit Anenue´s Hill District. Helfman always went out of his way to keep a customer happy and because of that it was our grocery store of choice and we got to know Helfman quite well.
Crocus Hill was a solid piece of St. Paul history. F. Scott and Zelda shopped their when they lived in the neighborhood. The Railroad Industrialist and Timber Baron, James J. Hill, his son Louis Hill and his family shopped at the market.Garrison Keillor, lived only blocks from the store and would often be seen in its surroundings. It was the perfect topic for grocery-ville styled story telling.
It was a story that jettisoned me into the food business. After writing an article that highlighted the feel of the market and its history, the owner approached me and claimed that if loved the market as much as I expressed in the story I should buy it.
Having owned the market for three generations, and passing it on to the next as though it were the family farm, the ancestry was protective of their property. Bill had worked there as a child and took over from his father. His true love was the market in New York- the stock market- and he longed to be a broker. With that he mind he was constantly investing in a variety of stocks and had, over the years, done better with the market on Wall St. than he had with the one on Grand Ave.
There was a romantic simplicity to Crocus Hill. In many ways, it resembled the original Dean and DeLuca in SOHO.
Floor to ceiling shelves, stacked with can goods coated with dust lined each wall. The ladders that brought clerks to different heights, in search of Campbell´s Del Monte, Green Giant or Libby products were worn but not yet squeaking. One couldn´t however say the same for the clerk´s or most of the customers.
The tin ceilings hovering 20 feet above the worn, unwaxed tile floor covered a lot of sins from both below and above. The historic grocery store was a culinary museum for modern day times and the rumors on the street were that it wouldn´t last the year.
But underneath the crusty layer of old age there was a style, elegance and class that tose with vision saw. It could be brought back to life with a bit of polish, marketing and work.
The ninety years of existence had taken its toll on the icon of Grand Ave. Walking into the space for the first time, the aromas wafting through the store were a combination of chilled wet cardboard boxes and sweet freshly thrown pine sawdust rising up from behind the butcher´s counter. The produce, particularly the head lettuce, was peeled back daily, limp leaves often left next to the head they once covered. The produce prices on head lettuce never changed, the head would just get smaller. Other produce items, zucchini, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower and rooted vegetables; carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and beets, never really made an impression, but where available as a convenience.
The business foundation of Crocus Hill was built on delivering groceries to the elderly. That should have been a disastrous sign. And even though the business had a generous account list it had grown limp, like the lettuce in the cooler.
While shopping for a 200 guests who would be showing up at the ancient Summit Hill mansion a fast talking real estate agent had sold to two ego driven arrogant New Yorkers, Kranston invited Helfman to the festive Christmas party we were hosting.
Not only did Helfman show up, but he raved about the food that Kranston and I had prepared. A few days later he asked if we would be interested in purchasing The Crocus Hill Market. The wrong question to ask a guy coming of a party high. The apps must have been great. The rolled pork loin, stuffed with figs-tremendous.
And, although Crocus Hill was not a restaurant, it had no kitchen facilities, I knew that we could change the way people looked at food on Grand Ave.
As a team, we could remake The Crocus Hill Market into a specialty store. We could revive it. Add life. Breathe. We could be to St. Paul what Eli Zabar and Grace Balducci were to New York. I would be Eli. Kranston, Grace. Large Artichokes. Succulent grapes. Plump peaches. Golden brown rotisserie chicken. Ribs. Smoked Salmon. We could create the culinary fantasy that we frequented in New York.
We discussed the possibilities. Kranston was working too many hours, traveling too much, and our relationship wasn´t growing. We needed a common interest. And, since we did entertain and everyone raved about the food we already had a following. I suggested we buy the store and run it on weekends. How hard could it be? We were both intelligent, people with a high level of common sense. A contradictory statement. I knew how to cook. She knew retail, and fashion, and together we had a sense of style and taste that surely would sell.
If New Yorker´s had gourmet markets the caliber of Zabar´s, Balducci´s, and Fairway then St. Paulite´s should be able to experience the same culinary caliber through the remodel of the Crocus Hill Market. We told Helfman it was a go. We wanted to purchase his store. We offered $25,000. He wanted $195,000.
A year of negotiations followed before the deal was signed. He handed us the keys on December 5, 1990. And, he quickly ran out the door to The Lexington to celebrate freedom. And Kranston and I stepped into a large, pile, of crumbs.