In short order, one block of Haddon Avenue could become a proving ground for a new model of neighborhood grocers.
By Matt Skoufalos
Seventeen years ago, Chris Thomas was “the first bartender at the first shift at Monk’s [Café in Philadelphia].”
Today, the Haddonfield resident’s most important regulars are his two children, aged 8 and 10.
“Feeding them healthy food is what I’m interested in,” he said.
But Thomas believes he’s not the only guy who goes food shopping with a gastro-pub palate and the conscientiousness of a concerned parent.
That’s why he and Eli Massar of Media, PA think that Welcome Market, their take on the neighborhood grocery store, will resonate with families in Collingswood and its neighboring communities.
“Collingswood already has a great farmers market,” Thomas said.
“It has great restaurants. But it doesn’t have a place where you can buy a gallon of organic milk, which is absurd.”
In Welcome Market, which will occupy the old Woolworth building (most recently vacated by chef Alex Capasso’s Benny’s Burger Joint), Thomas and Massar are looking to create a community space that combines grocery shopping with chef-prepared foods and café seating.
“This is a place where you can come any time and it’s a more social atmosphere,” Thomas said, adding that Welcome Market will “create a bar-like atmosphere without it really being a bar.”
“If you’re going to eat three times a day, you might as well take some enjoyment in procuring that food,” Massar said. “We want this to be an important part of life in Collingswood for people.”
‘Food is pretty important’
Massar and Thomas are bringing a lot of Philadelphia flavor with them. Their shelves will include products from Capogiro gelato, Bassetts Ice Cream, Claudio Specialty Foods, Metropolitan Bakery, John and Kira’s, Old City Coffee, and ReAnimator Coffee, to name a few.
“Our effort will be to get as much local product as possible,” Massar said. “We want to promote responsibly raised food products, and the best way to do that is to get it into a store where that’s a philosophy.”
Massar realizes that serving those ideals means balancing quality and price, and emphasized that Welcome Market will try to offer a variety of choices in both its prepared foods and grocery items.
“Is it possible that ShopRite will be cheaper than us on something?” he said. “Yes, it’s possible. Is it possible that ShopRite’s quality will be higher than ours? Unlikely.
“Our philosophy is that food is pretty important, so you make your own decisions on what your price point should be,” Massar said.
“We’re trying to attract the young family with the kids who are becoming more knowledgeable about food and wanting to give their kids and themselves higher-quality [food]without chemicals and pesticides,” Thomas added.
‘W’ is for ‘Welcome’
Elements of the Welcome Market design reflect that emphasis on family gathering as well. The shop will feature a “play corral” that Massar and Thomas said will make it “much easier [for parents]to supervise” young children “when they’re not occupied at the table.”
The same space will be usable for food tastings, farmer meet-and-greets, and other special events, they said.
Fixtures in the store will be “modular and mobile,” Massar said, “so that we can have these different uses at different times of the day.”
Prepared foods will be available throughout the day, from a breakfast-and-coffee bar that opens in the morning, through to take-and-go desserts at night. Market hours will run from 7 or 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., and later on weekends, Massar said.
Welcome Market has also applied for an affiliate retail license with Auburn Road Vineyard and Winery of Woodstown, NJ, which would allow guests to enjoy a bottle of wine in the shop.
An initial staff of 15 will stock shelves, cook and prepare foods, and serve customers. Dine-in seating will accommodate 19 guests, with plans in the works for added tables in the hallway of the building and along the sidewalk.
And what about the name? Thomas credits their architect, who picked up on the symbol that represented the old Woolworth building, and suggested that the “W” could stand for “Welcome.”
“The logo is designed with that ‘W’ in a diamond, but as a food bin,” Thomas said. “It’s sort of a connection between the building and its history and what we’re doing. We want the people of this town to be welcomed.”
McFarlan’s Market on the move?
Less than a block down the street, Collingswood residents have been waiting to welcome another grocery store project, McFarlan’s Market, for more than a year.
Since they were first announced in March 2013 as the prospective new tenants of the often-dark National Food Market, McFarlan’s owners Janet Stevens and Peter Burgess are aware that public interest in the project hasn’t waned.
As they’ve been sidelined by a protracted financing process, however, Stevens said she understands that Collingswood residents have been hungry for an update.
“I feel like I’m dragging people along and that’s not my intent,” Stevens told NJ Pen. “I’m hoping that in the next six to eight weeks, I’ll have a definite yes and a real timeline.
“We need to get the equity component [resolved],” she said.
Stevens and Burgess, whose principal business is real estate development, said that the National requires some “rather substantial” work, but that “our niche is taking buildings that require work and trying to make them a better space.
“There’s a fair amount of plumbing, electrical, and that type of work that would need to be done to fit out the space,” she said.
Once the financing is finalized and the property acquired, Stevens said, construction could run on a four- or five-month timeline. The store look and feel would be in keeping with the McFarlan’s location in Merchantville, and could potentially open by spring 2015. Welcome Market, in contrast, is shooting for a fall 2014 opening.
Stevens said the Collingswood McFarlan’s location would incorporate a butcher and prepared foods chef, some space for dine-in seating, and a variety of goods “at all different price points.
“We’re going to carry a variety of well-known, national brands, and we’re also going to have some specialty items,” she said.
Asked if she is concerned about the proximity to the nearby Welcome Market—visible from the corner of Haddon and Washington Avenues, on which the National is situated—Stevens said she thinks there’s room for both businesses in Collingswood.
“I think they’re different operations,” she said. “I’m hoping that we’re both successful.
“There’s a lot of people now with the LumberYard and the new building that’s going up,” Stevens said. “I think it could be a good mix for the town.”
Althouth Stevens stressed that she’s “eternally an optimist,” she conceded that the project turns on financing contingencies. If it were only up to area residents, she said, the deal would have been done long ago.
“We’ve gotten a lot of very positive feedback from people,” Stevens said. “I wish it had happened a little faster and sooner, and I’m sure we’ll have an answer soon.”