Chestnut Hill co-op proves a hardy offshoot

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At the month-old Weavers Way Co-op in Chestnut Hill, manager Kim Spelman-Hall works in front of colorful art produced by children. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)

Proving what a trouper he is, a weary Glenn Bergman consented one day last week to show a visitor around the shiny, new Weavers Way Co-op that has been the talk, of late, of le tout Chestnut Hill.

He'd been up later than usual the night before, entertaining the co-op's nascent band of urban farmers, feeding them a meal of seafood (the protein of choice of flexitarians), and pitchers of mojitos, scented with local mint.

Bergman is a former chef, his resumé dating to the era of the Commissary, the iconic '70s cafeteria. But these days, he heads the co-op's mildly burgeoning enterprises as its general manager.

He searched for words to describe the scrubbed, first-day-of-school look of the month-old market (at a glance, it could be a pint-sized Whole Foods) on Germantown Avenue: "It's like a new pair of jeans. Maybe they just need to be dragged behind a car for awhile; break them in."

The 5,000-square-foot store replaces Caruso's Market, the old-school landmark that had held down the address for a century before closing.

And if there's palpable ambivalence among the crunchier of the granola set a few miles down the hill at the funky, old, original Weavers Way (circa 1973) in Mount Airy, the up-hill welcome for the fresh edition - with mostly a fresh clientele - appears to be unreserved: Hundreds of new members have joined, and foot traffic in the mid-blocks of Germantown Avenue has shown an uptick of 500 more daily shoppers, not to mention a parade of baby strollers funneling in the back door. The wide, acid-washed-cement aisles are boulevards compared to the country lanes of the original.

So fears that the still-affluent onetime bastion of Philadelphia's Brahmins might rebel against "muscatel sentiments . . . [being] inflicted on the martini set," as The Inquirer's Christopher Hepp put it, appear to have been firmly, and decisively, put to rest.

As for patina, or even soul, that's another question.

Nothing, of course, was imposed on Weavers Way Co-op. It's communitarian by definition; owned by its members who can either work six hours a year or join for a $30 annual membership fee. (It's open to the public. But only members get the 5 percent discount off purchases.)

Still, it can be a culture shock to encounter the buttoned-down Chestnut Hill digs after shopping in the loosey-gooseyier Mount Airy grocery. The latter features well-earned scuffs; popular products such as the pizza dough from South Philadelphia's Cacia's bakery stashed at ankle level; packing crates heaped with magical, emerald emu eggs; and in season, artisanal cider from Solebury Orchard, the storied Bucks County grower.

There are, yes, kinks in the new model. The prepared-food operation is still getting up to speed. The computer system isn't bug-free.

But Bergman insists the tidier visuals ("We got an actual architect!) of the new sibling don't portend a change of heart: Full-time clerks typically still make $10 an hour, close to $2 more than at major chains, "and we look for ways to give benefits," said Bergman, "not take them away."

The intrepid Cacia pizza dough has climbed the hill, along with the line of other local products from producers too small for the Whole Foods trade, too big for farmstand-only, but right-sized for Weavers Way.

From near Lansdale, there's pristine Merrymead Farm milk (which aims for the top, not the bottom, end of the state's butterfat allowances); small-batch, local coffee roasters, including Fonseca, which imported Nicaraguan coffee through Canada when the Reagan administration imposed a ban on it; broccoli from Paradise (Pa.) Organics in Lancaster County; and lovingly crafted goat cheeses pickup-trucked in from Amazing Acres in Elverson, Chester County.

Here and there, though hardly dominating the shelves, are bunches of kale and other vegetables harvested from the co-op's string of vest-pocket farms, the largest now a two-acre spread in Awbury Arboretum that produces enough to also supply a Sunday stand at the Headhouse Farmers Market, Second and Lombard. A recent haul at Headhouse? $1,200.

There are other new wrinkles - more refrigerated and gluten-free inventory, more organic products (Chestnut Hill counterintuitively has been something of an organic desert), and with a full-scale kitchen replacing the low-tech rice cookers of Mount Airy vintage, a modest, but abidingly tasty line of hot takeaway foods, including last week beautifully seasoned grilled vegetable-and-red-chile enchiladas.

Otherwise, the Chestnut Hill store was performing exactly as expected, Bergman said: It has already shrunk business by 15 percent in the cramped aisles of the Mount Airy original on Carpenter Lane.

Which was part of the impetus all along - to siphon off Mount Airy customers who lived in Chestnut Hill zip codes, downsizing pressure on the old-timer, giving it more breathing (and parking) room.

So while it may seem impure to suggest, Weavers Way's expansion may prove - against all that is green and holy - that more, in certain key cases, can also be less.

 


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.