Collingswood market, open just 3 weeks, calls it quits

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Francesca Vassalluzzo buys bananas at the Local Market in Collingswood on its last day of operation Dec. 18, 2014. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )

Long lines snaked through Collingswood's Local Market & Cafe on Thursday, with shoppers filling baskets with groceries and freshly made gourmet foods.

With the cash registers ringing constantly and a steady flow of shoppers, it appeared that the new grocer in town was enjoying much success since opening three weeks ago in the old Woolworth building on Haddon Avenue.

To the surprise of many, however, it was more of a swan song, with a 50-percent-off sale for a quick clearing of inventory. The owners had announced that business had been so slow since they opened, it was time to close shop - for good.

Business picked up Thursday, which was scheduled to be the last day the market would stay open, but with inventory still on the shelves by evening, the owners were considering whether to reopen Friday.

"We weren't under any illusion that we were going to be profitable in the first year. Our goal was to sustain the business and grow," said one of the four owners, Cathy Smith of Haddonfield. "But it is too big of a space in a town that already has other places to shop."

Smith and her husband, Chris Thomas, along with a couple from Media, Eli Massar and Emily Pollack, started planning the business three years ago, working with local officials eager to have a small grocery store that offered fresh food.

Smith has experience in writing and marketing, Thomas has a background in the restaurant industry, Massar has the business background, and Pollack is a lawyer.

"We were the dream team with the dream space," Smith said.

Thursday afternoon, pockets of sparse shelves and displays testified that the store never had a full inventory. Shoppers mainly seemed eager to get the gourmet goods at half the usual price: broccoli rabe with garlic oil and chili flakes, roasted potatoes with rosemary, organic quinoa, and grilled vegetables and chicken.

Despite the discount, the dairy section remained filled with milk, eggs, and yogurt, across from a wide selection of fruit and vegetables, which, too, were not selling.

The market had good days on the weekends, Smith said, but not good enough to make up for the long lulls during the week. Although customers liked the prepared foods, the coffee in the cafe section and the fresh produce and groceries did poorly. And pretty soon, Smith said, a similar market is opening across the street.

Smith said the owners had hired about 35 employees and invested heavily in the existing space, including expensive refrigeration. Changing to sell only prepared foods and do catering, they feared, would not generate the income needed for renovations and to support existing overhead, Smith said.

"Over time, it very well could have been successful," Smith said. "But not knowing and doubling down when there's a new merchant opening across the street, it just did not feel like the right thing to do."

Collingswood Mayor James Maley said he was surprised at the abrupt announcement on Facebook that the owners had decided to close after only three weeks. He wished they had reached out to town officials with their concerns, though he was not sure what they could have done to help.

"It's very disappointing," Maley said, adding that local officials worked closely with the owners over the years as they prepared, amended, and finalized plans. "I would have loved to have had a discussion with them before the nuclear bomb was dropped."

Maley said he still believes that Collingswood would support a market such as Local Market & Cafe, even with the arrival of another grocery and market and the Wawa convenience store nearby.

"You can't make a decision within three weeks that it is thumbs up or thumbs down," Maley said. "Three weeks is not a barometer for anything."

Borough residents said they were disappointed to learn the business was closing.

Francesca Vassalluzzo, 54, said she had stopped in a couple of times with her daughters. They take ballet lessons nearby and enjoyed the cafe.

"We loved that they had homemade bread and pasta," Vassalluzzo said. Her girls, though young, enjoy eating, she said, but the market's groceries were too expensive to shop there frequently.

Cara Boiler, 34, who was with her 6-week-old infant, Maeve, and a friend, Chynna Bardalez, 41, all of Collingswood, stopped in on Thursday. The two women were surprised to learn the market was closing.

"It would have been nice to see it survive," Boiler said.


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