A local couple is doing their part to transform Hartford into a magnet for treehuggers and granola eaters
November 06, 2008
Imani and John Zito have created an oasis of green businesses on New Britain Avenue across from Trinity College. Think of it as an urban homestead, where their six home-schooled children play and study and circulate freely among the back rooms and floor spaces of the new Growing Green Co-op, the Green Vibration Eco Boutique and the Alchemy Juice Bar Café, where you can stop in for an organic smoothie or a portabella burger.
The Zito's New Age spread is unique in Hartford, and it just might signal a new direction for the city, according to the Zitos. Hartford could transform itself into the capital of a new green economy in Connecticut, the epicenter of a locally grown, sustainably developed, environmentally conscious lifestyle for the 21st century.
"It's challenging being in Hartford, I have to say, and that's what we need to change," said Imani Zito. "We've been talking with (city) council people and the mayor about making this the thing to turn Hartford around. Making Hartford green would inspire the youth, energize this city and bring young entrepreneurs into the city."
The cornerstone of the Zito enterprise is a traditional business — Beij, Williams and Zito, a nearly 100-year-old fine arts memorial company. Zito's grandfather's uncle founded the business in Bloomfield in 1915. Zito's grandfather worked for his uncle, eventually taking over, and in 1943 purchasing Beij and Williams, another memorial company tracing its roots back to 1870.
The company passed from grandfather to father to son, fourth-generation carver John Zito. In addition to memorials and lettering for clients like Trinity, Zito also restores ancient headstones. The memorial business carries the weight for the Alchemy Café, and the new co-op.
"For us to make money as a café we need volume," said Imani Zito. "We don't have the walk-by traffic here, so location is an issue."
The big push for the Zitos is the Growing Green Co-op, which Imani Zito describes as a "hybrid" incorporating both retail and wholesale sides.
On the wholesale side, the co-op would become the focal point for a statewide network of green businesses selling everything from organic produce to non-toxic paint, like the "safecoat" brand sold at The Center for Green Building in Bridgeport.
The Zitos are planning a delivery service for the co-op consisting of a kitchen-grease-burning Mercedes-Benz sedan pulling a trailer. That should attract its share of attention. (The grease will have to come from a kitchen other than Alchemy's, where virtually no grease is produced.)
"For example, one of our drop-offs would be The Center for Green Building in Bridgeport," said Imani Zito. "We could be picking up paint for somebody in Guilford, then picking up stuff at a farm in Guilford and taking it to Hartford."
And round and round the green products go! It's an inspiring vision, and not one without precedent. Just look at Pepperidge Farm, which started in Fairfield in 1937 with a single loaf of bread and grew into a food business giant. But the Zitos realize they are likely facing a bigger challenge for acceptance than Pepperidge Farm founder Margaret Rudkin.
"We're doing our part to make the city greener, but there's a limitation to Hartford; I don't know that there are that many green businesses," said Imani Zito. "It's hard to find (green businesses) in Connecticut, never mind Hartford."
The Zitos have about 20 businesses signed up for the wholesale side of the co-op and want to add 20 more before they begin recruiting individuals to join the co-op on the retail side. In the meantime, they have plenty of other activities planned for their new co-op space, with its brightly colored floor covered in purple and green carpet tiles.
"We're going to be doing yoga classes, kids' classes and so forth. We show films here every Friday," said Imani Zito.
The co-op was able to open thanks to a $305,000 loan from the Hartford Community Loan Fund, which began 11 years ago with $7.5 million in state money to help businesses and homeowners in the South End. Today, the Loan Fund has cut its ties with the state, transforming itself into a private nonprofit working with area banks to fund commercial and residential projects citywide that might not get loans without their involvement.
Rex Fowler, executive director of the Loan Fund, said the Zitos were having trouble along those lines.
"They weren't getting a real strong reception from banks," said Fowler. "They explained the concept to us and we tried to think more creatively about using cash flow from the existing businesses in the building. We were able to refinance the first mortgage on the building plus offer additional money to rehab the new space for the co-op."
Fowler believes in the Zito's vision of the greening of Hartford, particularly the bulk food aspect where the space on New Britain Avenue will become a "clearinghouse for all these different farms" in the area.
"That's why we were excited when they approached us to get financing," said Fowler. "This will be a meeting place for groups interested in the city of Hartford becoming more environmentally friendly. Go to cities really drawing younger people, like Portland, Maine, or Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They're tapping into the interest in young people to live more sustainably."