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For West Enders, Shopping With A Vengeance

October 27, 2005
By OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writer

For years they were in exile, displaced from the spot they loved by an overlord they hated.

If natural foods shopping in the Hartford area were a tale of one tribe's wandering, this week brings deliverance.

Wednesday's opening of Whole Foods Market in West Hartford ushered in a new era of grocery shopping for health conscious consumers across the region. But for denizens of Hartford's West End - still, these many years later, stinging from the shutdown of their beloved Cheese & Stuff market - the new store marked the beginning of something more profound:

A chance to shop for high-end, wholesome goodies without slinking in shame to the detested Wild Oats, the store responsible for Cheese & Stuff's demise.

And so, there was rejoicing.

"Many of us who resent Wild Oats have been waiting for this quite eagerly," said Sally Taylor, a West End resident.

"Does `the answer to our prayers' say enough?" said Michael Pitre.

Pitre lives in West Hartford, a short walk from the new natural foods emporium on Raymond Road. But he and his wife, Erika Davis-Pitre, were among a strong contingent of West End boosters who toasted their rosy shopping future at a sneak preview party at the new store Monday. The gathering was heralded in the West End Civic Association's newsletter.

"We are big, big supporters" of Whole Foods, Erika Davis-Pitre said. "I would buy bonds if they sold them."

As they and friends nibbled on hors d'oeuvres beside the store's cheese case, the conversation turned to a grim memory: the funeral service, with casket, held for Cheese & Stuff at United Methodist Church in 2000.

The local West End store - long the heart and soul of the community - had died at the hands of competitor Wild Oats Markets, of Boulder, Colo. Wild Oats took over the property, promised to keep Cheese & Stuff in business, then closed it and leased its space to a store called Dollar World.

"They bought and closed a viable food store in the West End after saying that they wouldn't, in an overt act of cannibalization," said David Barrett, president of the civic association and a veteran of the Cheese & Stuff Defense Committee.

The new store opened at Bishops Corner in West Hartford with wide aisles, locally grown produce, and meat and fish counters where vendors wear crisp white aprons. But Barrett wasn't lured by that bounty.

"We will not shop at Wild Oats," he said.

There are some who broke that vow - but only when the call of organic was too loud to ignore. Taylor, an avid cook, did most of her shopping at farmers' markets, but occasionally relented to the convenience of Wild Oats.

Erika Davis-Pitre confessed that she also "bit the bullet." She regretted the admission.

"One has to eat," she said.

Wild Oats, for one, would like the hating to stop. The Wild Oats executives behind the closing of Cheese & Stuff five years ago are gone and replaced - after steering the company on an expansion binge that landed it in financial trouble, said company spokeswoman Sonja Tuitele.

"It's a different company today," she said. "While we don't know why those decisions were made it's unfortunate that it's left so much bitterness."

"I wish it would be water under the bridge because it was so long ago," Tuitele said.

It is. And it was, says Barrett. But West Enders are people of principle.

"I work at Hartford Seminary," said Barrett. "We believe in grace and we believe in forgiveness."

"Doesn't mean I'll ever shop there," he added.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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