Category Archives: Local business

Remarkable Downtown Scene

Really old Westporters remember the corner of Main Street and Parker Harding Plaza as the site of a sea captain’s house-turned-map store.

Relatively old Westporters know it as the Remarkable Book Shop.

Newbies called it Talbots.

Now it’s — who knows what?

Remarkable Book Shop 2014

The iconic building that long symbolized downtown Westport is being transformed once again.

I had to use a little filter to keep it pink.

 

Never Too Busy To Give Back To The Arts

You know the saying: “If you want something done, ask a busy person.”

It’s hard to find someone busier than a new mom with a full-time job. And planning a huge event — like the annual fundraiser for the Westport Arts Center — is almost another full job in itself.

Yet Caitlin Burke and Kristen Briner are doing just that.

It says a lot about them — and just as much about the importance of the arts to our entire town.

The theme of this year’s event (Saturday, April 26, Cranbury Park in Norwalk) is “WONDERland – A Mad Art Party.” Both women are well versed in the “wonder” of Westport arts.

WAC

Kristen came here as a little girl to visit her godparents. She started her business — the very creative Madison/Mott digital marketing agency — here 20 years later, with 1991 Staples grad Luke Scott. Serving local businesses like Gault Energy and Wish List, along with international clients, the company has a hip, funky vibe that is the 21st-century version of Westport’s arts heritage, dating back over a century.

“Westport has always been a breeding ground for artists of all genres,” Kristen says. She joined the WAC board because of the organization’s commitment to connect Westport and surrounding areas to the arts — and the energy with which staff and members do so.

Caitlin Burke (left) and Kristen Briner.

Caitlin Burke (left) and Kristen Briner.

Caitlin — a 1996 Staples alum, whose parents Bud and Sharon Frey also graduated from Staples — returned here in 2007. She’s the new director of marketing for Norwalk-based ICR.

As a youngster, Caitlin did not know much about the Westport Arts Center (she played field hockey, and served on her class committee). But, she quickly learned as a new homeowner, “it’s a lot more than just a gallery.” Caitlin has been impressed with the WAC’s outreach to urban schools, veterans (through Homes for the Brave), the elderly and Smilow Cancer Center.

Both women look forward to sharing the “wonder” of the Westport Arts Center — and Westport’s arts history — with their young sons. (Very young. Caitlin’s is 8 months old; Kristen’s is just 2 months.)

WAC“WONDERland” follows in the tradition of unique WAC fundraisers like the Warhol Ball and Art Noir. (Each time there’s a new venue, too.) This year, guests will “sip, savor and seek” as they “discover the unexpected” with a trip through the looking glass, and down the rabbit hole.

The evening includes a performance by Juilliard trained opera singer and 1993 Staples graduate Lucia Palmieri.

“The Westport Arts Center is a manifestation of everything that makes Westport such a wonderful, magical, music- and art-filled place to live,” Lucia says.

“WAC programs are not only educational, entertaining and fun, they are an integral outlet for artists in almost every medium. I am honored to be part of this evening.”

“Yes, it’s challenging to organize all this as working moms of little kids,” Caitlin says. “But it’s a great way to meet amazing people, and do some good. The WAC gives back in many ways, and this is one way we can help.”

It takes a busy person (or 2) to get a big job done. Many Westporters are busy people, with not enough time to attend every worthy cause.

This one, though, is well worth checking out.

(“WONDERland – A Mad Art Party” includes a 5:30 p.m. reception and dinner for Ann Sheffer, the WAC’s “Queen of the Arts” [$500 per ticket] and an 8 p.m. Friends of the Arts part [$225 per ticket]. For more information, click here.)

Peter’s Market Welcomes Rick Dickinson

Cupcake, cookie and challah lovers, rejoice! Your long Westport-Weston nightmare is over.

Two months after closing Great Cakes, owner Rick Dickinson is back. He’s joined Peter’s Market in Weston, where he’ll draw thousands of devoted customers, while adding a much-needed bakery to our cake-deprived northern neighbor.

Westporters just found a good reason to head to Weston.

Westporters just found a good reason to head to Weston.

The job offer came quickly last week, after a frustrating job search. When a long-time former customer heard that Rick was still looking, she called Peter’s owner Jim Magee.

Jim and Rick met for an hour. Jim made a couple of calls. He learned that hiring the popular baker was a no-brainer.

For the past few days, Rick has been greeting surprised — and delighted — former Great Cakes friends.

At Peter’s, he’s starting pretty much from scratch (ho ho). The mixer and other equipment is not like his old space, but that will change.

Rick Dickinson, and his great Great Cakes goods.

Rick Dickinson, and his great Great Cakes goods.

Right now Rick is making cookies and cupcakes. Cakes will follow.

On Friday he’ll bake the first loaves of his famous challah. It’s sure to go quickly.

Peter’s is a win-win-win: for Rick, Jim, and everyone who loves great baked goods.

Plus, Rick shaves 10 minutes off his former long commute from New Milford. For those of us in 06880, it’s a quick 10 minutes to 06883.

And well worth the trip.

“We Rob Banks”

In 1968 — a few months after the movie “Bonnie and Clyde” swept the nation — a few Staples seniors and friends thought it would be cool to imitate the legendary outlaws.

The high school campus was open; students came and went as they pleased during free periods (and sometimes during not-so-frees). It was spring; giddiness filled the air. Hey, why not?!

Five guys dressed up like ’20s gangsters. They drove downtown, sauntered into Westport Bank & Trust — now Patagonia — and, with a “getaway car” idling outside, pulled out a fake .38 pistol and said, “Stick ‘em up!”

Ha ha!

A few customers scrambled for cover. The tellers didn’t know what to think, but eventually realized it was just a prank. Cops were called, and hauled the Gang of 5 across the street to the police station.

The Westport Town Crier covered the “let’s pretend” robbery jovially. They described the teenagers’ suits and fedoras in detail.

Times sure have changed. Banks — not to mention the ATF, FBI and NSA — don’t look kindly on fake stick-ups.

If this stunt happened today, a full-scale investigation would be held. School administrators and the Board of Education can’t have kids dressed as bank robbers leaving school in the middle of the day, then pretending to rob a bank.

And the Westport Police would certainly not allow 5 teenagers, dressed in fedoras and holding cigarettes, to pose jauntily in the station lobby, looking like they’ve just pulled off the heist of the century.

The Town Crier photo of (from left) Thomas Skinner, Stephen Ambrose, Michael Simonds, Frank Rawlinson and Anthony Dohanos. Anthony posted the photo on Facebook. He now lives in Hawaiii -- far from the scene of the "crime."

The Town Crier photo of (from left) Thomas Skinner, Stephen Ambrose, Michael Simonds, Frank Rawlinson and Anthony Dohanos. Anthony posted the photo on Facebook. He now lives in Hawaiii — far from the scene of the “crime.”

 

 

 

Remembering David Royce

David Royce – for years one of the most controversial private citizens in Westport, who made a career out of tweaking those in local government — died on Friday, 3 years after being diagnosed with leukemia. He was 82.

Nearly 30 years ago — just a few weeks after I began writing “Woog’s World” in the Westport News – I profiled David Royce. I was fascinated by his always-under-construction wood house on Main Street next to Willowbrook Cemetery, mostly hidden behind a monstrous cement wall. I wondered not only what was behind the gate – which hardly ever swung open for visitors — but what was behind the man who was always called a “gadfly.”

I was one of the few people to be admitted behind the wall. I discovered that he had built “an octagonal pool, a 39-foot swing and a birdhouse-like tree fort” in his back yard.

David Royce's house on Main Street, at the foot of Cross Highway. For decades, Westporters wondered what was behind that wall.

David Royce’s house on Main Street, at the foot of Cross Highway.

I learned that he’d bought his house — “for about $1,000″ — 17 years earlier. It was in disrepair — it took a long time to fix up — and I wrote that that was one reason people didn’t like David Royce.

Another was that he was a “househusband” by choice. His wife’s income was the family’s sole means of support, and that meant he didn’t “fit the Westport mold.”

And, I said, a 3rd reason he was disliked was because

he makes waves. He’s a citizen activist who delights in pointing fingers at people when he thinks they have made, are making, or are about to make a mistake, and he doesn’t care whether they’re town officials, volunteer board members, teachers or neighbors.

I quoted his own, 4th reason, why people did not like David Royce: “I have a personality problem. When I get up to speak I sound like an insufferable, arrogant pain in the neck. Hell, I would never invite me over to dinner.”

Royce spoke equally forthrightly about his background. He applied to only one college — Harvard — “because I knew I was in.” He was acting brigadier general during the Korean War, and got into court-martial-worthy scrapes several times.

After the war he worked as an editorial cartoonist, and tried his hand at ballooning and several odd jobs. None took. “I’ve never had the knack of fitting in,” he told me.

His last real job was “feeding rats for American Cyanamid,” which he got by being a strikebreaker. “I’m not real employable,” he reiterated.

David Royce, speaking up in later years. (Photo courtesy of Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com)

David Royce, speaking up in later years. (Photo courtesy of Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com)

Royce discussed his citizen activism since moving to Westport in 1970. He got in a dispute with neighbors and Public Works over a dam on his property. Describing town government metaphorically, he said, “if they’re gong to fart around in my back yard, then I’m going to fart around in their back yard.”

In 1979, he ran for the Planning and Zoning Commission as a Republican. He finished last.

He was on both sides of town battles. He fought construction of Canal Street housing and lost, but helped drive the conversion of Bedford Elementary School to Town Hall.

He told me: “When you have somebody like me in town, a lot of people think before doing something, ‘What if Royce gets onto this issue?’ I’d like every town to have 10 of me.”

But, he added that day in 1987, he had no great love for Westport. “I don’t think there’s anything wonderful or terrible” about the town he’d already lived in for 17 years.

I think Westport is just another damn town. Once in a while my wife will say, “If they’re going to treat you this way, why don’t we move on to some other dumb town?”

I’ll say, “That’s the key: The other town would be just as dumb.” In fact, it would be worse, because it wouldn’t be broken in yet. It took half a dozen years before people in Westport believed I wouldn’t be bullied. If we moved to a new town, I’d have to do it all over again. It’s hard work.

Nearly 3 decades ago, I asked David Royce about the future of Westport. Needless to say, it was not good.

We’re too cheap to pay for good zoning, so we get what we pay for. If we truly wanted Westport to deteriorate at minimum speed, we’d hire a good staff so that that would happen. By having an unpaid P&Z, we take a 60-hour-a-week job and make it voluntary.

The result, he said, was the town “gets worse at a 10 times unnecessary pace.” He foresaw the empty space that became Winslow Park, as well as Birchwood Country Club, turning into “great cities of condos.”

David Royce fought to have Bedford Elementary School turned into Town Hall.

David Royce fought to have Bedford Elementary School turned into Town Hall.

But, Royce said, he might not be around to see it happen. “Even though I hate to train a new town, I’ll probably have to get out as soon as the kids are educated.”

That didn’t happen. David Royce stayed another 27 years — for the rest of his life, as it turned out.

And he mellowed. According to WestportNow.com, in 2008 he told an RTM meeting in Town Hall:

I was here before most of you and I’ll be here after most of you leave. I love Westport. In fact, the reason you are sitting here tonight instead of in a brick box by the river is because a long time ago I alone fought for the use of this former school instead of a new building as our Town Hall.

His wife Nina told WestportNow’s James Lomuscio that there may be a memorial service in that very place: “He had no religious affiliation. Town Hall was as close as he had to a religion.”

 

 

 

Renee Hooper’s Specialty Foods Hit The Spot

The white oak is Connecticut’s state tree. It is handsome and strong.

White Oak is also the name of the nearly 3-year-old gourmet and specialty foods company created by Renee DuMarr Hooper. Mixing her passions — fresh food and local farmers — she has cooked up a flavorful, all-natural line of fruit spreads, mustards, grilling and finishing sauces, salad dressings and marinades that is drawing raves, and winning awards, throughout the Northeast.

Christie's Country Store, where Renee and John Hooper make magic happen.

Christie’s Country Store, where Renee and John Hooper make magic happen.

White Oak Farm and Table is based at Christie’s Country Store. Her husband John Hooper owns it, and the combination — a neighborhood market/ gathering spot offering high-quality, locally grown and produced food — is a grand slam.

Renee — who spent years as a Manhattan clothing designer — started cooking fruit spreads in the back of Christie’s. She got tired of “seeing water and sugar listed as the first ingredients” on every label.

She and John created recipes together. Renee’s 1st jams — blueberry basil, strawberry rhubarb, raspberry and mixed berry — drew raves from customers.

Barbecue sauces were next. The rest is history.

John and Renee Hooper, in a cozy Christie's corner with a few of their White Oak products

John and Renee Hooper, in a cozy Christie’s corner with a few of their White Oak products

Production has moved out of Christie’s — it now takes place in New Haven and Maine — but the “secret sauce” remains. Small batches. The best, farmers market-type ingredients. Surprising combinations. Renee’s “borderline obsessiveness” about remaining “stubbornly artisinal” and all-natural.

Earlier this month, the Connecticut Specialty Food Association held its 13th annual competition. Nearly 200 items were entered, in 36 categories. White Oak products won 4 awards. Grabbing gold were Marple Hall ketchup (“Connecticut Grown” category), Champagne Dill Wasabi mustard (“Savory Condiment”) and Black Olive tapenade (“Tapenade”). Tuscan Vegetable sauce placed 3rd in “Connecticut Grown.”

And Yankee Magazine named Wild Blueberry Basil the Best Fruit Spread in all of New England.

White Oak foods — did I mention the Cajun Peach grilling sauce, artichoke Parmesan salad dressing or savory Sun-Dried Tomato tapinade? — are sold far beyond Christie’s. They’re at 37 Whole Foods stores in the Northeast; Mrs. Green’s; the Chelsea Market, and specialty stores all the way into Canada.

Recently, Renee shipped an order to Taiwan.

White Oak Farm

Next up: White Oak represents Connecticut’s natural foods at a Congressional luncheon, with 350 guests.

“I’d rather you eat a little bit of something awesome than a lot of something mediocre,” Renee says.

When you bite into, spread or taste a White Oak product, though you may eat a lot of something awesome.

Oh, Doctor! (Part 2)

Yesterday’s doctor/Walgreens/Mercedes post showed the medical profession in a less-than-flattering light.

This one elevates them to sainthood.

Alert “06880″ reader Seth Schachter writes:

Westport Eyecare AssociatesMy wife Alison had some severe eye inflammations over the past few weeks. She has visited Westport Eyecare Associates a number of times. Most were last-minute appointments, including weekends. (They’re hidden in the former Terex building, next to the old House of Pancakes building.)

Dr. Barbara Manion and her colleague Dr. Jessica Yu have been amazing with their care and ongoing treatment. An added bonus is that their office staff is super-friendly.

But the most amazing thing happened yesterday (Saturday). Dr. Manion called to check on Alison. When she heard things were getting worse, she said she was on our way over to our house to drop off medicine for Alison to try. Minutes later, she was here.

A few minutes later, Seth emailed me again. He had more to add:

Five minutes after my last note, Alison’s cell phone rang. It was Dr. Manion calling to check in again — on a Sunday.

Sounds as if Westport Eyecare is special, well deserving of this “06880″ shout-out.

But they’re also not unique. If you’ve had a wonderful experience with a local doctor, click “Comments.”

I hope for a very healthy response.

 

 

Oh, Doctor!

An alert “06880″ reader writes (and swears every line is true):

So there I was, 4th in line at the Walgreens on the Southport line. One clerk worked feverishly to account for more than 30 items in a cart. Our line watched in amazement as the customer — a doctor in scrubs — pulled coupons from her handbag. She was like a magician drawing handkerchiefs out of a hat.

The poor clerk struggled to match the coupons to the products. Many were for wrong-size items. Back to the bag the doctor went, to find the right coupons.

After what seemed like 10 minutes, the 2 agreed on a total. The doctor abruptly turned and walked to the ATM, where she screamed, “How much is that again?” Our long line was stunned, but no one uttered a peep.

After paying, the doctor went to her car. I could not contain myself. I asked my new friends to hold my place in line. I had to see what she was driving.

It was a Mercedes S550.

Parked in the fire lane, right in front of the door.

This is not the doctor at Walgreens.

This is not the doctor at Walgreens.

Chef Grace Plays “Kitchen Casino”

Alison Milwe Grace thrives on chaos.

The 1988 Staples High School graduate is in her 10th year teaching a full load of culinary classes at her alma mater. She also owns AMG Catering, a thriving business that for over 17 years has served a full course of weddings, b-mitzvahs, parties, fundraisers and corporate events — while also offering cooking classes and corporate team-building kitchen events.

Oh, yeah. She has 3 kids, ages 11, 8 and 5.

But nothing could have prepared Chef Grace for the chaos of one day in January.

Chef Alison Milwe Grace. (Photo courtesy of Town Vibe)

Chef Alison Milwe Grace. (Photo courtesy of Town Vibe)

For a wild 17 hours, the Institute of Culinary Education grad — whose resume includes a stint as the only female chef at Manhattan’s Patroon — competed in the Food Network’s “Kitchen Casino.”

The Food Network placed 4 talented chefs in “a high-stakes game of chance that is all about skill, speed and adaptability.” Racing a clock, competitors have to “outcook and outsmart their competition in 3 casino-themed challenges — slots, poker and roulette — for a chance to win a $30,000 jackpot.”

One test: The kitchen spins like a roulette wheel. Each chef gets someone else’s dish in progress, and must deal with it. While making suitably pissy comments.

Chef Grace calls it “cooking your brains out, with a time limit.”

The "Kitchen Casino" set includes a revolving roulette wheel, with 4 cooking stations. Each has an oven and stove top.

The “Kitchen Casino” set includes a revolving roulette wheel, with 4 cooking stations. Each has an oven and stove top.

The Food Network found Grace, and asked her to appear. (She has no idea how.) She knew nothing about the show — it’s new, so no one did — and producers said little. They did mention, though, that contestants “might sabotage” each other.

Grace prepped for the shooting by “Googling random recipes, to get proportions right in my head.” She also watched a lot of “Chopped” and “Cutthroat Kitchen.”

The loooong day of shooting — on Martin Luther King weekend — was “the most exhausting, emotional, validating, energizing, exciting day of my culinary career,” Chef Grace says.

She likens the feeling to the middle of a huge catering event. She’ll work with a bride or fundraising organization for over a year; when the big day arrives, it all comes together. But there are tons of moving parts. It’s chaotic.

“The TV show was all that,” Grace says. “It was a very good fit for my personality.”

Alison Milwe Grace on TV

Her Staples students are just finding out their teacher will be a TV star. But her family has known for months.

“They love watching the promos on TV,” Grace says. “They’ve been totally supportive of my career.

“My kids know that Mommy works weekends. For them, seeing me on TV is way cooler than watching me leave every morning.”

So how did she do? Did she win the $30,000 jackpot?

Chef Grace can’t say. She signed tons of non-disclosure agreements. She not only can’t tell “06880″ — she has not told her children. Or her husband.

They’ll find out when the rest of us do. The show premieres April 7. Grace’s episode airs Monday, April 21 (9 p.m.).

It’s the 50th wedding anniversary of her parents, Jeff and Judy. Alison and her family will be celebrating with the extended Milwe clan in Florida.

So she won’t even have to cook.

(For more on “Kitchen Casino” — including a trailer — click here.)

 

 

 

Tommy’s Phone

I’ve been getting my hair cut at Compo Center Barber Shop for over 30 years. (No jokes, please, about why I need to.)

But until last weekend, I never noticed the phone.

Tommy Ghianuly

Compo Barber Shop’s walls are filled with photos of historic Westport. And a rotary phone sits on the counter.

It’s a throwback — to the days, say, of striped poles and barbers in white uniforms.

“It rings loud,” longtime owner Tom Ghianuly explains. “We can hear it over the clippers and whatnot.”

There’s just one problem: Younger customers can’t use it.

They warily stick their fingers in the dial holes, then push futilely. They have no idea you are supposed to turn the dial all the way, until it goes no further.

That’s okay. There’s no reason to borrow Tommy’s rotary phone.

Even 8-year-olds have cells.