Tag Archives: John Hooper

Chef’s Table Returns To Westport! Cross Highway Rejoices.

When Christie’s Country Store closed in December, a shiver went through the Cross Highway neighborhood.

The breakfast/sandwich/grill/grocery place had been around since 1926. It served nearby residents, Staples and Bedford students, and plenty of landscapers and workers nearby or passing through.

But it was a non-conforming use, in a residential area. Now it was shut. These things don’t usually end well.

Fortunately, this one does.

Chef’s Table is moving in. Rich Herzfeld will pick up right where John Hooper left off.

It’s a homecoming of sorts. Herzfeld — the Culinary Institute of America-trained baker/chef, who honed his trade under Jean Yves Le Bris at La Gourmandise in Norwalk — set off on his own in 1995. He opened his first Chef’s Table at 44 Church Lane.

It was, Rich recalls, “like a small Hay Day.” High-end prepared foods and fresh salads drew a devoted downtown crowd. Two years later, Herzfeld added soups.

In 2001 he opened a 2nd Chef’s Table, on the Post Road in Fairfield. Two years later he added a 3rd, in the former Arcudi’s pizza restaurant next to  Carvel.

The 2007 market crash hit the 2 Westport locations hard. Suddenly, Rich says, everyone was brown-bagging lunch, or eating fast food. Corporate catering dried up.

The Fairfield site — with a broader demographic — did fine.

Rich sold the Church Lane spot to the Wild Pear. Arcudi’s returned to its original spot.

Wild Pear took over from Chef’s Table, on Church Lane. It closed in 2013. After extensive renovations, it is now the site of Aux Delices.

The 2 locations changed hands again. Today, both — coincidentally — are Aux Delices.

Meanwhile, Rich had asked commercial realtor (and Staples High School graduate) Tom Febbraio to keep an eye out for any place here that was already set up for a Chef’s Table-type operation.

Last year, John Hooper’s Christie’s lease was up. Tom told Rich. He was not only interested — he’d loved it for a long time.

“I knew Christie’s well,” Rich says. “It’s a great location. It has history. And the space is perfect for us.”

He’ll sell his signature soups, salads and sandwiches. A few years ago he got back into baking, so there will be plenty of croissants and baguettes.

Rich Herzfeld, with his delicious sourdough bread.

There’s a pizza oven in back — something the Fairfield Chef’s Table lacks — so Rich will make sourdough pizzas too. (The crust is great, he promises — “it takes 3 days to make!”)

The Fairfield location — not far from Fairfield University, Fairfield Ludlowe High and 2 middle schools — is “student-centric,” Rich says. His new Cross Highway spot is even closer, to Staples High and Bedford Middle Schools.

“I have a 21-year-old and a 14-year-old,” Rich notes. “I know what kids want.”

He plans to sell old-fashioned candy, ice cream — and items like milk, sugar and toilet paper, for neighbors who just need one or two quick items. And he would love to resurrect the Frosty Bear ice cream gazebo.

“We’ll be listening closely to what neighbors and customers want,” Rich says. “We’ll try to make it happen.”

Though Chef’s Table will operate from around 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., Rich predicts his bread-and-butter will be breakfasts and lunches. He’s especially excited to serve breakfasts — “good food, providing great energy” to folks working in the area.

Christie’s — with its handsome front porch — has always been a welcoming, neighborhood place.

The Cross Highway store will be overseen by Rich’s son David. Now 29, and the breakfast guru at the Fairfield spot, he grew up at Chef’s Table on Church Lane. When he was just 9, David was baking cookies — and selling them at a table there.

Rich hopes to open by April 1. (No fooling!)

And the name?

It will be “Chef’s Table at Christie’s Country Store.”

Rich knows the 93-year history of the spot he’s moving into. He loves the legacy.

He can’t wait to begin writing the next chapter.

(Hat tip: Suzannah Rogers)

Christie’s Closes Soon. Another Westport Institution Is Gone.

In 1926, Christie Masiello opened a fruit and vegetable stand on Cross Highway. For nearly 7 decades she and her nephew Don were staples of that northern Westport neighborhood: a place to buy food (and gas). And — just as important — to meet.

The place went through some changes — it was briefly a dry cleaner — but when John and Renee Hooper bought it in 2009, Christie’s regained its rightful place as a neighborhood store. And community center.

John added burritos, prepared foods and more to the menu. He rented space to Frosty Bear ice cream. There was a farmers’ market on Sunday mornings.

Nearby Staples High and Bedford Middle School students flocked there after class (sometimes during). Neighbors stopped in a couple of times a day, for whatever they needed. (Including cumin for a Christmakkah meal — click here for that great story.)

It was the only place around for builders, construction workers, tradesmen and delivery people too. They packed the parking lot at lunchtime.

Christie’s was also the go-to place during weather disasters. When hurricanes howled or blizzards blew, the store was the neighborhood port in a storm. John offered ice, water, food, cell charging — whatever anyone needed.

If his power was out too, it was still the place to gather, swap stories, and get energized for the cleanup ahead.

(Photo/Katherine Hooper)

But all those will soon be memories. With sadness, John has announced that Christie’s is closing next month.

Rent and taxes are high, relative to sales and income that can be generated in his out-of-the-way place.

The lease was up in June. But John and Renee stayed on, to see if they could create a plan to make things work.

Christie’s is a non-conforming use, in a residential neighborhood. Zoned as a retail food establishment, it can operate as a takeout deli, with limited tables and chairs to seat approximately 9 patrons indoors.

The Hoopers wanted to offer brunch in the winter — in front of the fireplace — and on the porch in summer.

Christie’s handsome front porch.

They hoped for limited dinner too, in the form of Friday Family Fun Nights  (Saturdays too).

But before they could get approval from Planning & Zoning, they needed an okay from the Health Department.

Health officials said the septic system could not handle the additional stress. And — according to state regulations — the surrounding soils made expansion of the current system unfeasible. John and Renee had to operate as they currently do.

“Local officials were great,” John says. “They tried to work with us. But state laws prohibit expanding the septic system.”

So Christie’s will close soon after their last catering event: a Staples PTA holiday lunch for teachers.

That’s fitting. John has always been a huge supporter of Westport (and Fairfield) schools. He’s provided great food as cheaply as he can — sometimes at cost.

Four middle schoolers hung out the other day at Christie’s — near a menorah, moose and reindeer.

“Renee and I are thankful for all the great friends and supporters we’ve met,” John says. “I’ve watched a lot of kids grow up. It’s been amazing, and what I’ll miss the most.”

“Closing Christie’s is sad for me. But Renee is comforted that I will be able to devote more time to her growing food company.” White Oak Farm & Table sells non-GMO and organic shelf-stable food to stores nationwide.

Everyone who made Christie’s their home away from home is sad too.

Really, everyone in Westport should be.

A little bit of what made our town special will soon be gone.

Thanks, John and Renee, for 9 great years.

And Christie’s, for 92 of them.

Christmakkah Is Cumin

Staples High and Bedford Middle School students know Christie’s is the place to go after school — and before. (Sometimes during, too).

Neighbors know the country store/deli is the place to go when power is out. Somehow, owner John Hooper keeps everyone fed, hydrated, warm (or cool) and happy.

Now Nicole Gerber knows Christie’s is the place to go for cumin.

(Photo/Katherine Hooper)

She lives on Woody Lane. Christie’s is around the corner — and it’s become her second kitchen.

“I’m in there all the time,” she says.

She’s throwing a large “Christmakkah” dinner party for 25 people today. John is catering.

On Tuesday, she was at the store talking with him. He was in the midst of pulling together a very last-minute request for 15 sandwiches to feed the hungry vendors at the Westport Front Porch Holiday Market at around-the-corner Wakeman Town Farm. (“He happily stepped into the kitchen and made those sandwiches himself, because the kitchen staff was busy with the lunch rush,” Nicole reports.) She told him about her brisket recipe, and went home.

Nicole Gerber at work.

Much closer to her party — while measuring the ingredients — she ran out of cumin.

“The thought of schlepping all the way out to Stop & Shop for one item was unappealing,” she says.

Christie’s was a long shot — it’s a country store, not a supermarket — but she called. John said, “Come on over! I have cumin. How much do you need?”

Two minutes later, he handed Nicole 2 containers filled with the spice.

She asked John how much she owed.

John smiled. “Nothing!” he said. “That’s what I’m here for.”

Nicole Gerber’s cumin.

Nicole has long loved everyone at Christie’s. The staff knows her name, and her kids’ names. They know her “usual” lunch order.

But that cumin story really takes the cake.

Frosty Bear’s Final Scoop

John Hooper — owner of Christie’s Country Store, which leases its gazebo to Frosty Bear ice cream — says:

I am saddened to inform you that Frosty Bear will not open this season. John Martin — aka Frosty — has hit some tough times, and must contract his operations.

I think it’s been a 7-year run. John came to me in 2009 when, as a graphic artist, he was having problems finding jobs. He rented the gazebo and, at the same time, worked for an hourly wage at the cafe in the Darien library. He would rush to us at 2 p.m. in order to open every day.

In time he bought the rights to the cafe, and opened a small ice cream shop in Monroe. His 2 daughters helped out in all locations.

frosty-bear

Frosty Bear at Christie’s Country Store, on Cross Highway.

Selling ice cream is not easy, and many more well-capitalized folks have entered the business selling ice cream or frozen yogurt.

Early last summer, John got tough news that his oldest daughter Lauren, who had just graduated from UConn, was diagnosed with MS. A month later, Alyson was having trouble scooping hard ice cream. She, a UConn student, was diagnosed with the disease as well.

Our customers may have noticed that he had trouble staffing the gazebo this year, and this is why. It got a little worse when his wife Ann, broke her ankle. The challenges have just become too great for him to stay open.

We are so sad to see him go. But you can find John at the Darien Library on the Post Road, and at 695 Main Street, (Rt 25), in Monroe.

Tween Time At Christie’s

It’s a typical day at Christie’s Country Store.

There’s a brief lull after the big lunchtime crowd (construction workers, work-at-home moms, stay-at-home dads).

Soon, Staples students cruise in: those with last period free, then those who don’t. For juniors parking at Wakeman, it’s a quick drive around the corner.

They’re followed by middle schoolers. Some walk over from Bedford; others are dropped off by Bedford and Coleytown buses.

Christie’s owner John Hooper loves all his customers. But he’s got a soft spot for the middle school tweens.

Four middle schoolers hung out the other day at Christie's -- near a menorah, moose and reindeer.

Four middle schoolers hang out at Christie’s — near a menorah, moose and reindeer.

He loves it even when 50 5th graders cram his Cross Highway place. They snack, they socialize, they act like kids. (Though John and his staff are tough on them about cleaning up after themselves, and behaving appropriately.)

Parents get a break by letting their kids hang out there. They know they’ll be safe and supervised. Joe — the afternoon manager (“he runs the afternoon program,” John jokes) knows everyone’s names, and what goes on in their lives. The middle schoolers love him.

In his 7 years as Christie’s owner, John has watched many children grow into young adults. After graduating from Staples (and college), they come back to say hi. And buy beer. (21 and over, of course!)

Say what you will about Westport — this is still, at its heart, a small town.

Of course, Christie’s is not the only place here where parents know their kids will be safe, and looked after lovingly. Elvira’s — in a very different neighborhood — is another.

If you’ve got a Christie’s or Elvira’s story — or want to give a shout-out to another neighborhood kids’ hangout — click “Comments” below. Let’s spread the “06880” spirit!

christies-3

 

The Only One On The Road

John Hooper snapped this photo earlier this morning, on his way to open up Christie’s Country Store.

March 5, 2015 - John Hooper

It’s a beautiful shot. But we’d like it so much more if today’s date was January — not March — 5.

 

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.

Christie’s Checks In

John Hooper — owner of Christie’s Country Store, the de facto community center on Cross Highway — reports:

I got up yesterday and wondered how I would get to the store. Irene had blocked most of the way down Congress Street and Cross Highway.

Sandy was a little kinder. At the top of the street she snapped the telephone pole workers replaced after Irene. But the rest was relatively smooth sailing.

I got there by 6:45. The generator was humming. I turned on the the ovens and coffee, and texted all my employees.

By 7:15, people started coming. Word must have gotten out because they didn’t stop.

Everyone was patient and grateful we were open. Eventually my wife and 10- year-old made it in to help. I was running from the grill to the cash register to the icebox (yes, we have ice).

At one point I looked up to see a customer and his girlfriend behind the counter making coffee. They didn’t leave their station for 2 hours!

It seemed like coffee, egg sandwiches and the cell phone charging station were the biggest hits.

Everyone was pleasant and understanding if things took a while. The last customer left about 7:30 p.m.

We are open now, with enough staff for normal breakfast and lunch. We hope to make a few dinner dishes for those who would like hot plates. We still have ice (a 2-bag limit, please). And yes, we even have a few D batteries as well.

800 People At A Pancake Breakfast? WTF!

On Sunday morning, the Wakeman Town Farm folks planned on 200 people for their fundraising pancake breakfast.

Okay, they hoped for 200 people.

Be careful what you wish for.

Starting early, crowds poured across the lawn.  They were hungry for pancakes.

Mike Aitkenhead (left) addresses the overflow crowd at Wakeman Town Farm.

Hungry to say hi to Mike and Carrie Aitkenhead, the once and future farm stewards.

Hungry to experience the farm on a gorgeous fall morning.

John Hooper — owner of Christie’s Country Store just down the road apiece — had been cooking since 5 a.m.  He’d hired extra staff.

His 1st batch — for 60 people — went quickly.

Then another.  And another.  And another.

The WTF’s runner flew back and forth.  It was like the fish and loaves.

The Town Farm organizers loved it — but grew worried.

John never stopped cooking.

Finally — there is only so much pancake batter in the world — John ran out.  The last people waiting in line said, well, “WTF.”  They offered to let the Town Farm folks keep the money as a donation.

And then — another miracle! — John sent over the final pancakes.

Two of the 800 happy pancake breakfast eaters.

It was successful.  It was incredible.  It was a great tribute to the new group running Wakeman Town Farm; to the Aitkenheads; to everyone who believes in community agriculture.

And it never would have happened without John and Renee Hooper, who cooked, hired help, donated condiments, time and love.

Of course, there comes a time to pay the piper food provider.

That time came yesterday.

John had offered to cook up to 200 breakfasts free.  The Town Farm group would cover anything over that, at cost.

Monday afternoon, John sent over his bill.

Uh-oh.

Are you ready?

It was…$0.

Zero.  Nothing.  Nada.

Yes,  Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

His name is John Hooper.

And he lives just an apple’s toss away from Wakeman Town Farm, on Cross Highway.

No matter where you live in Westport, feel free to wander over.

And say, “Howdy, neighbor.  Thanks!

Not Just Another Farmer’s Market

Christie’s is 85 years young this year.

To celebrate, the country market returns to its (ho ho) roots.

Every Sunday through November, the rustic store on residential Cross Highway hosts a farmer’s market.  Like the popular market itself, it’s both funky and fun.

And get this:  Christie’s owners John and Renee Hooper don’t charge the farmers or other vendors a cent.

Nor do they ask for any percentage of sales.

“We’re just trying to serve the community,” Renee says.

They’re doing more than trying.  They’re succeeding.

A small part of the large bounty at Christie's farmer's market.

This past Sunday, delighted customers — many with young kids — wandered among the dozen or so stalls.  Of course there’s the usual fruits and veggies:  cucumbers, peas, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, berries, Swiss chard, arugula and more.

It’s all Connecticut grown.  The farmer from Smith’s Acres in Niantic says everything is fresh picked:  “Last thing last night, or early this morning.”  It doesn’t get fresher than that.

But there’s more.  One vendor offers beef, pork and salmon.  Nothin’ But Foods sells ginger lemon cashew snack bars, and honey-sweetened granola.

There’s honey, goat soaps, maple syrup, hot and cool pickles.  Mirabelle —  most recently on Main Street — is at Christie’s, selling cheeses out of a mobile unit.

Plus candles and art cards.  And a pair of singer/guitar players, Dave Allen and Mark Ehmann, whose soft music  lends just the right background to the market.

The duo plays next to Frosty Bear, the ice cream gazebo that gives new meaning to coconut chocolate chip and other amazing flavors.

“Families love this,” Renee says proudly.  “And the farmers are thrilled.”

Frank and his olive oils.

“People are so nice,” says Frank, of the Olive Oil Factory.  “Everyone is friendly, and the owners are very easy-going.

“There are no hassles.  Most places like this have all these silly rules.”

And, Frank adds, “I appreciate that they don’t use plastic bags.”

Back in the day — 1926, to be exact — Christie’s started out as a market for goods grown on the farm surrounding it.  It was a true “farmer’s market.”

Today it hosts a 2011 version of that same idea.  The goat soap and granola may be new — but if Christie Masiello magically returned to Cross Highway, she’d definitely recognize the place.

And the peas and beans.

(Christie’s farmer’s market hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.  Coming this fall:  harvest goods — and wine.)