Tag Archives: Renee Hooper

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.

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.

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.)

Christie’s Continues

From its founding in 1926 through the end of the 20th century, Christie’s Country Store had strong Westport roots.  The Masiello family — first Christie herself, then her nephew Don — owned the Cross Highway landmark, for nearly 7 decades.

Christie’s is still around — and its Westport roots are deeper than ever.

John Hooper — who bought the place this fall — has a family deed dating back to the Indians.  He’s kept the Jazz Age Masiello photos on the wall — and added a genealogy chart of the Nash’s, 1 of Westport’s founding families.  An old chest bears the name Sipplerley — another famed local name.

Amy Violette poses with chef Dan Renzulli's creations.

New chef Dan Renzulli — how’s that for another old-time Westport family? — laid out a great spread last night, introducing guests to the catering menu.  There was tempura scallop and spring onion with lemon cilantro cream; crab and asparagus beignet with orange beurre blanc; grilled tenderloin of lamb with arugula and peppercorn demi-glace; smoked salmon napoleon, and more.

But don’t worry — Christie’s hasn’t gone all frou-frou.  You can still buy sandwiches, burgers, salads and burritos.  There’s a breakfast menu — hey, the tables might make a great spot to hang out and drink coffee! — and on weekends, a flat-screen TV shows cartoons for kids while parents shop and schmooze.

“We want to give people more than they expect,” John’s wife Renee Hooper said last night.

They do.  The Hoopers, Nashes and Sipperleys of the 1600s might not understand bagels.  But they would be proud.