For nearly 100 years, through name changes (Old Mill Grocery, Kenny’s, Elvira’s, Joey’s by the Shore) and changing trends (market, deli, ice cream shop), a small wooden building has served Old Mill neighbors, beachgoers, joggers, bicyclists, workers, and anyone else passing by.
It closed several months ago. By New Year’s, its fate looked bleak. No one was interested in reopening a business. The location — yards from the water, at the foot of Compo Hill — made it ripe for a residential buyer.
Like the restaurant-turned-home diagonally across the street, it looked like the small lot would soon be filled with a huge house.
But now it seems the Old Mill Grocery will live again.
A few dozen neighbors — and other who grew up nearby, or remember the importance of the store, or just want to preserve a bit of old Westport — have united to help save the landmark.
And they’re doing it in a creative, innovative, very win-win way. Their priority is to save the café/market, then form a non-profit organization (the application is already underway). The goal is to break even, and serve the community.
And they’ll do it by offering training and employment for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
All they need is $1.3 million. But they need it by April 1.
The good news: They’re more than three-quarters of the way there. Without any public announcement, $975,000 has already been pledged.
The core group that’s done the heavy lifting is a who’s who of Westport: Ian Warburg, Chris Tait, Jim Hood, Emily Ashken Zobl and Tommy Febbraio.
All except Hood grew up in Westport (but he and his family have lived by Compo Beach for 26 years). Tait is an RTM member, and lives nearby. All 5 are deeply committed to saving this local institution.
For months, owners Hal and Betsy Kravitz shopped the property to 30 or so potential business operators. None were interested.
Discouraged, the couple felt they had no choice but to sell to a residential developer — against their wishes. When Hood, Tait, Warburg and others heard the news, they swung into action.
The Kravitzes listened. They wanted to work with the neighborhood group. But they could not wait forever. They proposed a fair, reasonable — but relatively quick — deadline for funding.
The group got commitments. They began the 501(c)(3) process.
Febbraio — a 1970 Staples High School graduate who was raised near Longshore — was a key link. A successful restaurateur who knows his way around Fairfield County real estate, he offered advice about the business, as well as an introduction to Fairfield County Bank. They agreed to back the project.
The non-profit component is also crucial. Eighty percent of disabled people are unemployed, Hood says. The market can empower intellectually and physically disabled people, and others who are often marginalized, not just with employment and training, but by buying products from Sweet P Bakery and The Porch, which also hires and trains disabled workers.
That giving-back-to-the-community model offers a nod, in a way, to Kenny Montgomery, the store’s proprietor from the 1950s through early ’80s. When he died, longtime customers were stunned to learn he had bequeathed $500,000 to the Westport YMCA.
Now comes outreach to the broader community. The organizers are seeking commitments from others, to reach the funding goal. A GoFundMe page went live yesterday (click here).
The hope is for a soft launch this summer. As the business grows, they’ll respond to what customers want and need.
And what will the new store be called?
The final name has not been decided. But a strong favorite is Old Mill Grocery.
It’s simple. It’s historic — the name of the very first market there.
And its initials are perfect for this community effort, to help save a local institution from the developers’ claws.
That’s right: OMG.
(For more information, or to discuss a major contribution to the project, email Jim Hood and Ian Warburg: SaveElvirasMarket@gmail.com.)