In the News: Philadelphia Inquirer — Gladwyne gourmet-to-go market is going away

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By Kathy Boccella
Inquirer Staff Writer

Even among the wealthy, a $25 bottle of olive oil seems like too much of a luxury in these jittery, bonus-deprived days.

Which is why the Delaware Market House — a gourmet grocery in Gladwyne that has catered to the formerly free-spending inhabitants of one of the ritziest zip codes in the country for 40 years — is closing tomorrow.

“People are watching their finances, and when they’re looking to make cuts, gourmet food is the first to go,” said a puffy-eyed Kim Alvarez, 39, who owns the store with her husband, Edgar, 42. “They think, Do I really need that rotisserie chicken for $7.99 or can I pick one up at Costco?”

Costco might be cheaper, but Market House customers rhapsodize over the quality of the shrimp and filets mignons, the friendliness of the staff who carry your bags to your car, the convenience of calling Mike the delivery guy and asking him to bring over a quart of strawberries, which he does even if you’re not home, because he has your security code. That, as they say, is priceless.

Except when it costs too much, which, sigh, it apparently does when the portfolio is plunging and the private-school bill is waiting to be paid.

Apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald, but the rich really are no different from you and me: They’re broke, too.

“You hear stories – they lost money in a hedge fund, they’re watching stocks drop,” said Alvarez, sitting at the front of the shop on Righters Mill Road, where she accepted condolences from somber customers. “It affects everyone.”

Business has dropped off about 30 percent since the fall, she said.

Gladwyne’s enviable profile – 5,400 mostly older, married residents living in 6.2 lightly trammeled square miles with average household incomes of $258,000 and houses valued at $602,000, according to the most recent census – would suggest that if anyone can afford $18 for a tiny jar of white truffles during such hard times, it would be these people.

Its zip code has been ranked third-wealthiest in the country, ahead of such swank locales as Scarsdale, N.Y.; Beverly Hills, Calif.; and Greenwich, Conn. The town’s secluded estates are a magnet for local celebrities and sports stars. But the tranquil community might be showing a few cracks.

Home sales were down 20 percent in 2008 from the previous year. A cheese store that went out of business two years ago is still empty. Even the Super Fresh, which built a fancy addition, isn’t as crowded as it used to be, residents say.

“Nobody is entertaining, nobody is spending,” said Alvarez, as a steady stream of bargain-hunters poured into the store for a going-out-of-business sale, grabbing bags of boutique chips and imported vinegars as if they were snatching giant bottles of shampoo off the shelf at Wal-Mart.

Loyal customers say they are devastated that the shop is closing, both for the Alvarezes and themselves.

“I’m going to have to cook. That’s a bummer,” Margie Wildstein groaned when she heard the news, heading out of the door of the small store, which features prepared foods on one side of the store and grocery items on the other.

“Three or four times a week,” said Diane Gross, when asked how often she and her husband, Bob, picked up dinner at the store. “It was a wonderful, wonderful convenience.”

“Their filets were unbelievable. First class and top quality,” she said, her basket loaded with quesadillas, potato chips, capers, and Lean Cuisines. The Alvarezes “were wonderful chefs. We look at them as family.”

The market has been a fixture in Gladwyne for 40 years, but photographs show a market at that location in the early part of the century, said Kim Alvarez.

She started working at the store in 2000, and when the former owner decided to sell in 2004, she and her husband, both chefs, snapped it up.

It took a few years to turn the business around, but they say they had been doing well. Then the faltering economy collided with their busy holiday catering season, which kicks off in September with Rosh Hashanah and runs through Easter.

The Alvarezes tried reducing inventory, laying off two workers, curtailing hours, even offering to sell the business, but by last weekend it seemed they had run out of options.

After one last catering event on Saturday they decided on Sunday to shut down. On Monday they notified their remaining five employees. Their next venture, which they are already planning though they do not have a location, will be strictly prepared food, say the couple, who live in Havertown and have two children.

“Everyone is cutting back,” said Carolyn Conti, head librarian at the Gladwyne Library across the street, noting that she had not been buying quite as many gourmet goodies in recent months.

Still, the library staff will be lost without their favorite lunch stop, especially with few other options in town. “Does Super Fresh make sandwiches?” she asked.

Forget about lunch. Ellyn Saft was having 28 for Passover and no place else to get her produce. With the holiday on a Wednesday next month, she would have ordered groceries from the Market House on the previous Monday. Her only other alternative, the Ardmore Farmers Market, is closed on Monday.

“What am I going to do?” she said.

Saft, a freelance fashion writer, has been getting food delivered from the store for 25 years, and even has the delivery man’s cell number on her contact list.

“Mike has my security code,” she said. “He would even put the groceries away. If I forgot a box of strawberries, I’d call him up and he’d bring it right away.”

Without the store, “it’s a whole new world.”

Not for Ana Biddle, who has no intention of doing without the delectable treats she regularly buys for her and her husband, who own a manufacturing plant in King of Prussia.

“I’m not cutting back. Why should I?” she said, as she loaded her basket with raspberry vinegar and India relish.

Not Lisa Pauciello, who said she was a regular at the Market House before her finances went south. “You can get this stuff at Trader Joe’s for a quarter of the price,” she said.