Spic & Span Market: Feed the people
In 1928, upon his acceptance of the presidential nomination, Herbert Hoover stated: "We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us."
Well, not exactly. The Great Depression was flexing its muscles in the wings. But in 1928, things were still hunky dory. A fine men's wool suit cost around 20 bucks and a postage stamp, a mere 2 cents. For amusement, Americans flocked to the theaters with 35 cents of their $28 average weekly wage to see Mickey Mouse in Disney's Steamboat Willie.
It was also the year that the little food market, known as Spic & Span Market, first began serving Southport from a corner location in the middle of town. There, it putted along quietly until the mid-40s when it was snapped up by fellow named Charlie Nichols. Nichols was a lover of life, women and horses, a bon vivant and beloved local character.
In the early '70s, Stan Perham, one of Charlie's employees, purchased the market and hired a high school kid named Greg Peck for the dish-washing job with a shot at promotion to butcher. Several years later, Greg earned his managerial stripes when, in 1979, Stan opened the Firehouse Deli in Fairfield center. Spread thin between two thriving businesses, Stan had to make a choice. And that's how Greg and his new bride, Lori, became the fourth owners of the Spic & Span.
When the Pecks took over, the market was situated directly next door to a competitor called Zamarys. This proximity wasn't a problem because in those days, there was enough business to go around. Forty years ago, gas stations didn't double as a food markets.
I spoke with the Pecks in the market on a weekday afternoon. Though this was the slow time of day, the store hummed along with a quiet energy. Customers of every walk of life made their way in and out. A couple of landscape guys pulled up in a flatbed truck for coffee followed moments later by a seriously black Mercedes Benz sedan driven by an impeccably coiffed lady of obvious pedigree. This was retail ecology at its best.
While the butchers were butchering and Lori was enthusiastically mixing a big bowl of deliciousness, Greg took a moment away from his work to talk about his early apprenticeship under Stan.
"Back then, when regular customers came in, Stan would know that Mrs. Archibald-Smith (name changed to protect the innocent) would like her roast cut just so. So when Stan would give me a chance to serve her, she'd try to catch his eye as if to say, `Is the kid ok?' Now, I'm going through the same thing with my staff," he says.
"And the tastes have changed dramatically. Years ago, there was demand for sophisticated things like Major Grey's Chutney and capers and hearts of palm. That kind of went away for a while, now it's all coming back, I don't know why."
"Food Network," I volunteer.
"You know what, you might be right." says Greg.
Even though Greg and Lori clearly love what they do and always put their customers first, I wonder if, over the years, there were a few patrons with reputations for being, shall we say, a wee bit cantankerous. Greg takes a moment to think. Discretion is required here. "Well," he finally says, "there was one customer who received a sandwich that was not cut in half. Ten years later, we are still reminded, every single time, to cut it -- diagonally!"
At this point, Greg's lovely wife, Lori joins us. Lori is blessed with a saucy Irish/Italian demeanor and a smile that makes mean, cranky people forget what they were upset about. She is responsible, in great part, for the huge success of the market's prepared food department.
Asked what changes she has observed over the decades, she replies, "We used to get whole groups of ladies from Southport who would come here to meet after the tennis club, the golf club or the yacht club. They'd gossip while they decided what they were going to cook for dinner that night. Not so much any more, that was the end of the old, gracious money."
These days the unregulated spending of the last decade has been curtailed and third generation youngsters with carefully monitored house charges are more responsible with their purchases.
There is one thing that hasn't changed. Greg and Lori's single greatest pleasure in running their business is seeing the kids they served as tots grow up, go to college, and come back with their babies.
I mention to Lori that I have been observing a common thread that seems to run among long-standing local businesses. In every case, the owner's unwavering primary concern is for the welfare of their most loyal customers.
Lori says, "It's true. When times are tough, maybe our customers are buying hamburger instead of filet mignon -- but they're still buying it from us."
Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of articles by Downey about long-standing Fairfield and Southport businesses and organizations. If you have an idea for a story, please contact us at email@example.com or (203) 255-4561, ext. 111.