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Philadelphia area's gourmet groceries: Shop, dine, hang

In 1993, when Max Hansen opened a gourmet market in Buckingham, some customers just didn't get it. They weren't familiar with the concept, and they balked at the prices.

Developer Dan Greenberg (left) is the owner and Chad Williams the chef at Tela's Market & Kitchen.
Developer Dan Greenberg (left) is the owner and Chad Williams the chef at Tela's Market & Kitchen.Read moreMICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer

In 1993, when Max Hansen opened a gourmet market in Buckingham, some customers just didn't get it. They weren't familiar with the concept, and they balked at the prices.

But in the 20 years since, appetites have changed.

In May, Hansen took over the old Carversville General Store, a long-standing but unambitious mainstay with a post office, and transformed it into the Max Hansen Carversville Grocery. He added a cafe, organic foods, local groceries, prepared foods, and occasional chef's dinners.

This time, the reception has been warmer; even post-office sales are up 30 percent, he said. Hansen believes it's revitalizing the Bucks County town.

"I did this for my community as much as for myself. I sensed this void," he said. "Now, there's a buzz again."

He's not the only one building a buzz. The concept of chef-powered gourmet markets that get a second wind around dinnertime has been spreading across the region.

The last year brought a bumper crop of such businesses. Aimee Olexy of Talula's Table - the market/dining destination that arguably inspired the trend - brought her take on the idea to Washington Square with Talula's Daily, opened in July.

Developer Dan Greenberg opened Tela's Market in Fairmount in November, recruiting chef Chad Williams, a veteran of the Jose Garces restaurants, to cook prepared food as well as intimate, multicourse dinners.

Variations on the theme have also popped up in the suburbs, including an offshoot of the Little Tuna in Haddonfield, and the Farm and Fisherman Tavern & Market in Cherry Hill.

All these establishments share a critical core value: They're neighborhood places, there to serve and even strengthen the community.

They may offer $15 glasses of wine and $50-a-head dinners, but they also reflect a belief that seasonal, quality local food should be available at any time of day and at a range of price points.

According to Olexy, two factors are driving the proliferation of local cheese cases and haute breakfast sandwiches. One is that some of the same chefs who drove Philly's restaurant renaissance over the last couple of decades are aging and seeking calmer lifestyles.

The other is that customers are thinking more deeply about food than ever before.

Williams echoes that observation. "People love to cook, and it's becoming more of a popular thing - a pop thing almost."

And, said Greenberg, the way they're shopping reflects that.

"They want to know more about the food they're eating and purchasing," he said.

So the chef is taking on new role: a curator of home pantries.

To that end, Tela's has not just a cafe and a prepared-foods case, but also a dairy case and a produce section.

Tela's meat and fish counters are the fastest-growing departments. Williams said he believes customers are drawn by the service as much as by the quality; about half the staff are trained chefs, able to offer tips and recipes.

Todd Fuller, who with partner Joshua Lawler opened the Farm and Fisherman Tavern & Market in November, is betting there's similar interest on the Jersey side.

He said the market offers many of the very things he and his family used to travel to Philly for: a deli case stocked with house-cured meats, salads, and sides, and a cafe serving coffee, breakfast, and lunch. The market shares space with a tavern, presenting opportunities for synergy.

"We're cross-utilizing everything," Fuller said. "Like the turkey on your sandwich? We roast it here and sell it by the pound to take home."

Mostly, he wants people to think of the space as their own - as a hangout, a meeting place, or a daily respite over coffee. The vision is equal parts innovation and throwback: the old-time general store remade for today's foodies.

That sounds simple, but it's a tall order.

In the last year, some market experiments were quietly ended.

Garces Trading Co., for one, scrapped its deli counter in favor of a bar (though a PLCB Wine Boutique and a few shelves of provisions remain, vestiges of the market concept).

In Old City, Fork owner Ellen Yin replaced her market cafe, Fork Etc., with a restaurant called High Street on Market.

Even while Fork Etc. saw plenty of cafe patrons, the artisanal foods and housewares that lined the walls never sold very well.

"I think people were confused by it," Yin said. "People were focused on getting a quick meal. From a business perspective, why keep investing in what people don't want?"

Olexy agreed that this type of business has unique challenges. It requires just as much attention to detail and customer service as a restaurant, for far smaller, more incremental sales.

And the business model is still emerging, she said.

"There's no map written for this kind of business."

Plus, she added, one thing that makes businesses like hers special is a certain, rather unbusinesslike tolerance for confusion.

At Talula's Daily, customers could assemble an entire cheese board - including artisan cheeses, fresh baguettes, honey, preserves, and even wooden cutting boards - but they'd have to browse a while to find everything. Or, they might come for their morning coffee for weeks before realizing there's also a late-night "secret supper club."

Olexy likes to let customers discover the market. Make it too organized, or make the menu too predictable, and it loses that Talula's magic.

"I believe you've got to leave some negative space," Olexy said.