Gourmet grocer Balducci's, a Manhattan landmark that has been under siege since its purchase by Bethesda-based Sutton Place Gourmet, closed its Greenwich Village flagship store Tuesday night. The only notice to customers: "Thank you for your many years of patronage" signs taped to the store's large picture windows a few hours before the closing.
When the last customer left the once-trendsetting store at 9 p.m., Sutton officials told the 44 workers that the shop would close immediately and offered them severance packages or positions at other stores owned by Sutton. Today, workers in white smocks were seen loading merchandise into a Sutton truck and trading goodbye wishes and tight handshakes.
"This is probably the toughest decision that I had to make with the company," said Clifford Smith Jr., Sutton Place's chief executive.
Smith said that Sutton is searching for a larger Balducci's space in downtown Manhattan.
"It's important that Balducci's be in New York," he said. "The Balducci's brand is a very strong brand."
The closing may have seemed sudden to customers, but not to officials at Vornado Realty Trust, to whom Sutton sold the Sixth Avenue Balducci's building last July. Vornado spokesman Steven Rubenstein and Sutton's Smith said the building sale included a six-month lease for Balducci's. "You always want the tenant to stay," Rubenstein said.
The Greenwich Village closing may mark the end of a fine-foods era that started in 1916 when Italian immigrants Louis and Maria Balducci ran a pushcart in Brooklyn. By 1948, the family opened a Village greengrocer that grew into a gourmet foods Mecca for the city's finest chefs and food lovers. But rising competition and family squabbles led to its decline. Then, in 1999, the founder's son, Andy Balducci and his wife, Nina, sold the 5,000-square-foot shop to Bethesda-based Sutton Place Gourmet.
Sutton, which operates six Suttons, four Hay Day Farm Markets in Connecticut and New York, and Alexandria's Blue Point Grill, added showcases and better lighting and opened a Lincoln Center outpost of Balducci's. But the company soon started shopping for 10,000 to 15,000 square feet of space to compete with New York's larger gourmet market rivals.
Saddened Balducci's loyalists shared their disappointment today. Aaron Feinsot, a retired New York University dean and Balducci's customer for 45 years, had heard from the deli man who sliced his salmon that the shop might close. But when he stopped by on Tuesday for milk and bananas, he didn't know the end was imminent.
"The inventory was there," he said. "The employees were scooting around."