Norm’s Beer and Wine, just off Maple Avenue in Vienna, is the kind of cozy, friendly shop that develops a loyal clientele. And when those folks found out that Norm’s landlord wants him out of there, they got mad.
Norman Yow opened the store in 1998, in the same mall where That’s Amore and, before that, Joe Theismann’s restaurants came and went. Now, a specialty grocery called The Fresh Market, making its first foray into the D.C. area, is taking over the former restaurant space, even though there’s a Giant grocery directly across the street.
Yow thought having a new grocery would be great, even if they sold beer and wine, if only to increase traffic in the mall. The Fresh Market didn’t see it that way.
Yow’s landlord, Finmarc Management of Bethesda, called in February to say that his lease would not be renewed when it expires in 2013. The Fresh Market apparently was not big on fresh competition, he was told.
“I was really upset by it,” Yow said. “We didn’t see it coming.” An irate customer asked, “Are they going to try to close down Giant too?”
Yow said his 2,100-square foot store had a hard time getting traction for a number of years. “But two or three years ago, we really hit our stride,” he said. “The last two years have been double-digit growth years. It’s taken a long time.”
When the word seeped out to customers that Norm’s was facing closure, the reaction was strong. A Facebook page went up, Save Norm’s Beer and Wine, quickly drawing more than 1,000 fans and a long string of vitriolic comments aimed at Fresh Market.
A petition drive to convince Fresh Market to reconsider was also launched, and stacks of signatures have already been gathered inside the store. Yow has not been involved in either the Facebook or petition drives.
Finmarc Management did not return a call seeking comment. But Fresh Market has been monitoring the unrest from their headquarters in Greensboro, N.C., and issued this statement Wednesday:
“Thank you for the opportunity to provide a statement regarding our site in Vienna. We are excited about opening our new store there; however, we are unable to comment further at this time as it is our practice not to discuss the terms of our lease.”
The customers were not so reticent.
Peter Hartogs said, “The people from Greensboro better realize Vienna isn’t the country, and an institution like Norm’s along with its many loyal customers and friends aren’t going to bend over and take the ‘wrath’ of Goliath. Coming into a new town, one must earn business, not demand it by pushing a competitor out. It’s not what I would consider good faith in starting out in a great town, and is exactly what is wrong with society. ”
Longtime customer Rebecca Ballenger said, “This is a small town, they’ve been here a long time and they represent Vienna. We don’t need any more of our small businesses kicked out. Too many of us are already gone.”
Yow, 51, has plenty of time to figure out his next move, obviously. Except he didn’t want to make a next move.
He’d worn a suit and tie, worked at a desk, made some money. But he dreaded Monday mornings. “I just decided to make a change, go back to something I was comfortable doing,” Yow said. “And I’m a happier person because of it.”
And there was a chance Norm’s would last a long time. His seven-year-old son was asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, and he replied that he wanted to take over the store, Yow said. Then the youth turned to his Dad and said, “But you have to show me what to do.”