A new home for natural alternatives opens in Avondale
● By J. Chambless
Baker Ilon Silverman prepares four varieties of bread each day, as well as specialty breads made from traditional recipes.
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The Avondale Natural Foods market and cafe, which opened quietly late last month, sits at the crossroads of a village that's due for a renaissance. Sitting in the airy, sunny cafe on Monday morning, store manager Arthur Wayne couldn't help beaming about what he sees as an impending boom in a town that hasn't seen much commercial development in a long time.
Wayne, who previously operated a natural foods store on Route 1, was looking for a new location when he happened to meet the wife of Bill Basciani, whose family has been in the mushroom business in Avondale since 1924. The Bascianis owned the former National Bank of Avondale, an imposing stone structure that fronts busy Route 41 and had been conspicuously vacant for the past seven years.
“Avondale is a sleepy community, but if you look at the history, it was a hub for people coming through the area,” Wayne said. "The Bascianis bought the bank because they knew that, one day, Avondale was going to pop like Kennett Square has.”
With a team of outside investors leading the way, Wayne was hired as the manager for a new market and cafe. But when it came to the former bank building, it was not exactly love at first sight.
“When I first looked at the building, I said, 'It's a bank. It's going to cost a fortune to re-do,'” Wayne said, laughing. "But we told them what we wanted, and they did this beautiful project."
Bill Basciani believed in the huge building's potential, and he signed on to completely redesign the interior space to hold a 2,000-square-foot grocery store at the back, and a hip, inviting cafe facing busy Route 41.
“There are 70,000 cars a day up and down that road in the summer,” Basciani said, saying that he wanted to give Avondale a social and commercial hub to kickstart a new era. "My family's been here for so long, we've got stock in Avondale. We want to see it do well," he said. "Nobody had wanted to do anything in town here because they were waiting to see who was going to go first. So we did."
With a crew of construction workers already working for the Basciani company, Bill used his artistic gifts and renovation know-how to rip out the office space and reveal the 1800s architectural details. "We took out what didn't work and kept all the best design features," he said. "There's a nice blend of wood and metal and stone."
One immovable feature is the1886 bank vault, so Basciani kept the intricate door and locking mechanism on display. Customers can sit inside the vault to enjoy coffee and a snack if they want. There are also wooden tables and chairs in the cafe that have a homey, mismatched appeal that invites customers to come and sit for a while. There's free wi-fi throughout the building as well.
Wayne has 25 years of experience in running natural food stores, and he has smoothly established a market that offers everything a family might need, not just specialized vitamins or produce. There's organic Vermont Coffee, a wide range of teas, cereals, ethnic foods, frozen dinners, meats, canned goods, snacks and chips, and candy with no artificial colors or additives. A full line of vitamins and supplements is on the way. There are tables at one end of the market, so customers can enjoy a snack, or kids can sit while their parents shop.
A space between the cafe and market is where Ilon Silverman creates breads that use organic ingredients and follow ancient recipes. The loaves are unique, not shaped by machine, and are displayed on an old wooden rack. There's a modern European oven with stone surfaces inside, but everything else is done the old-fashioned way, by hand. By Silverman's hands, that is.
He rents the space at the market and provides every bread served in the cafe – from sweet rolls to sandwich bread to the airy pizza creations that are served cold as a delicious to-go lunch. Customers can also buy his breads by the loaf at the market counter.
“I take some breads out to gourmet stores and restaurants as well," he said. "I'd like to do farmer's markets, too." His breads are naturally leavened from a sourdough starter that sits in a bowl on his counter at the bakery. Baking a loaf can take up to a couple of days, he explained. “The long fermentation is the traditional way of making bread, that our grandparents and great-grandparents used to use,” he said. “It's made in micro-batches, hand-mixed, hand-shaped. Most modern bread is just puffed up in an hour or two with a lot of yeast and hot water.”
Silverman said he's looking into growing his own wheat in southern Chester County, meaning that everything from the grain to milling to the finished product will be handled by him. “I'm working with people who will plant specific heirloom varieties for me," he said. "People with gluten allergies will do better with it. The wheat nowadays is not what it used to be. It's modified to be easier to plant, so one person can plant 1,000 acres."
In the cafe, a juice bar offers delicious blends of fruits and vegetables that even vegetable-averse people will love. There's a homey, welcoming atmosphere, and the staff knows the names of the customers.
“We wanted to compete with the larger corporations, like Giant or Whole Foods,” Wayne said. “We wanted to be more of a complete store where people can get all their food, and get amazing bread that's 10 times better than other places. There's no microwave in the cafe. We do everything from scratch -- all our soups, all our pastries. And it's cheap."
Large chains like Whole Foods are working towards eliminating genetically modified products, Wayne said, but at Avondale Natural Foods – without the layers of bureaucracy of large chain stores – products can be added quickly at the request of customers. And he has complete control over what is stocked on the shelves.
“We don't have any genetically modified products in here. And if we did have one, we'd remove it immediately," he said. "We don't have to wait for a corporate decision. We make decisions on the spot. The shopping experience here is more personal, more one-on-one. We eat this way, and we sell the products that we'd like to eat.”
There are eight people working at the store and cafe, Wayne said. The business also offers a chiropractic office staffed several days a week run by Dr. Robert Sybesma, and upstairs there's a massage room and an area that will soon house a specialist in skin care.
The store opened quietly while Wayne and the staff got their bearings, but an official grand opening will be held in late March. The store's social media presence is exploding, Wayne said, as customers photograph their plates and send the word to their friends that there's a natural alternative in Avondale.
On Monday morning, a woman stopped in at the cafe and smiled broadly when she saw a reporter at the counter. “A friend of mine bought some of the pear bread pudding, and she was going to take it to a friend, but it was so good she had to eat it all,” she said.
Wayne said he will have theme food nights in the cafe, as well as small events like book signings, or live musicians performing in a corner of the space. The menu will expand as well.
"In southern Chester County, Avondale is more like a hub," Wayne said. "You come through here to get to Wilmington, to get to Lancaster. There's more foot traffic out there, there's some new business coming in. We feel like this is going to be the new Kennett."
Avondale Natural Foods (122 Pennsylvania Ave., Avondale) is open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit www.facebook.com/avondalenaturalfoods.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.