Bringing Landenberg back to the dinner table
● By Richard Gaw
Mark Spena has not slept well lately.
For the past several weeks, with the enthusiasm and anticipation of a child the night before Christmas, Spena has awoken at his Cool Springs home in Wilmington and driven 22 minutes to Landenberg, while recipes and dreams and aspirations flip like pages in his mind.
To that degree, Spena is much like every new business owner, but there is an added caveat to all of this, which has to do with his inheriting the reigns of a 146-year-old landmark -- a valued heirloom that has served as the social centerpiece of this rural enclave for several generations.
If that sounds like a large responsibility, it is one, because sometime this month, Mark Spena will become the new proprietor of the Landenberg Store.
“I have so many ideas for this store, and I think it may take me three months of being here before I anticipate calming down and getting over the high of starting this business,” Spena said. “I'm just so pumped, and I want to do everything right.”
Since it was first opened in 1872, the Landenberg Store has been defined by locals as the unofficial – or official, depending on varying opinions – epicenter of Landenberg, and its personality has been shaped by the proprietors who have carved their niche into its walls. For several generations, it's been a coffee klatch meeting place; a stopover for bicyclists and motorcyclists traversing through southern Chester County; a convenience store for must-have provisions; and a daily stage for decades of town criers who came to share the news or hear about it.
Several years ago, the Landenberg Store figured prominently in the dinner plans of several locals, who would flock to the store on their way home from work with a kit bag of Caesar salad and a few Delmonico steaks, or perhaps a few servings of maple-glazed salmon. Spena's menu promises to be a kicked-up version of that introduction. His menu will feature prepared dinner entrees, an ever-changing menu of pre-made pasta dishes and sauces, daily soups, made-to-order salads and sandwiches, and an assortment of coffees, cappuccino and espresso. The Landenberg Store will still carry basic staples like milk, bread and household products, and will continue to offer a lending library and penny candy.
“If a couple comes in here on a given night, the husband can get the chicken frittata and the wife gets the filet, and you leave here for $30,” he said. “What would these two meals have cost you at a restaurant, with a tip and a bottle of wine? This way, you can eat like kings and queens, save some money, add some convenience, and you won't even have to leave Landenberg.”
For those customers who still want a simple sandwich at lunch time, they will have a place at Spena's table, too.
“I've heard from so many tradesmen and construction guys who have come by here during the transition, and some have said to me, 'You mean this isn't gonna be a hoagie joint anymore?'” he said. “I told them, 'Trust me when I tell you that when you come in here, I'm going to wow you.' I tell them they will have my meatballs and my Godfather Panini, and they're going to bite into it, and their eyes are going to roll back in their heads so much that I am going to have to resuscitate them.
“Even if they order a grilled cheese sandwich, that sandwich will have lump crab in it.”
Spena will not be the only new addition at the Landenberg Store. Bill Skalish of Landenberg Village, LLC and the owner of the store along with his wife, Beth, said that the closing of the store in 2015 led to a nearly three-year, top-to-bottom renovation, based on recommendations from the Chester County Department of Health, the Department of Environmental Protection and New Garden Township. The store's interior now includes new insulated flooring, metallic shelving that's replacing the former wooden shelves, improved lighting, a new fan, a compressor, a gas stove, a double-door sub-zero freezer, a confection oven, two new soup wells and microwave ovens, as well as a new office for Spena.
Skalish said that the DEP recently conducted a water testing of the store that meets all code standards; and that the township conducted a recent inspection that led to the conversion of an outdoor storage area to an indoor storage area.
A former resident of Chester County, Spena has spent the last 13 years as the executive chef and director of host ministries at the Traber Center at Camp Sankanac in Spring City, Pa. Previously, he was a corporate dining chef at the Compass Group and began his culinary career at four-star restaurants in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware.
Spena was introduced to Bill and Beth Skalish by his wife, Lesley, a few years ago.
“Bill had heard of my work through some other people, and so he told me, 'You ought to open the Landenberg Store,'” Spena said. “I was hesitant at first, but then we talked again a year later, and here I am. I feel in so many ways that I have led a blessed life, and opportunities such as this have fallen into my lap.”
“From the time I met him, I knew that Mark brought with him a lot of energy and drive, and not only that, he's passionate about food,” said Bill Skalish. “I knew from the start that he'd do a fabulous job to prepare quality food for the community.”
“We want to bring the Landenberg Store back to the center of our community,” Beth Skalish said. “That's been lost for a few years now, and we'd like it to come back, so that bikers and kids and parents and families can create a new chapter for the store. Being a good neighbor is very important to us.”
For Spena, who will be joined by a six-person staff that will include sous chef Greg Powell, becoming the new proprietor of the Landenberg Store is like being given the keys to a culinary blank canvas that will take shape in ways far beyond an ever-changing variety. It's the chance, he said, to convert the historic landmark into his private kitchen and invite people in for conversation, camaraderie, and an invitation for the residents of Landenberg to get back to the dinner table.
“This will be a tasting store,” Spena said. “I plan to go through 300 spoons a day. I will tell my customers, 'Taste this.' This is what I do when I'm at home. When I make my gravy, I always ask people to taste it. I'm not doing it to make a sale. It's just what I do. Comedians like to make people laugh. I like to make people happy.
“I want the people of Landenberg to feel like they can come here and feel comfortable, but I also want them to know that I want to grow them. Many have never had raw tuna or Cajun shrimp, and many have never enjoyed quinoa, or olive bread with goat butter. I'm here to tell them, 'Taste it.'”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.