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The sole grocery store in Essex, Colonial Fresh Market on Westbrook Road, is “temporarily closed,” according to handwritten signs affixed to the doors with blue painter’s tape. The market’s sudden closure has left residents, neighboring stores and local officials with unanswered questions.
“We were as perplexed as anyone,” said Essex First Selectman Norman Needleman. “It was kind of a quick thing.”
With dwindling supplies of merchandise, produce, and meats, there were reports in recent months that the business was having financial difficulties.
“They’ve been struggling for a while,” said Bill DiRienzo, manager of neighboring Essex Wine & Spirits. “The shelves have gone from kind of bare to empty…The deli casings had a curtain over it.”
The owner of the building, Matthew Prosser of Provident Bokum LLC, confirms the owner’s precarious financial situation.
“We’re in the process of trying to evict him,” said Prosser. “He has defaulted [in] his obligations under the lease agreement.”
The removal process, says Prosser, “I think will take longer than I would like. It’s going to depend on whether or not I can get a hold of the current owner and come to some sort of agreement to move things along.”
Prosser, who declined to reveal the store owner’s identity, says attempts to contact the owner have been unsuccessful.
The Courier’s attempts to identify the owner, who did not file a trade name with the Town of Essex and did not register with the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce, were unsuccessful.
Operations ground to a halt on Feb. 10 at approximately 11:30 am when employees were escorted out of the building by the general manager and local police, according to DiRienzo.
“They were very forcefully walked out,” said DiRienzo. “It was a little bit of a spectacle.”
Essex Police Officer Paul Kenefick confirmed there was a police presence when employees were asked to leave on February 10, stating no physical force was used.
“[The employees] were just told that they were closing the store for that day and they needed to leave, and it was quick and abrupt,” said Kenefick.
After its closure, on Feb. 11, the town’s fire marshal inspected the site with the building’s owner to ensure the safety of neighboring businesses from “high-risk hazards,” said John Planas, fire marshal, Essex.
“There was concern that the gas was left on and ovens were left on and they wanted to make sure that everything was safe,” said Planas. “I made sure the fire sprinkler system was operational and the ovens were off.”
The unexpected shuttering of the town’s only grocery store has left some residents without a convenient alternative.
Needleman cited the seniors at Essex Meadows as an example and said, “they would walk over there and shop.”
The market was used by residents of the retirement community as well as employees.
“We are going to miss having a grocery store down the road from us,” said Essex Meadows Executive Director Jennifer Rannestab. “We are anxious to hear what is happening” at the site.
“It’s been very helpful to have a grocery store close by,” she added.
Colonial Fresh Market employees have been affected the most, with several launching online fundraising efforts using the GoFundMe platform.
“That was one of the messages that had gotten to me…that some of the employees were having a hard time getting set up for unemployment,” Needleman said.
Needleman is working with the state Department of Labor to help ensure the store’s employees get their benefits.
“I just want to make sure that all of the employees are taken care of initially,” said Needleman. “Then it’s a matter of waiting and seeing. We’re hopeful that they or someone else will operate that store.”
Prosser’s future vision for the site correlates with Needleman’s.
“I’d like to put in another similar type” of operation, Prosser said. “I know it was a very successful business for many years and through change of ownership it went downhill. There is tremendous potential there. That is kind of my goal.”
The store, located in the shopping plaza on the corner of Westbrook Road and Bokum Road, has undergone several changes in ownership over the years since first opening in 1985.
Colonial Fresh Market’s current owner had operated it “for about a year,” said Prosser.
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