PORTLAND — Colucci’s, the iconic variety store atop Munjoy Hill that has been shuttered since nearly being destroyed by arson last year, is about to resume business – in old-school style.
Now christened Hilltop Superette, the nearly 80-year-old store at 135 Congress St. is expected to re-open as soon as June 26, according to its general manager, Nate Philbrick.
“It might be a little later, but it will definitely be before the Fourth (of July),” he said in an interview Monday afternoon. The reborn bodega will offer something for everyone, he promised, as it traditionally has.
“When customers come in the door,” Philbrick said, “I think what they’ll see is a return to what the store was in its beginning.”
The store, and three apartments above it in a 19th-century building, were severely damaged by fire on March 9, 2013. The two-alarm blaze was allegedly set by a Morning Street resident, Elroy Montes-Lopez, who entered the building around 3:45 a.m. and confronted its owner and resident, Dickie Colucci.
No one was injured, but the fire displaced nine people and killed two pet cats and a dog.
Colucci, whose family owned and operated the namesake store for several generations, initially planned to repair the damage. But he sold the building last July to real estate manager and St. Lawrence Street resident Bill Simpson.
Simpson at the time said he planned to revive the store, and window signs last year predicted it would be open in the fall.
But as months went by, some neighborhood residents grew skeptical.
“I was thinking, when is my go-to place finally going to be open again?” said Arthee Clark, of Lafayette Street.
Philbrick, who moved to the Hill in January after operating a family-owned store in New Hampshire, said the delay was unavoidable. Fire repairs began in August, and soon revealed the need for more extensive work on the building: The roof had to be re-capped, wiring had to be replaced, and the harsh winter didn’t help matters.
“There were a lot of unexpected surprises,” he said.
Among the surprises to some was the masking of a street mural that formerly adorned part of the building’s Congress Street facade. The 360-square-foot painting, by South Portland natives Eric Giddings and Ben Braley with sponsorship by Shipyard Brewing Co., depicted the nearby Portland Observatory and other Hill landmarks.
As part of the building’s repair, the mural, commissioned in 2012 and completed last summer, was walled over.
Philbrick said that was necessary in order to install windows in a dark stairwell, the only one remaining after the fire destroyed a rear entrance to the building.
“I know the decision (to build over the mural) was a little controversial in the neighborhood,” he said.
But Philbrick hopes neighbors will focus on what’s inside the 3,000-square-foot store, rather than its exterior. He said Hilltop Superette will offer much of the same fare as Colucci’s, and then some.
Shoppers will find a retail space that is expanded by several hundred square feet, since the store’s deli kitchen has been consolidated. The store’s few aisles are now wider. Retro light fixtures illuminate the space.
Prices, according to Philbrick, will be “competitive” with those of Hannaford Bros. and Shaw’s supermarkets – and perhaps less than those of the Whole Foods market in Bayside and Rosemont Market, a block away.
On Monday, shelves were still bare and freezers were empty. But Philbrick said the store will ultimately offer a wide selection of Maine-bred meat, fresh produce, dairy goods, grocery staples, locally roasted coffee, craft beer, chilled wine and other items.
And the store will continue to sell the pizza, sandwiches, pre-made meals and other deli fare for which Colucci’s was long known.
Philbrick said Hilltop Superette, with a crew of about 18 employees, is a return to its predecessor’s roots.
“This is a superette, a classic New England-style store,” he said. “People are returning to local markets. We’d like to capitalize on that and serve the residents of Munjoy Hill.
“Portland used to be full of places like this. We just think it would be great if it could be that way again.”
Work continues this week at Hilltop Superette, 135 Congress St., Portland. The former Colucci’s variety story may re-open by the end of June.
Manager Nate Philbrick stands outside the entrance to Hilltop Superette, formerly Colucci’s variety store, on Munjoy Hill.
A 360-square-foot street mural at the former Colucci’s was walled over during reconstruction of the 19th-century building at 135 Congress St., home to the new Hilltop Superette grocery store.
Still shrouded in emergency-scene tape, Colucci’s market was closed in March 2013 after a two-alarm fire that was the result of arson.
The former Colucci’s market on Munjoy Hill was sold last year and originally scheduled to re-open last fall. But unexpected renovation delays postponed that until an anticipated opening in the next two weeks.