SOUTH PORTLAND — Stiff competition and a dearth of winter traffic are forcing Bathras Market to close.
The Willard Square business will be shuttered Jan. 20, just eight months after reopening at 412 Preble St. after a 20-year hiatus.
Tara Ford, a Davis Street resident, read about the closure on a sandwich board outside the market Sunday. She said she was surprised the store was going under.
“Last time I went it was really busy,” she said. “But I guess that was the summertime.”
That was one of the problems, according to Bathras owners Tim and Kate Bathras. Others were decreased traffic in the colder months and lower-priced competition from supermarkets.
“Our location is very seasonal and now we’ve had a chance to get a sense of what summer looks like and what winter looks like,” Kate Bathras said Monday. “What we’ve seen is that our average transaction is much lower than it needs to be to meet our overhead.”
The Jan. 20 closure marks the end of the second chapter for Bathras.
Tim Bathras’ grandfather, George Bathras, operated the market in the same location for 35 years until closing the shop in 1989. The younger Bathras reopened the shop last year as a spot for local, organic and natural foods, plus beer, wine, pizza and prepared sandwiches and soups.
Residents welcomed Bathras back to the Willard Square landscape. Around the same time, some of them successfully fought for a moratorium on construction at Willard Square in an effort to prevent another market from opening across the street.
Moratorium supporters said they were concerned about over-development, traffic, parking and safety. But some opponents speculated that the protests were motivated by a desire to protect the new Bathras, with it’s neighborhood heritage, from outside competition.
The Bathras tried to remain above the fray.
“I know some neighbors were using us as part of the argument against having other businesses coming in, but we really tried to stay out of that,” Kate Bathras said.
Ironically, it was the competition from traditional grocery stores – not a competing specialty market – that proved to be too much of a challenge for the business.
“It’s really sad. I would go there for specials, but the supermarket is right down the street,” said Marie Ford, who was out with her daughter Tara on Sunday. “To a person like me who watches what you pay, it’s hard to pay twice the price. … You want to buy local, but local doesn’t mean cheaper, unfortunately.”
Larger buyers can negotiate lower prices because they make huge orders, Bathras said. That means those markets can undercut smaller shops. An employee at Bathras on Sunday said it was sometimes cheaper for the market to buy in bulk at Whole Foods than to buy from the same distributor used by the grocery giant.
Still, Kate Bathras said she didn’t begrudge supporters for not voting with their dollars and buying more groceries at her small market.
“I think money is tight for a lot of people right now, and so it’s difficult to put their money where their mouth is,” she said. “I know people are genuine in their desire to buy local, but we’re not in a place yet where people can afford to do that.”
Some customers on Sunday said the draw of shopping at Bathras was convenience – the ability to run in and pick up a missing ingredient for dinner, or a bottle of wine.
“This was great for the little stuff,” said Philip Gotts, an Everett Avenue resident. “It was good when you didn’t want to do a big shopping trip. “
Gotts’ take on the market was indicative of the average customer, who spends about $11 at the market per visit, Kate Bathras said. The shop rings up about 100 customers per day; she and her husband needed about twice that many to stay afloat.
Bathras said she just didn’t see that happening anytime soon. Prepared food was supposed to act as an attraction to draw people into the market, Bathras said, but demand for ready-to-eat food fell sharply in the winter.
“We could probably go a little while longer, but we’re closing based on our projections and how much we’re losing every day,” Bathras said. “We’ve invested a lot in this, and closing now versus just declining and running it into the ground will allow us the ability to pay off more of our debt.”
Excluding the owners, who don’t take salaries, four people work full-time at Bathras, and two high school students work there part-time on weekends and after school.
In the run-up to its closing, Bathras is chopping 20 percent off the prices of groceries and dry goods in an effort to clear its inventory.
Tex Haueser, the city’s planning and development director, said he is sad to see Bathras fail, and said he worries about the impact on Willard Square.
“I can’t help but think Bathras’ closing would call into question the ability of that area to support that kind of store” he said Monday. City officials see Willard Square as one of the city’s “Neighborhood Centers,” an area for small-scale gatherings and commerce.
On Sunday, people in Willard Square read the announcement outside the door with surprise. Afterward, many went inside to take advantage of the discount prices.
Misty McLaughlin was shopping at the market with her son. She lives on Pillsbury Street, not far from Bathras. When she talked with the cashier inside, the two sounded more like old friends than a grocer and a customer.
“We’re totally heartbroken they’re closing,” McLaughlin said.
Bathras Market at 412 Preble St. in South Portland, which reopened last May after being closed for 20 years, will close again on Jan. 20.
Kelsey Kobik checks out customer Misty McLaughlin Sunday at Bathras Market in South Portland. Citing competition from supermarkets and decreased business in the colder months, Bathras will close on Jan. 20.
SOUTH PORTLAND — By the time Bathras Market launched last year, plans for another market and eatery were dominating discussion about the future of Willard Square.
Now the Knightville proposal if off the table, too.
“By the time we got to Knightville, even though I had a banker glad to put us in that spot, I was out of money,” said Glenn Perry, who with Ian Hayward proposed establishing Ebo’s Market in Mill Cove Landing on Ocean Street.
Perry still owns the building at Willard Square. Perry said he liquidated his savings and retirement account to pay for 7 Pillsbury St., and expects to turn it into his home. He said he owes the federal government $50,000 in taxes for cashing in his 401k.
After the moratorium was passed by City Council, Hayward also said he was financially “wiped out.”
Perry admitted feeling more than a little offended by the Willard Square experience. He said residents used a purported concern about safety and traffic as pretext to kill his business and protect the fledgling Bathras. Perry said he and Hayward always maintained their market would compliment Bathras, not compete against the other market.
He also said he’s not surprised Bathras failed, since neither Tim Bathras, a software engineer, nor Kate Bathras, a former events planner, had any experience running a grocery or deli.
“It’s really sad,” he said, “but it was obvious it was going to happen.”
— Mario Moretto