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A Profile of the Universal Food Store
by Marianne Grube
Photos by Richard Springer

  In an era when mammoth, sterile supermarket chains are taking over with their automated check-outs and endless aisles of products, there is a small grocery store that, remarkably, remains untouched by time over its past 100 years of operation.

Noank Store   Nestled in the tiny, historic, Yankee fishing village of Noank, the Universal Food Store stands proudly on Pearl Street, defying change. A big, white, three-story building with two floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows in front, Universal overshadows and keeps vigil on the quaint old homes lined up and down Pearl Street, like a kindly grandfather looks after his charges. One of the largest buildings in town, Universal-houses-its-grocery store on the ground floor, an apartment on the second floor, and a large top floor that once was a popular dance hall in the early 1900's.

  When Pat Quaratella and his brother-in-law, Dan Simonelli, took over the operation of the grocery business in 194 7, an opening day advertisement in the New London Day boasted· that it was the "latest in high tech; radical chic in the grocery world." The produce stand was "engineered so that every article is within easy reaching distance for every shopper." The  mirrored back on the produce stand, still in place today, was considered innovative. The meat and dairy departments sported "new Modern Cases" and, the ad read, "No doors to open! No unnecessary stretching!" This "supermarket" in the heart of the village was a "credit to the progressive spirit of its owners"
(NewLondon Day, April 16, 1947).

  Over the years, Pat and his brother, Sal, who joined him in the business, closed in the chrome and glass coolers and replaced many features in the store to modernize. Some of the unusual fixtures still in place include handmade wooden tongue-and-groove display shelves with scalloped edges, built by cabinet makers, a beveled mirror, which still hangs in the meat department, and the original Illuminated signs indicating where-to locate the produce, meat and dairy products.

  The grocery's ceiling is supported by triangular knees, common in boat construction. These "knees" are actually shafts of wood shaped like an L, which connect the freshly painted white ceiling to the pale yellow walls. The floors and the ceiling are wainscoted, or wood-paneled, likening the interior of the store to the hold of a ship. Even the chopping block, used in the meat department, was once in the galley of the "Alice Pendleton," a ship remembered by some of Noank's old-timers.

  This store abounds in historic paraphernalia. The store clock, a modest-sized face with plain black numbers in a round, plastic frame, is reminiscent of those used in the 1940's schoolrooms. A potbelly stove no longer heats the premises, but the light fixtures are still circa 1940. Another relic from the past, the venerable, but dependable, National cash register was in use up until the 1980's.

Noank Store

  The beauty of this older model was that, should the electricity go out at any time, a hand-crank could be fitted into the side of the machine and business went on smoothly. You wouldn't find an automated counter in Universal either; a wooden-pull, a three-sided, oblong piece of wood which surrounds the counter edges and has an arm-like appendage, is used to move groceries down the smooth, polished wooden counter.

Noank Store

Over time, customers have contributed their own antiques and wall hangings to the store's decor. A local townswoman .once made a collage, using photos she took of the owners, various employees, and delivery people, who frequented the store in the late 1970's. A young fisherman's poster-sized photo, depicting him holding a huge tuna, and a photo-portrait of one of the town's oldest and well-loved citizens hang on display near the cash register. Other decorations include an historic scythe or sickle, handwoven baskets, two nautical charts, and an anchor. An old-fashioned wooden cart is in place near the meat counter and now holds bagels.

  Universal Food Store, now owned and operated by Sal's son, Frank, is surviving today by trying to meet customer's demands for new and seasonal products. Frank carries premium ice cream and convenient foods like stuffed pork chops and shish kebabs, as well as a lot of different salads at the deli counter. Meats are freshly butchered and not packaged, while the produce is always fresh and attractively displayed in large, graceful baskets.

  Frank's store is unique in its time-honored tradition of providing credit to local customers, who are allowed to pay monthly for their purchases. This is a service seldom offered by other groceries and markets, but one many Noankers utilize for its convenience. Another facet of the management is the willingness, even in this day and age, to deliver groceries to the homes of elderly shut-ins and to those in town who simply need them. This is a service fast disappearing and as rare as doctors making house calls.

  In the Universal, you don' take a number at the deli counter, as you would in most big supermarkets. If you have to wait a few minutes on a busy afternoon, you can always chat with other customers. These are people you may recognize as your elementary school teachers, neighbors, friends, or even new acquaintances, as the intimate nature of this store lends itself to lively conversation.

  Business at the Universal is known to fluctuate with the seasons and to triple in the summer, when there is an influx of boaters in the village. Vacationers renting cottages in nearby Groton Long Point also frequent the store in the summer months.

  Even when at its busiest, though, this cozy little store radiates a warmth and conviviality you just won't find at the Super Stop and Shop or A&P. With the addition of a pizza oven a few years ago, the choice of what to purchase for supper has expanded even more.

Anyone entering this handsome, nautical Noank market will agree that the enticing aroma of sausage and peppers emanating from the meat room; the fresh, inviting fruits and vegetables, displayed carefully in their baskets; and the warm small-town charm of the employees and. their customers make for an experience that far surpasses an expedition to Super Stop and Shop and will keep customers returning time and again. Marianne

Update on the Noank Market

  The Noank Market has been operating as a co-op for two years now and has 740 Members to date. They include, but are not limited to, the people of the town of Noank and surrounding communities.  Volunteers take turns helping to staff the store which also has about 4 or 5 full and part-time employees. They take turns helping on the register, stock shelves and even do dishes!

   Recently, a forum was held at the local Baptist church in town to try to raise awareness about the market and get more input from the current members. New ideas are constantly discussed, as ways to keep the market going are essential.

   The winter months are a constant struggle for the fledgling operation, as they were for the former Universal Food Store.  But the manager, Rick, has said that last summer’s profit exceeded that of the year before.

   Hopes are high that with continued effort and support from the community, the store will weather the winter months to thrive again next summer and beyond.

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