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VOL. 121 | NO. 71 | Thursday, March 30, 2006

Square Foods Bids Farewell to Overton Square

Popular grocery, eatery hints at move to Cooper-Young

By Andy Meek

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SQUARE DEAL: Amanda Harris, a manager at Overton Square's Square Foods market, pauses by a bank of the store's grain bins. Square Foods is moving - possibly to the Cooper-Young area. -- Photograph By Andy Meek

Jeanice Blancett's Midtown health food store is not your typical grocery, where super-sizes, square footage and self-service checkout lines reign supreme.

Along the way, Blancett's Square Foods Natural Market at 2094 Madison Ave. has become a popular gathering spot. At the center of the 7,200-square-foot store she opened in 2002, customers park on bar stools to chat, unwind and enjoy selections from a specially prepared deli menu.

Then there's the quintessential Midtown feel, both in the store's layout and merchandise. It's a throwback to the old Squash Blossom, a health food store at Poplar Avenue and Evergreen Street where India Palace now operates.

And there's always been a close-knit vibe. When Square Foods opened, most of the employees already had worked together at other health food shops. In the store's first days, Blancett's mother and father also pitched in.

But now the store is the latest tenant caught up in the winds of change swirling through Overton Square. Friday, Square Foods is getting the real estate version of the Atkins Diet - a slimmer figure and a new address away from the square.

Food service squared

When the transition is over, Square Foods might occupy a building one-third its current size just down the street in the Cooper-Young district, and it's also likely the store will emerge as something other than a grocery.

"I don't necessarily want to put the word restaurant out there, but we'll be more than just a deli, too," said Britney Baygents, who's handling marketing for the store. "We're not going to serve liquor, but we'd like to serve beer and extend our hours along with some other things like that.

"Basically, in the new place, we're not going to be just a grocery anymore. We may carry your basic needs, things like nuts, a few things out of our bulk, and then maybe things like milk and bread. But we're going to expand our grab-and-go case and our menu immensely."

"Basically, in the new place, we're not going to be just a grocery anymore. We may carry your basic needs, things like nuts, a few things out of our bulk, and then maybe things like milk and bread. But we're going to expand our grab-and-go case and our menu immensely."
- Britney Baygents
Marketing coordinator for Square Foods

The store's exit comes as Overton Square - once a premier entertainment and commercial district in the city - is trying to generate new interest with some fresh tenants. Restaurateur Earle Farrell, for example, is resurrecting the hotspot that belonged to TGI Friday's on Madison until it closed in 2003.

His Garcia Wells Southwestern Grill still is in the works there. Maggie's Pharm, a health and beauty products store also in Overton Square, recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Previous occupants of Square Foods' address were Boogie Rock Café, Lobster Louie's and Folk's Seafood Folly. An owner of topless nightclubs bought the building years before Square Foods opened and tried to put a club on the spot, to no avail.

Moving fast

On a recent afternoon, a couple with a young child hummed along to a Paul McCartney CD drifting from Square Foods' loudspeakers. They strolled past shelves piled with locally grown organic produce, fresh honey, beauty products, grains, spices and more.

Manager Amanda Harris chatted with a customer about the move, answering questions about past and current employees. That familiar warmth, employees say, is the way it's been in this cozy Overton Square hole-in-the-wall for four years.

Plans for the transition call for the store to be closed and vacated by Friday. Management would not confirm a destination, but as of early this week, there were hints that Square Foods would be moving to an unspecified location in the Cooper-Young neighborhood.

Baygents has heard the tenant being lined up for Square Foods' current space is another Mexican restaurant. For the past few days, talk of the move has been foremost on the minds of customers and employees.

"My blood pressure's kind of high - I think I'm going to have to take some of our remedies," Blancett said, laughing, referring to the stress of packing her one-of-a-kind health products retailer into a dramatically smaller space. She expects her new location will be 2,300 square feet.

"We've just gotten so spoiled here - even our kitchen is gigantic!" Baygents said.

The owners have been soliciting ideas for a new name for the store on a popular Memphis message board, though they said they probably will stick with Square Foods. As of last week, suggestions for a different name included Sesame Seed, Delicata, Highway to Health and Cooper-Young General Store.

Leaving, fair and square

Kathryn Jordan, the new director of the Cooper-Young Business Association, said she was unaware of the store's plans, but isn't surprised.

Retailers and restaurants continue to flock to the Midtown district. She pointed to the recent opening of Soul Fish, a new restaurant concept by Young Avenue Deli owner Tiger Bryant.

Baygents cited more than one reason for the move: the allure of a new home; plus the July 2003 windstorm, which dealt the store a blow from which it's never really recovered.

"When we get a delivery, people just come in and wipe us out," she said. "It's just like we could never really catch up after the storm."

So after a career that's taken her from Squash Blossom to Wild Oats and the heart of an entertainment district that hearkens back to Memphis' glory days, Blancett now heads to Cooper-Young, which - for unique shops like hers - is quickly becoming the place to be.

"We just like that area," Baygents said. "The idea of people walking around and being able to come in and get something to go as fast as they can or staying as long as they want, getting a beer or whatever, is just a little bit more appealing to us than what we're doing right now.

"Personally, I am completely beside myself and can't think of anything else right now."

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