Keeping it Independent

Laura Huntsman, board president of Whole Earth Center.

Three Area Markets with Distinctive Personalities

By Anne Levin | Photos by Jeffrey E. Tryon

During the first several months of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were noticeable changes in the way people shopped for food. Fearful of exposure to the virus, many began to avoid big chains. Smaller, independent stores felt safer.

Three such stores in the Princeton area — Whole Earth Center, McCaffrey’s Food Market, and Pennington Quality Market — have each weathered what was hopefully the worst of COVID. These are distinctly different organizations. Whole Earth and Pennington Market are single stores; McCaffrey’s in Princeton Shopping Center is one of seven owned by the McCaffrey family. What the three companies do have in common is a focus on their local communities, and a dedication to their customers and staff who, in turn, have been exceedingly loyal.

“Our staff has been incredibly supportive,” said Jen Murray, general manager of Whole Earth Center. “We did lose a bunch of staff when it first started, but we continued to employ everybody who wanted to work. It’s a lot of heavy lifting on the team that’s here. Resiliency has been the word. We serve our community.”

“With COVID, our customers were tremendously supportive of us, and expressed appreciation for staff that continued to work despite the challenges,” said Mike Rothwell, who co-owns Pennington Quality Market with his two sisters. “It’s our staff, and the personal relationships with customers, that make us unique. And we have kept that going.”

“Overnight, our associates became something we at McCaffrey’s always knew they were – essential workers,” said Jim McCaffrey IV of the company’s response to COVID. “They came to work, day in and day out, while others were sheltering in place, to serve our customers and communities. Most importantly, they did it with a smile — behind their masks, of course.”

Jen Murray, general manager of Whole Earth Center.

Whole Earth Center

Whole Earth’s board of trustees, staff, and customers were all set to celebrate its 50th anniversary in April 2020 when the pandemic put a stop to those plans. The business was founded on the first Earth Day in 1970. A hopeful board has planned the 51st birthday party for October 2021.

Unlike McCaffrey’s and Pennington Quality Market, which are family-run, Whole Earth is operated by a board of trustees and run by managers and staff. It is a unique business model.

“We are a food store that is a nonprofit corporation, yet we pay taxes because we are a retail food store,” said Laura Huntsman, president of the board. “It allows us to take any profit we make and put it back in the store as we need to. It also allows us to fund projects that are keeping with the original mission of the store. We’ve been doing it for decades.”

Whole Earth donates thousands of dollars a year to projects such as Xerces Society Pollinators, Food and Water Watch, and Clean Ocean Action NJ. The store is a sponsor of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, Princeton School Gardens, and more.

“We have tentacles all over, both locally and nationally,” said Huntsman. “And that was part of the original mission. We take it very seriously. Some shoppers don’t realize that they are really contributing to so many things when they are shopping at the store. From supporting open space to maintaining local growers, they are making a huge local contribution to the community.”

Back in 1970, five women – Hella McVay, Barbara Parmet, Florence Falk, Margot Sutherland, and Susy Waterman — provided the seed money to make Whole Earth a reality. They started in a small space on Nassau Street, where Thomas Sweet is now located. From the beginning, it was meant to be more than just a grocery store offering healthy food.

“There was a lot of environmental consciousness-raising at the time,” said Murray. “I don’t think the term ‘organic’ was in yet, but disseminating issues about the environment was something that everyone was concerned about. Hence the name the Whole Earth Center, not just grocery. It was supposed to be a store and a meeting place where ideas and concerns could be shared. It was very grass roots. The original founders wanted this.”

The center quickly outgrew its original space and moved up Nassau Street to a portion of the site it occupies today. The founders contributed more money and asked the community to help.

“A whole group would go door to door, getting maybe $5 or $10 from people,” said Murray. “The community started chipping in right away. They got $4,500, which back then was a lot of money and enough to get it going.”

As organic food has moved into the mainstream, the store has grown. An in-house bakery and deli were added. The customer base began to increase. In 2008, an addition more than tripled the space.

“But it’s never enough,” said Murray. “We’ve taken over as much as we can. We like to dream big. We plan to grow and change and get better, and we’re exploring adding on at some point.”

Whole Earth’s produce department is 100 percent organic and buys from local farms in spring, summer, and fall. “We get so many people who are amazed we are 100 percent organic,” said Huntsman. “Other places tend to sell both organic and non-organic, but here you don’t have to second guess.”

The store also sells local meats and cheeses. While the deli remains vegetarian, the meat case was added because of a demand from customers. “Some of our hard-core vegetarian customers, who were longtime customers, were upset by it,” said Murray. “But we tried to be respectful and not push it in people’s faces. Supporting local farms also supports local farmland, which in turn helps protect land from development.”

Offering meats was a big decision. “It was very important to us to maintain our policing of product – antibiotic, hormone-free, humanely raised and slaughtered, and grass fed, so that we were providing for our customers in a way that other stores could not provide,” said Huntsman. “That’s always been a part of our mission – to police the products so that our customers don’t have to. We were dealing with bovine growth hormone before any stores knew what that was. We pride ourselves on being on the cutting edge of what is going on in the food industry. We work really hard when buying to make sure that is the case. Customers don’t have to wonder.”

The store has a large customer base, from different backgrounds. “We want to meet the dietary needs of everybody,” said Murray. “There is no typical customer. We get lots of college students and moms with kids as well as older people who have been coming to us for years.”

Co-owners Barbara Rothwell Henderson and Mike Rothwell in the produce department and a selection of prepared foods at Pennington Quality Market.

Pennington Quality Market

Having been 61 years at its present location, Pennington Quality Market is a decade older than Whole Earth Center. The store started small in the borough of Pennington before moving to the Pennington Shopping Center on the edge of town. Mike Rothwell’s father, Larry Rothwell, bought the business from its longtime owners in 1981. Having worked for a major wholesaler in the food industry that distributed products to supermarkets, the elder Rothwell knew the business well. When he was approached about buying the market, he decided to take a chance. “They told him, ‘You could be very successful here. You know the business inside out.’ That’s where the idea came from,” said Mike Rothwell. “Our family has now owned it for 40 years.”

Growing up, Rothwell worked alongside his father most weekends. “He’d be visiting customers and I’d tag along. Slowly but surely, I was getting indoctrinated into the food industry. When it came time for me to think about going to college, it was simple. I went to St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia because of their food marketing program,” he said. “I started my career in 1978 with Proctor & Gamble. I was with my dad when he was negotiating to buy the store. Was I ready to come join him? The reality was, I wasn’t ready. He was great. He recognized that and said, ‘keep doing what you’re doing.’”

Creating arrangements at the Floral Design Studio in Pennington Quality Market.

By 1989, the time was right, and Rothwell signed on. His sister Barbara came on board as well, and runs its popular floral shop. “It became a real family business,” he said. “I am so grateful that I got the opportunity to work with my dad, who lived to be 92. He died three years ago. He gave us this great opportunity to continue to operate the store. He was not just my father, but my mentor.”
The elder Rothwell had added various departments over time, including catering and the flower shop. “His biggest challenge was that he was viewed as an outsider when he took over, because we lived out of town in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania,” Mike Rothwell said. “He realized, to his credit, that he’d have to overcome that, and get very involved in the community. And he did. A few years ago, the Hopewell Valley YMCA created the Larry Rothwell Social Responsibility Award in his honor. I learned quickly that getting involved was really important.”

Pennington Quality Market has 150 employees, several of whom are related. What makes the store unique is the personal relationships with staff and customers. “When new people join our company, I personally conduct the introduction,” said Rothwell. “We are a single store that is family run and independent, competing against huge companies. We will never be able to outspend our competition. But we have to never get out-performed when it comes to the service we provide.”

Owners Jim McCaffrey III and Jim McCaffrey IV of McCaffrey’s Food Market. (Image courtesy of McCaffrey’s Food Market, photos by Dawn Deppi)

McCaffrey’s Food Market

Operating as a chain of stores that are increasingly state-of-the-the art, McCaffrey’s keeps to its mission of community involvement in each location. “We are very involved in every community we serve, and we are proud of that fact,” said Jim McCaffrey IV, executive vice president. “We believe it is our responsibility to give back to the communities that have supported us for so many years.”
During the pandemic, the Princeton store stepped up to help Princeton Mobile Food Pantry feed those who are food-insecure. Every year, the stores hold a community-giving day, otherwise known as “Fight Cancer Day,” when five percent of that day’s net sales are donated to charities such as the American Cancer Society and local hospitals.

The store in Princeton Shopping Center was the second in the family’s food market venture. The first was opened by Jim McCaffrey III and his son at the Edgewood Village Shopping Center in Yardley, Pennsylvania. It was originally known as Thriftway. The family expanded to Princeton in 1992. “We thought it was important to differentiate ourselves from other Thriftway operators, so we adopted the family name as our brand,” said McCaffrey IV.

His father started working in grocery stores as a college student and opened his first business, a deli in Northeast Philadelphia, in 1980. After establishing the Yardley and Princeton stores, the family opened another in West Windsor; then expanded to Newtown, Doylestown, Blue Bell, and most recently, New Hope, Pennsylvania.

There have been challenges along the way. One Saturday afternoon in February 2004, a fire broke out in the Yardley store. No one was injured and the blaze was ruled accidental. But the flagship store was severely damaged. It wasn’t long before a 10,000-square-foot tent was put up in the parking lot of the shopping center, fitted out with electricity, refrigeration, and plumbing. The store continued in the tent until a much larger McCaffrey’s Food Market was rebuilt.

The Princeton store is a local hub. An effort is made to employ people with special needs, some of whom have been with the store for years.

“It is a policy company-wide to provide opportunity wherever possible,” McCaffrey said. “We recognize that it can be difficult for persons with a disability to find work. It is very rewarding for us and for them.”