Editor's Note: Comments from Geoffrey Jones, co-owner of the building that houses Universal Food Store, were added at 3:45 p.m. Thursday.
The day before Tropical Storm Irene hit, cook and manager Lou Conto and owner had a plan.
They emptied the deli cases and carried the meats to a large walk-in refrigerator. The store doesn’t have a generator, but they decided they’d assess what happened next. They made meals for the Noank Fire Department, so they’d have extra food for the extra work they'd get from the storm.
Power went out. Conto said they went back and assessed the damage. The store had just received deliveries for the Labor Day weekend, and was packed with food.
In a day, they lost thousands of dollars worth of produce. The chicken all went. The meat was still cold, and the two drove it to another store in Groton to hold in their refrigerator.
“As it was, I was just sick having to throw away all the stuff we had to throw away,” Conto said.
Then they went back and cleaned. They had every intention, Conto said, of reopening. And on Friday, six days later, the lights came on.
Then Conto said landlord Geoffrey Jones told them the store was closing.
“It was just a real, raw thing, the shock and devastation,” Conto said.
Jones said Thursday he did not shut down the store. He said the store was 60 months behind on the rent - five years - but he let it stay open. Jones said the store closed because it could no longer pay its staff.
“We did everything in our power to try to keep that store going,” he said. He said he knew the store could not pay its bills because, in exchange for allowing it to stay open while behind on rent, he had access to the store’s bookkeeper.
On the Friday after the storm, he said he walked in with the bookkeeper and found employees ordering replacement food for the dairy. He said he doesn’t remember exactly what he said, but something like, it couldn’t continue.
Then he let his bookkeeper do the talking.
Food was marked down to half price over the weekend and sold. Universal closed for good on Labor Day evening.
Debbie Holmes, a cashier at the store since 1994, said employees were in tears over the closure. She said the store was a place locals depended on, where you could buy a quarter pound of meat for dinner, or just stop in and see your neighbors. It had a few tables to sit at and often served contractors who stopped in for grinders, she said.
“It was his father’s store before it was his,” Holmes said of Quaratella. “It was Frank’s entire life.”
An attempt to reach Quaratella for an interview Wednesday through Holmes was unsuccessful.
Quaratella’s family stepped into Universal Food Store in 1947. It was purchased by Frank’s uncles Pasquale and Tebenesco and his father, Salvatore.
Quaratella had a degree in business and taught at Fitch High School for ten years, but stopped teaching to take over the store after his father became ill. In an interview with Patch in April, he said he loved teaching. He took over the store in 1982.
“. . . I had a decision to make and I made it for the family,” he said.
Conto said he’d like to thank the employees who worked hard for the store and the customers who offered to help. He has known Quaratella for 30 years and together they were further developing Universal’s prepared foods.
People have asked what they can do, but Conto said Wednesday it's beyond that. He added that the loss of income from a week plus a big weekend like Labor Day is devastating.
“In the meantime, that big wheel is still turning. You’re still paying all your bills, but there’s nowhere to grab from,” he said.
The closure may affect other businesses.
Mary and Mike Edgerton bought the next to Universal Food. They couple moved back to Noank in April and opened the business as the new owners on Tuesday, one day after the food store closed.
They said they bought the package store because they love the community. But they said they envisioned the grocery there also; customers would stop at the food store, then walk next door.
“We fear that it will (hurt),” Mary Edgerton said of the closure. “We hope it won’t. People have come in and said, ‘we’ll still come here.’”
In April, Quaratella was asked about his plans for Universal’s future. Conto said the answer still holds true.
Quaratella said: "There’s only one guy that depicts the future and he’s upstairs; Whatever that brings, I’ll just have to accept."
Jones, who with his father and another investor own the building that houses Universal, said people think that if they buy three grinders a year that they’re supporting a store, but it’s not enough. He said the store was losing $20,000 a winter.
“We tried to help him as much as we could in everything from money to advice to fixing up the building . . ." he said. “All those same people that are complaining now, they’ve been shopping at the Big Y.”
He declined to discuss any plans for the buildings’ future.
“What I’d like to see is anther grocery store,” Jones said. “It could (survive) if the community supports it, which they haven’t been doing.”