Changing times force closure of longtime Claremont business

Wolfe’s Market, which has called Claremont home for exactly 100 years, will look a lot different to its longtime customers—the family market sold its last grocery items last Friday. All is not lost, however, as Claremonters can still enjoy a tasty turkey sandwich or pick up a container of the store’s distinctive egg salad.

For fourth-generation owner Tom Wolfe, the downsizing was a long time coming for a business that had seen a steady decline over the years.

“To have a small independent store in any metropolitan area is near impossible,” he said. “Trader Joe’s and Sprouts and Costco and Whole Foods and everybody else, they have so much buying power and I have zero buying power. We became somewhat irrelevant as a grocery store.”

Mr. Wolfe, who’s great-grandfather John Wolfe opened the store after moving to Claremont from the Illinois coalmines in 1917, has been operating the store with his wife, Shauna, since 1996. The store was handed down from his father, Ed Wolfe. Business was booming, but as more big-name stores discovered Claremont, sales at Wolfe’s Market began to decline.

“We have had competition in the past, and typically it’s a couple of down years then comes back,” he said. “We had a couple of down years, but it didn’t come back, it just continued to slide.”

And that puts you into survival mode, he added.

“I was no longer growing a business, I was trying to survive a business,” Mr. Wolfe said.

Reactions from customers have run the gamut from sadness to wishing the Wolfe family well. Elderly customers who have called Wolfe’s their number-one place to shop for decades have been “devastated” by the decision, Mr. Wolfe noted.

“As much as I apologize and tell them how emotional and difficult it is for me, it doesn’t make them feel any better,” he said. “They have to change and they don’t want to change.”

Customers who have business backgrounds have a more understanding view, he said. Scaling back to focus on one part of the market is a plan that makes good business sense.

Mr. Wolfe concurs, noting it would be better for the business in the long run to focus on the deli, as opposed to the myriad components that make a successful market thrive.

“It’s like walking into the forest with an axe and hacking at every tree you see—you’re not going to knock down a tree that way,” he said. “You find one tree, and you keep whacking at it until you knock it down.”

The plan is to have the Claremont business The Meat Cellar lease the grocery space later in the year. The Wolfes did some homework of their own, dining at the Meat Cellar’s current location on Foothill and Claremont Boulevards and chatting with the owners. They liked what they heard.

“They wanted more space and we wanted less space,” Ms. Wolfe said.

Mr. Wolfe likened the business partnership to a marriage. “We have to be able to get along,” he noted.

The lease was officially signed on Friday, May 12, and the final day of operation for the grocery end of Wolfe’s was Friday, May 19.

The Meat Cellar is set to commence operations in its new space by November 1, Mr. Wolfe said.

The history of Wolfe’s Market—and how it fell into Tom’s hands—is a decades long family biography.

His grandfather, Claude Wolfe, was interested in aviation, becoming one of the first employees at Lockheed and working on Amelia Earhart’s aircraft, Mr. Wolfe said. But family obligations called, and he left his passion to work in the family store in the 1930s.

Tom’s father, Ed Wolfe, was passionate about baseball and played professionally as a teenager, but a bout with Malaria while playing in the Mexican leagues curbed his career and he ended up taking over the store after a stint in the Army.

Ed Wolfe was determined to get his son Tom away from the family business, Mr. Wolfe said, enrolling him at the Webb Schools and at Brigham Young University to study business management.  

But one look at the corporate suits arriving on campus to recruit business students changed Tom’s mind and, just one month before graduation, he called his dad and told him he wanted to work at the family store.

“I think [my dad] was disappointed that I didn’t go on and do something professional and get out of this family business that felt somewhat like a burden,” Mr. Wolfe said.

But Tom was welcomed into the business. At one point, three generations of Wolfes—Claude, Ed and Tom—were working together at the market at the same time, Ms. Wolfe said. 

Throughout the years, Wolfe’s was dealt numerous challenges—from the effects of the Great Depression to rationing during World War II. Through their signature small-town service—like grocery delivery to a new mother or homebound senior, family charge accounts and box boys who take your groceries to your car whether you ask or not—the market survived, reaching 100 years as a staple of Claremont culture.

But the arrival of the supermarket chains did them in, Mr. Wolfe said, a familiar story seen in towns large and small across the country.

The store isn’t transitioning without proper observance by the community. Claremont Heritage honored the market on Saturday, May 20 with this year’s Cultural Heritage award commemorating a century of serving Claremont.

Now, on the final full week of operation, the hallowed halls are gently picked clean by shoppers looking to get closeout deals. Soon the shelves will be empty, the space converted and the torch passed to an emerging business that is looking to stake out their own spot in Claremont’s history.

Tom’s son Jeff will head the kitchen, and Mr. Wolfe will pop in every so often with quality control and product ideas while focusing on his new passion—fitness and fitness products. The store will offer Shakeology and Ultimate Nutrition, a healthy meal plan for customers on-the-go who want to keep fit.

But moving forward, the focus will be on running a kitchen and deli the community can be proud of.

“I want to make it the best deli that ever existed,” he added. “And why not? Why can’t we?”

Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com

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