The Little Store That Could

True story. I’m standing outside the Crushed Grape the other day, having just finished lunch. Two older women walk out of the neighboring Embassy Suites and approach me. They seem very nice. They’re from Chicago, they explain. In town for a wedding.

The women have a question. Is it true that there’s an Applebee’s nearby? They want a cup of coffee.

Now I know what you might be thinking. Here we are, standing less than 20 feet away from one of the top local delis, a perfect opportunity to introduce visitors to hometown cuisine and extol the virtues of supporting Mom and Pop. Don’t send them to the chain restaurant. Have them try the Grape.

But I didn’t. I’m from the Midwest myself. I know these ladies. In the five seconds it took to sort out my options, I sensed that they wanted a place just like home. Sitting among the natives would not be an option for them.

So instead I pointed down towards Madonna Road. “Just keep going,” I said. “You’re almost there.”

Watching them walk away, I was reminded of how things are on this end of town. Madonna Road is where you head to find many of the chain stores and restaurants. Pick one and it’s either out there now, or will be soon. Sears. Starbucks. Best Buy. Hometown Buffet. Borders. Bed, Bath & Whatever. Our town has been discovered and it seems like every national retailer wants a piece of the SLO life.

But tucked away in the heart of all these brand-name chain stores, lies the Crushed Grape, now in its 20th year of operation as an independently-owned deli and gift shop. The irony of this little David operating in the shadows of all these retail Goliaths has not been lost on owner Gretchen Gonyer.

“I wish there were more independents,” Gretchen admits. “But it’s tough. It’s hard. I really love what I do and I don’t know if others were as dedicated. I had to make it work if I wanted to stay here. Today I feel like I’ve proven myself.”

There must have been times when Gretchen had doubts. The Crushed Grape was initially part of the old Central Coast Mall, a retail ghost town before it was mercifully torn down back in the ‘90s. Only Gretchen and Gottschalks survive today from those original stores.

Then Gretchen watched as her breakfast business vanished once the Starbucks opened across the street. She countered by putting more emphasis on her lunch menu and beefing up the gift shop. Today business is split about 50-50 between gifts and grub. Gretchen calls business “successful, but not a huge profit.”

Gretchen, who was born in China, dropped out of Cal Poly in the early ‘70s to work locally in restaurant management, including stints at This Old House, The Cigar Factory and 1865. She moved on to gigs in Sacramento and Newport Beach before ending up in the Virgin Islands. Boyfriend Tom became husband Tom. Twins quickly followed and Gretchen decided it was time to come home.

Developer Bill Bird encouraged Gretchen to open up The Crushed Grape in 1987. “He wanted me to open up a wine store,” Gretchen recalls. “At the time, there was nothing else in the county. I think we became successful because we found our niche quickly. People were looking for gifts.”

Tom Gonyer was a key factor in the Grape’s early success and still continues to mind the store on Sundays, but his primary emphasis today is teaching and serving as vice-principal at Oceano Elementary School. Gretchen works the rest of the week and shows no signs of slowing down. She still loves her job. The daily interaction with customers keeps her going.

The Crushed Grape is currently holding a raffle for a $200 gift basket, personally prepared by Gretchen, and the drawing is scheduled for next Wednesday (April 25th) at 1:30 p.m. Come in, have lunch, and toss in your spare change for a couple raffle tickets. It’s all a fundraiser for Military Parents of the Central Coast, a local nonprofit group who sends basic supplies to U.S. soldiers overseas.

Meanwhile, all is well at the Crushed Grape, proof perhaps that David and Goliath can at least co-exist on Madonna Road.

Gretchen takes it all in stride. “I’m always being asked by Cal Poly students about how I survive. It’s simple. You have to love what you do. If you like your job, it’s not hard to go to work.”

SLO City News (April 2007)

Published by Dave Congalton

Writer. Radio Host. Screenwriter. Enjoying the Good Life on California's Central Coast.

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