The Crescent Market, 122 years old and the state's oldest grocery, is closing its doors later this month as it faces the onslaught of two corporate upscale supermarkets opening nearby.
Robert Pemberton is the third generation of his family to run the grocery, which has operated in the Nichols Hills Shopping Plaza at Avondale and Western Avenue since 1948. On Oct. 29 that legacy will end.
“We started the day of the Land Run in a covered wagon on Main Street,” Pemberton said. “We are the oldest grocery store in the state. But over the past few years it's been losing money.”
Pemberton said he hoped to turn the tide by adding more organic and local produce and goods to his shelves a year ago.
Meanwhile, Pemberton witnessed his existing customer base shrinking due to the ravages of time and ever increasing competition.
“A lot of our customers have gotten older, they are single, or they have passed away,” Pemberton said. “And now everyone sells groceries, from Walmart to Target to Home Depot to CVS and Walgreens.”
Pemberton said he thought he could survive the long anticipated opening later this month of Whole Foods at nearby Classen Curve, a new retail center developed by his landlord, Chesapeake Energy Corp.
“I really would have worried more about a Central Market than a Whole Foods, because a Whole Foods is a totally different customer,” Pemberton said. “But I was not prepared for a Sunflower Market. And that's what has hit me the hardest.”
When the Sunflower Market opened at NW 63 and May Avenue, just a couple miles west of Crescent, the hit to Pemberton's business was immediate.
“It was right on our Labor Day weekend,” Pemberton said. “It made it just a regular weekend instead of a holiday weekend. Our sales were definitely down.”
The impact on Nichols Hills Plaza will go beyond the loss of a legendary grocery; Pemberton said he doubts his neighbor, Nichols Hills Drugstore, will find another vendor to supply fresh meat and produce for its lunch counter.
Longtime customers, employees and vendors say residents won't fully appreciate what they've lost until after Crescent closes. Pemberton's elderly customers could always relax on an ornate sofa in front of an actual fireplace as their health aides and assistants did their shopping. Crescent also is a grocery that still has employees to bring bags to customers' cars.
Picking through the produce aisle on Monday, Susan Parker lamented she has been aware a closing was imminent for the past few weeks.
“I've shopped here my whole life,” Parker said. “I shopped with his dad, and now with Robert. This is more like a boutique than a shopping center. It's the small things — the butcher, the care that you get. They were bringing in local foods.”
Parker guesses a lot of Crescent's customers live within the immediate two-mile radius.
“I worry about the elderly — they don't want to shop on May Avenue,” Parker said. “They love the ease of it, they can call in advance and have the food ready for them to pick up. They love the ready-made meals.”
Terry Sinclair was a customer for 30 years before she started making and selling soup and other meals sold on Pemberton's shelves.
“Crescent was very gracious about giving me more space, and I slowly got to build a clientele,” Sinclair said. “Everybody knows everybody here. It's just really sad.”
Sinclair, whose food also is sold at nearby Kamp's Meat Market, now has a commercial kitchen and is planning to open up her own storefront. In a bit of irony, Sinclair is one of several Crescent vendors contacted by Whole Foods to sell their goods in its first Oklahoma City store.
Leo Gulikers, a butcher at Crescent Market for the past 27 years, is uncertain what he will do next. It was Art L. Pemberton, Robert Pemberton's grandfather, who bought the market from prior owners in 1942 and later convinced Gulikers to pass on an opportunity to open his own butcher shop and work instead at Crescent.
“Mr. P is what we used to call him,” Gulikers said. “He kept coming into the store until '94. Then his son Art (Jr.) took over.”
Gulikers and fellow employees have fond emotions for the Pembertons, and said they always felt like they were a part of the family store.
A glance at the store's meat shop reveals the sort of operation that faded away from most groceries two decades ago — a place where trained, experienced butchers know their customers' preferences and can provide cuts usually only done by top chefs.
“Nobody cuts prime ribs like us, where you cut the fat and then tie it all together,” Gulikers said. “For Christmas, where are you going to get a crown pork roast and a crown lamb roast? We make a ton of those here. There are a few places that do that, but not many.”
For the past two years Pemberton has been courted by multiple developers to move his store downtown. He thinks a slim chance remains for him to reopen downtown, but if he does, he knows he'll have to start from scratch.
Parker is uncertain existing customers will follow such a move.
“This is a store that's always been here, and now that's changing,” Parker said. “And that's never easy.”