Sunflower Natural Foods in Woodstock is expanding

(Photos by Dion Ogust)

What’s behind the plastic sheets at Sunflower, where various drug stores have held down the Bradley Meadows corner spot for years? The sale items in a corridor-like space before what appears to be a blurry construction space are easy to see; a large expanse of former drugstore space has been cleared to make room for a bigger store. But what are the plans, what’s the timeline?

“There was a bank vault back there that the Rite Aid managers used for an office, along with the managers at Eckerd before them,” said store founder and co-owner Bob Whitcomb in a phone interview last week. “I believe it was Rondout Bank that put it in about a decade after Howard St. John built Bradley Meadows in the 1950s, and everyone after just left it there.”

Whitcomb described an old-style walk-in safe with a six inch door, beveled panel walls “like Fort Knox.” But no market for the old relic could be found and after a while, Whitcomb and his partners Roz Balkin, Prakash Misra and Melissa Misra decided to simply get rid of the piece since “any nostalgia value it had was already gone.”

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Sunflower, and the entire Bradley Meadows complex that Whitcomb, Balkin and a silent partner based in Manhattan has owned for the past decade, is still in the midst of a complicated site plan review process that included a session with town planning consultant Matthew Rudikoff Thursday, November 2.

“We are so excited, particularly because Paku and I are second generation, to solidify Bob and Roz’s legacy of Sunflower while bringing the store into modern times,” said Melissa Misra, whose husband Paku Misra serves as general manager at the Woodstock store and its newer twin in Rhinebeck, as well as a co-owner. “Sunflower employees, and the owner’s commitment to providing the surrounding communities and visitors with fresh, organic and all natural foods, has and continues to be their far reaching goal. We believe in nurturing the community by sourcing a healthy lifestyle that is also reinforced  in Sunflower’s participation in community activities, and engagement in both small and large efforts that support our environment, charitable organizations and local economy.”

Sunflower is seeking to expand the back of its building, and push out over what is now a sidewalk with roof overhang in the front, to grow their space to a little over 13,000 square feet, under half the size of the Hannaford’s in the former Hurley Ridge Market a few miles away in West Hurley. The result will include an outdoor seating area, an electric vehicle charging station, and a complicated proposal, zoning-wise, that involves everything from new parking to changed traffic patterns throughout the Bradley Meadows complex.

The plans for Sunflower are 95 percent plotted out at this point, with the final percentage reliant on what’s still before the planning board. Planning board members said this week that they fully support what Sunflower’s proposing, and feel the business is one of Woodstock’s great treasures. But they added there’s still a lot of legal details to be worked through, partly because of the “complexity” of what’s been proposed, and partly because the Bradley Meadows’ property abuts a protected wetlands area.

“Our team, which includes a designer, an engineer, and several contractors, are looking to implement our vision — to create a community space revolved around healthy living,” noted Paku Misra in an email. “Bob, as founder, and Roz as visionary, have guided Sunflower for the past 40 years to this point. All of the expansions that they have undertaken they were able to complete basically on their own, with their own resources and without too much outside assistance or coordination. This project is something new to all of us and we are learning as we go. We understand that the planning board and our loan officers have to look out for the best interests of the town and their organization, respectively. I believe everyone — the Woodstock community, the planning board and our loan officers — are anxiously waiting for what we roll out.”

Changes at Sunflower will include a lot more fresh food. The produce selection will be greatly expanded; there will be more prepared and ready-to-eat foods available. There will be expanded dairy offerings, including a wide variety of cheese, and beverages, including beer, given their application for a license gets granted. There’s a fish counter planned, a coffee and juice bar with food and both indoor and some outdoor seating.

A planned new front for the building will be flush to what is now parking lot, “more efficient and attractive” with the main entrance in the building’s southeast corner. That will end up creating a mini-main street for the shopping plaza where Woodstock Healing Arts and A&P Bar have opened in the last year, in the same building as the bank.

As for a timeline getting to the envisioned new Sunflower, everyone’s hoping for Memorial Day, but fully aware how planning details, and the nature of Woodstock winters, can mess with schedules. Work to date has included removal of non-structural walls, flooring, and the removal of the bank vault…to the tune of over 15 tons of steel hauled off for recycling.

In Sunflower this past weekend, the traffic inside and outside the in-flux store was busy as usual; the place remains one of the meeting spots in town. People tried peering through plastic into the construction; bought sale items, asked store employees what was happening.

“No one’s certain about these coolers. We’ve had these forever,” one employee of a dozen years said with a nod to where vegetables and meats are available at the current entrance. “It’s uncertain, yet, whether they’ll be kept, moved, or what.”

Everyone in view seemed to share the excitement of anticipation.

We later asked Whitcomb how the newer Rhinebeck Sunflower has been going, and whether further expansions were set to happen there any time soon. Would there be further Sunflowers opening in the coming years?

“What we’re going through here now is a learning experience for what we’ll have to be doing over there, eventually,” Whitcomb replied. “But beyond these two stores? Not at this point. Right now we’ve got our hands full.”

“The future of Sunflower and the health of our small town and local communities are a symbiosis,” noted Melissa Misra. “Our present expansion is long past due. There is an overwhelming demand and need for more fresh, organic choices storewide. At Sunflower we look forward to growing alongside our town and surrounding communities. We are so proud to have the ability to directly impact on the health of those in our communities and the local economy and we now will be able to do even more!”

“We are almost at the finish line,’ added Misra.

“These things are complicated,” added a planning board member, requesting anonymity. “Especially when complex, like this project is. We’re all looking forward to what Sunflower is becoming.”

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