Sunflower’s expansion is not finished, but it’s open anyway

Bob Whitcomb

On a snowy Tuesday the new doors slid silently open at the eastern end of Sunflower Natural Foods in Woodstock, that venerable institution that anchors an end of town, now taking on the whole building at Bradley Meadows, that once housed several shops including various incarnations of drug stores, a liquor store, a restaurant or two, even an audio-stereo business.

Bob Whitcomb proudly held an avocado over an overflowing bin of them as he beheld his family’s expanded operation, still a long way from being finished, but open to the public nonetheless. “We kept putting off the opening but got to a point at about 4 p.m. yesterday, where we said it had to happen,” Whitcomb mused, just in from plowing the parking lot. So the new registers were operating and an open doorway between the old and new portions contributed to the flow of customers.

“We’re doing the final touches, realizing some details and design elements will need to wait,” said Paku Misra, several days eariler. He’s the son-in-law of Sunflower founders Whitcomb and Roz Balkin, and husband of the entity’s fourth partner Melissa Misra. “We’re expanding our food options, moving the juice bar and readying to open an expresso bar. We’re figuring out the bakery/bread wall this weekend.”

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The family is ecstatic to be nearing the end of phase one of their three phase renovation project, which started two years ago…unless one takes into account earlier steps taken by Whitcomb and Balkin when they covered the Bradley Meadows roof with solar panels a decade ago, started expanding its offerings to the community, and aimed at greater “green” efficiencies for everything from the store’s refrigeration units to its HVAC and all other systems.

“[This is the] soft opening; we’re all going to be around over the coming weeks. We want to see how people enjoy the new entrance, the various food demos we’ve been planning,” added Whitcomb. “There will only be a grand opening after everything’s complete.”

Phase 1 of Sunflower’s rebirth involved the gutting of and shifts in what had been, most recently, a Rite Aid pharmacy. Phase 2 will focus on “back room space” at the store: a loading dock, offices, meeting and break areas for employees.

“It’s for our dedicated employees,” Paku Misra said. “This building process has been difficult, and we’ve wanted to better our working conditions as we’ve grown to meet the community’s growth. Our people deserve this.”

Phase 3, according to Misra, is what he terms “the tricky part,” where Sunflower reaches back and upgrades its existing space to have it match and meet the challenges of what’s about to be unveiled. There will be a café, seafood and meat departments, more fresh prepared food options, a brand new kitchen area.

“This will all take the most time to design, figuring out how to move in without affecting our customers and business too much,” Misra said.

“We’ve spoken to a lot of other independent whole food grocers and it turns out its common to ask one’s customers to go through this process,” Melissa Misra added. “Allowing the store to remain open is our main goal. Doing it the right way, letting everyone see we’re working for on their behalf, is very important to us.”

Whitcomb pointed out that in addition to the three phases, the sidewalk out front of Sunflower has also been moved forward somewhat, a patio is being created on the store’s east end near the new entrance, and new charging stations for electric vehicles will be added. Meanwhile, the past year’s changes to Route 212/Mill Hill Road as it moves through town allowed for 16 new parking spaces in the Bradley Meadows lot.

Other pending changes at Bradley Meadows that Whitcomb discussed included renovations at the other portion of the bank space where Bank of Greene County is taking up half.

“It could be divided,” he said, adding that past planning board issues with A&P Bar have meanwhile been addressed.

We asked about word we’d heard on the street from people who were suggesting the former bank space, next to Woodstock Healing Arts, might be a perfect location for Woodstock’s first legal weed dispensary, perhaps to occur in the coming years.

Paku Misra said he’s been researching just such a thing, noting how “it is the logical space for that. It might seem like a joke but we are the hub of the community and it would provide an added service to our customers.”

Discussions with Bank of Greene County officials lightly trod similar ground last autumn. In both instances, however, it turns out that political connections will be needed for such a thing to eventually occur.

Whitcomb changed the subject back to the current changes.

“Going back to when this all started two years ago, we realized Woodstock deserved a better store and we’d have to go the extra mile for our community,” he said.

“I think customers will be delighted with the open design we’ve moved toward,” Balkin added, noting the joys of open sky that will be at play in the new Sunflower.

Paku Misra noted how the whole process had “consumed our family but we’ve galvanized around giving everybody a building they can be proud of, a reminder of where we are in this beautiful Hudson Valley.”

He then shifted to a bullet list of highlights that included the use of repurposed pallet wood in the bakery/bread department, air filtration within the HVAC system, and a whole-store generator to ensure Sunflower stays up and running when the rest of the area loses power.

“We want the community to know we’re here for them,” he added.

Balkin brought up the major roles her daughter and son-in-law have played in the ongoing renovations, pointing out the detail work Melissa’s done, as well as their having been “the heart of the project.”

Talk about a family project.

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