To members of the Orcutt community, Old Town Market is much more than a neighborhood grocery store.
That’s why news of a surprise eviction notice and expected closure sometime this fall has prompted strong reaction about the looming loss of the business operated by Mark and Wendy Steller.
“It’s a real shame for the community because it is really the heart of Old Orcutt,” said accountant Bill Moore, who has an office across the street from the store.
A text message from the Stellers’ long-time landlord recently served as the first notice of changes.
The new owner later contacted Steller saying Old Town Market needed to vacate the building at 405 E. Clark Ave. some 90 days after the shelter-in-place emergency order is lifted. Steller estimated the store has at least four months left.
“We are so incredibly sad that Old Town is losing its only grocery store and want you all to know that we tried everything in our power to save this bridge that made Orcutt more than just a community, but a family,” the Stellers said in a message to customers.
A change in owners came after an unsolicited sale, according to Steller.
“I was stunned,” Mark Steller said of the news.
The buyer reportedly comes from the cannabis industry with intentions to applying for a permit to operate a dispensary there.
The small market has offered a haven for older shoppers looking to avoid crowds at larger stores due to COVID-19, he said.
“I will continue to provide the staples that people need because of COVID-19,” Steller said.
The store offers a wide assortment of fine wines, many with ties to the Central Coast, and craft beer along with the normal selections of items found at any grocery store.
He hopes to sell the inventory through normal business before starting the close down process.
After a 23-year career with Long’s Drug Stores in Santa Maria, Orcutt, Lompoc and Newbury Park, Steller figured he would remain until his retirement. But corporate changes led to a career change.
Old Town Market became available so the Stellers acquired the business in 2004.
“It needed some blood, sweat and tears,” he said.
Initially operated by the family, it now has approximately a dozen employees.
The corner store in a building dating back to 1948 represents decades of Central Coast grocery history.
Decades ago, the store operated as Scolari’s, which along with Williams Bros. were two much-beloved homegrown grocery chains on the Central Coast.
When Scolari’s sold to Lucky’s, the Old Orcutt store was one of three not included in the purchase.
Those three stores operated for a time as J.J.’s before the Orcutt site became Old Town Market.
A social media post over the weekend revealed the fate for Old Town Market and drew immediate reaction throughout the Santa Maria Valley.
As of Monday evening, the Facebook post had generated more than 250 comments, been shared over 300 times.
“It hits me in the heart. I haven’t even had a chance to read them yet because it’s very emotional,” Steller said. “They keep coming. I’m getting texts and Facebook feeds almost nonstop.”
The Stellers have discussed whether the store could relocate to another building in Old Town Orcutt, but space is limited due the speculators reportedly locking down leases in hopes of winning the right to operate a cannabis dispensary.
“If we were going to operate something it would be a on much smaller scale,” Steller said, noting the difficulty of relocating liquor licenses to new sites.
He and his wife, Wendy, who owns Deja Vu Antiques, became beloved members in Old Orcutt and were involved in various aspects of the community.
“We don’t just operate our business. We operate to help the community,” he said.
At Halloween, Old Town Market hands out full-sized candy bars to children.
But it’s been much more than a grocery store. For several years, the Old Town Market hosted a regular jam session with musicians of all kinds and experience.
“They didn’t care if someone wasn’t good and then there was no arrogance if someone was really good,” Steller said.
Landscaping contractor Donny George, who painted the vignettes with plants and windows on the side of the building, said the Stellers have been open to anything fun.
“It’s a huge loss to me personally, to the town. It’s just horrible really because it was the heart of the town,” he said.
“It’s like a death,” George added.