MYSTIC — At Mystic Market West, on Noank Avenue in the western part of town, things haven’t changed much over the past 30 years.
While the products and the appearance of the building may have evolved from when the doors first opened in 1993, the Italian-style delicatessen — and even a few of its customers — has remained essentially the same since it first opened its doors.
Across the river, about a mile away on Williams Avenue, Mystic Market East provides customers with a more contemporary showroom, specializing in take-and-make and prepared meals, part of a growing on-the-go menu that has been a profitable niche for the deli, coffeehouse and market and promises to be a big part of its future.
It is this innovative blend of traditional, quality products and contemporary offerings that founder and Mystic Market President Charles Spathakis said has allowed his business to find and maintain success for three decades now.
“It is something that grew, pretty slowly at first, but we have been able to refine our concept over the years and I believe we have something that really provides for an underserved market in our region,” Spathakis said.
The local market celebrated its 30th anniversary in early January, with Spathakis and his staff receiving proclamations from the state delivered by state Sen. Heather Somers and state Rep. Greg Howard and one from the town of Stonington delivered by First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough. The proclamations were delivered to Spathakis during a special ceremony on Jan. 6.
Norwich resident Royden Wilkinson, who lived for many years in Stonington and North Stonington, said whenever business brings him back to the area, he finds himself stopping at the Williams Street location.
“I’m not surprised to hear he’s been in business for 30 years. You just can’t beat the quality of the food,” he said while waiting for a Thai Chicken Salad at lunchtime on Wednesday. “Anytime I can, I try to stop by for lunch.”
First established in 1993 by a young restaurant worker eager to follow his own path, the Coastal Gourmet Group has expanded to operate four gourmet Mystic Markets across Connecticut, including “West” in Noank, “East” in Mystic, and locations in Old Saybrook and at Foxwoods Resort Casino. The business also runs a separate catering division and a full-service location, Aspen Restaurant, in Old Saybrook.
It certainly hasn’t been easy, Spathakis said, and in the early years he admits it took some adjustments to find the right menu and focus to set the business up for long-term success.
A 1990 graduate of Johnson & Wales University, where he received a degree in restaurant and hospitality management, Spathakis found himself working long hours in his early jobs and said it didn’t take him long to realize that if he was going to put in the time, he might as well chase his dream of opening a restaurant. He partnered with his sister, Christine Seitz, and Mystic Market was born.
“I still remember walking into that first location. It was run-down, the ceiling was leaking; it needed a lot of work,” Spathakis said with a smile. “I also remember thinking to myself that this would still be a good location to open a gourmet market.”
With a mix of deli, specialty market and pizza options, the first location opened in early January 1993 on Noank Road in West Mystic. Within a few years, the pizza option was dropped because the operation required too much space for it to remain feasible, and the market began to shift toward offering a selection of ready-to-make and other prepared foods.
Within the decade, the market had grown to the point where it had to expand, and that’s when it split into two locations, with “West” and “East” markets on each side of the river.
Since that time, the market has become a staple on both sides of the Mystic River. There are a few loyal year-round customers who come in daily or weekly, staff said, and the market continues to get strong support from tourists and vacationers during the warmer months.
It's anything but your typical corner market, though, with the company expanding its reach around southern New England to bring in a fine selection of artisanal products and foods that support small businesses and the Connecticut economy.
Inside Mystic Market East this week, shoppers were able to choose from countless Italian products, homemade foods and dried fruits prepared by Mystic Market chefs. They could also purchase items such as honey from Morell Apiaries in Preston, treats from Bureau’s Sugarhouse in Old Lyme or authentic New England ice cream from Arethusa Ice Cream in Litchfield.
The market also offers a large variety of sandwiches and paninis, freshly made soups and salads and an in-house bakery that offers a wide selection of pastries and desserts.
With both national and worldwide industry trends pointing to growing interest in niche markets catering to allergen-free, gluten-free and other specific dietary needs, Mystic Market East Manager Briana Cetrone said the company is focused on expanding its choices to help meet the needs for a larger demographic.
“We want to make ourselves more versatile and improve the selection so that we are being more mindful of those specialized needs,” Cetrone said. “We’ve worked hard to develop a reputation of being the type of place that offers those at-home kind of options, and we will need to continue to adjust to maintain that.”
The last few years have been difficult, admits Spathakis, with COVID-19 restrictions and safety precautions increasing costs, followed by both a significant rise in inflation and a staff shortage, but the markets have managed to wade through rough waters, thanks in part to both everyday staff and management.
He also gave credit to his vice president, David Griswold, and his 25-year executive chef, Jim Blair, as well as many other long-term staff members, for providing the labor, enthusiasm and dedication needed to make the market a success.
In the coming years, Spathakis said the organization is ready to grow once again — and it is looking to begin by opening another location in the coming year.
“There’s still a lot I would like to accomplish, and I plan on continuing to expand into Connecticut and Rhode Island,” he said. “I feel like we are at the forefront of the industry, and I look forward to seeing what we can accomplish.”
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