T here are certain items the health-conscious may seek out on a regular basis—quinoa, for example—which can be slightly difficult to find in your mainstream grocery store.
Then there’s Edge of the Woods, a market on Whalley Avenue in New Haven, where you’d be hard pressed to miss the quinoa. There are shelves of it.
The family-owned store is dedicated to facilitating a healthy lifestyle, which is evident from the moment you walk through the front doors and are greeted by bins of produce, much of it organic, and perhaps an end cap display featuring packages of flavored dried kale. In addition to many traditional grocery staples is an exceptional selection of specialty foodstuffs: cases of frozen meatless entrees, bulk herbs and a dizzying array of rice milks.
Edge of the Woods is a vegetarian establishment (except for some of the pet food they stock) and features a hot bar, a juice bar, a bakery, an impressive vitamin section, a sandwich bar and a deli, with a delicious daily array of prepared vegetarian foods that could excite even the most conventional eaters. That’s in addition to their collection of books and various holistic and healing items. (Looking for Himalayan salt lamps? You’ve come to the right place.)
The store interior is decorated with colorfully painted wooden signs, faux ivy, randomly placed trinkets and bulletin boards overflowing with flyers. You might spot a salesperson greeting a regular customer with a hug; a cheerful employee is likely to ask if you need help finding anything.
Upstairs, where the vitamins, herbs and books are displayed, is a small sitting area—a quiet spot to enjoy your lunch or a cup of coffee and some vegan carrot cake. It’s where they conduct a free yoga and meditation class every Sunday evening.
All of this wraps up into a shopping experience that feels more authentic and earnest than the cookie-cutter one we’re used to at big box stores and major chains, and it makes sense: those qualities are built into Edge of the Woods’s unusual history. The store was opened in 1977 by a group of yogis who wanted to promote their healthful lifestyle to the public. “The philosophy that existed 35 years ago still exists today,” says owner Peter Dodge.
Dodge was one of those yogis. The others have since gone in other directions, but Dodge stuck around; today he owns and runs the store along with his wife and two sons, who, in addition to their full time duties are heavily involved in a number of charity efforts worldwide and in the United States. For example, they recently helped victims of Hurricane Sandy in Long Island rebuild their homes.
A successful, family-run, community-engaged grocery store seems old-fashioned in these modern times. And it’s unusual to find one operating under the same ownership for all these years.
Fittingly, you’re likely to find Dodge not in an office, or manning operations from home, but surveying and stocking supplies in the aisles, wearing an apron just like other employees. Upon meeting the serious and serene owner, who talks about his business with both practicality and passion, it becomes clear he’d have it no other way. He’s quick to give credit to his “well-seasoned” staff, saying they’re a major factor in maintaining customer satisfaction, and he has a point: his tried-and-true, knowledgeable and quirky crew—along with a diverse customer base—help make shopping there more than an errand.
Local character Eric Triffin, for example, the former West Haven health director perhaps better known as “Carrotman” (as he often dons a carrot suit in the name of healthy eating), is a longtime friend of Dodge’s and faithful employee who helps with promotions and special events at the store.
Underlying everything, “we try to make it so it’s affordable to buy natural foods,” Dodge says, noting that they source their goods at local markets six days a week to get the best prices they can for their customers. While you can certainly spend a pretty penny at the store—splurging on a $50 bottle of vitamins for instance—modestly priced items are always available.
Still, staying competitive is getting harder, Dodge says, given the growing popularity of stores like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and the recently opened Elm City Market co-op in Downtown New Haven, which offer the same or similar healthy and socially responsible grocery items. Not to mention the effect of an economy in recovery.
But it’s also hard to worry about the shop’s future during a bustling Monday afternoon. Rather than looking at their watches or distractedly talking on cell phones, customers are carefully reading labels and examining apples and lettuce. They’re enjoying their shopping experience, and they seem to want to stay awhile at the Edge of the Woods.
Edge of the Woods Natural Market
379 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 8:30am-7:30pm, Sat 8:30am-6:30pm, Sun 9am-6pm
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.