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    Saturday, April 01, 2023

    How Mystic Market evolved and flourished over 30 years

    Kelly Russell looks at the pastry display Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, while shopping at the Mystic Market located on Williams Avenue. Mystic Market, which now has four sites, is marking its 30th anniversary. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Charles Spathakis is president and founder of The Coastal Gourmet Group, which owns and operates the four existing Mystic Markets and also runs a catering division and Aspen Restaurant in Old Saybrook. He is photographed at the Mystic Market site on Williams Avenue in Mystic. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Fran Hoffman, of Mystic, shops Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, at the Mystic Market location on Williams Avenue in Mystic. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Spicy broccoli, with carrots, red peppers, and red curry dressing, at Mystic Market. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Kale mango, with quinoa and pablano beans, at Mystic Market. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    House roast beef, with caramelized onions, blue cheese crumble, arugula and black garlic folio, at Mystic Market. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Mystic Market, which is celebrating 30 years in business, was at the forefront of what has become a huge trend of venues selling prepared foods.

    Mystic Market Kitchen & Eatery, where customers can buy what founder Charles Spathakis described as high-quality food that’s prepared by highly-trained chefs for takeout, has grown over the years. It has increased its locations; currently, there are two in Mystic, one in Old Saybrook and one at Foxwoods. And it’s still expanding, with Spathakis looking at potential new sites in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

    Countless restaurants and food markets have opened and closed over the past 30 years, so how has Mystic Market managed to thrive? Spathakis said it’s “because we focus on our products, hands down. I always say that you can never cut corners with your food, and we have a very high threshold for the quality of the product we put out. We do it at a very value-oriented price, but at the end, it's consistency. You know what you're going to get when you go to Mystic Market.”

    Prepared foods have had the strongest growth in the food industry in the last five years, he says. Even supermarkets have started offering them. So the audience for a business like Mystic Market has only increased over the past three decades.

    “We’re a very fast-paced society. You have people who are working, whether it’s a two-income household or a single person that wants a high-quality, healthy meal, but by the time you go to the supermarket, grab the ingredients and make it, it takes a lot of time. At the end, honestly, if you cost it out, you’re going to save money and effort by buying it here. I think that’s a big part of it,” Spathakis said.

    Spathakis is president and founder of The Coastal Gourmet Group, which owns and operates the four existing Mystic Markets, and runs a catering division as well as Aspen Restaurant in Old Saybrook.

    Trial and error

    Mystic Market sells a range of creative gourmet sandwiches and paninis, soups, salads, pastries, and Gourmet to Go prepared meals.

    “What sets us aside is there’s something for everyone when you come into a Mystic Market. A huge part of our business is sandwiches,” he said.

    The salads, too, are big sellers, especially during spring and summer.

    Spathakis said the top-selling salads now are probably the spicy noodles; the Greek salad with tomato, feta and kalamata olives; the kale-mango-quinoa salad; and the various chicken salads, which include Thai and curry.

    Sometimes, it’s been difficult to figure out which item will sell well.

    “You would put something out, and it would sell great the first time you put it out. You’d put it out two weeks later, and it would sell so-so. It was frustrating – ‘Wait a second, how did it sell well before, but it’s not selling well now?’ You have to keep doing it to truly see if it was just a weird (situation),” he said.

    “It’s trial and error, there’s no doubt about it.”

    Now, they tend to keep about 80 percent of the offerings consistent, while the rest rotate; “That was the other issue (from customers) – ‘You had it last week, why don’t’ you have it now?’” he said.

    They keep an eye on trends and whether, say, something isn’t selling as fast as it used to. If a lot of people ask for a dish the market hasn’t had for a while, they’ll rotate it back in.

    Just a sampling

    Here is a random sampling of Mystic Market items:

    Prepared dinners range from crab cakes with remoulade sauce ($18.99) to chipotle pulled pork with sweet potato mash ($12.99).

    Salads include the Detox Salad ($9.99 a pound), made with shredded Brussel sprouts, pecans, quinoa and dried cranberries.

    Among the sandwich options: The Raging Bull ($12.95) consists of the market’s house-roasted beef and aged cheddar with lettuce, tomato, red onion and horse radish mayo on the market’s freshly baked French bread.

    From Waterford to Mystic Market

    Spathakis grew up in Waterford and, wanting to go into the food business, attended the renowned Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. The school made sure that students like Spathakis who were focused on the business side of things also went through some culinary training. Spathakis cooks but says he’s not at the level of, say, chef Tom Prue at Aspen. (Spathakis says his wife, Jacqueline, though, thinks he underestimates his cooking abilities.)

    Spathakis was 25 years old when he started Mystic Market. He actually wanted to open a restaurant, after getting his bachelor’s degree in hospitality management at Johnson & Wales, and he worked for a few different companies. Then his sister Christine Seitz, who was in real estate, saw a listing for the site that became the first Mystic Market. It was at 375 Noank Road, Mystic, and it had been The Market, a gourmet specialty shop and deli founded by Judi and Celeste Caracausa, before it closed a couple of years earlier.

    At that time, Spathakis wanted to do pizza; “I had this whole brick-oven idea,” he said. But he also saw upscale markets in New York City like Dean & DeLuca and Balducci’s, and he thought variations on the concept might work in southeastern Connecticut.

    The first Mystic Market opened on Jan. 6, 1993.

    “It took a little time to really develop the business and be profitable. It wasn’t easy – a lot of long hours,” Spathakis said.

    Seitz, who had learned to cook primarily from their mother, joined the business and became one of the chefs.

    They increased what they were offering and hired other chefs. They started catering as well.

    As for the pizza, Spathakis said it “was very well received, and the rest of the market was doing well, too, with the foods, but the issue was, you basically had to shut down the whole kitchen to do pizza because it took the whole area.”

    So they had to decide to go in one direction or another: the pizza, or the sandwiches, grinders, salads and prepared foods.

    The pizza was jettisoned, and Mystic Market really embraced the idea of prepared foods, adding more of them.

    About eight years later, the site at 63 Williams Ave., Mystic, became available, at a time when Spathakis was looking to expand Mystic Market. It was 5,500 square feet, compared to the original spot’s 2,500. That provided space for a much bigger kitchen so they could go further with their catering business, which they started around 1997.

    Aspen and Old Saybrook

    Spathakis still wanted to open a restaurant, and he and his wife found the perfect spot in Old Saybrook. They established Aspen there in 2007.

    “Aspen’s been very well received in the community, very consistent,” he said, noting that Aspen chef Prue is a “phenomenal chef, very creative in his cuisine.”

    But when people who knew Spathakis from Mystic Market saw him in Old Saybrook, they assumed he was opening a new market in the town.

    “They were all disappointed it wasn’t going to be Mystic Market. At that point, my focus wasn’t really on expanding this brand. I had just launched the restaurant. I was kind of going more toward sit-down restaurants at that point,” he said.

    But then an Old Saybrook spot, at 70 Mill Rock Road East, became available. A Mystic Market opened there in 2015, and it has been a success.

    “If I could find 10 more locations like that … Nobody knew what a great spot that would turn out to be for that type of business,” he said.

    In addition to Aspen, Coastal Gourmet also ran the Latitude 41 restaurant at Mystic Seaport Museum from 2009 to 2022, as part of its contract to manage all events and dining at the museum. (The former Latitude 41 building is scheduled to be demolished to make way for a boutique hotel.) “Big undertaking, but it worked for many years,” Spathakis said.

    Expanding to more towns

    Mystic Market opened a location at Foxwoods in 2021, and Spathakis is looking at towns for more sites, with Guilford and the Warwick area at the top of the list.

    Not every location is a hit. A Mystic Market opened in Westport four years ago, next to a busy commuter lot. It turns out, though, that people only wanted to get off the train, jump in their cars are leave — not shop. The company was trying to market the site more, but then COVID-19 hit; no one was commuting and the lot was empty. That Mystic Market ended up closing.

    "I'm really very cautious right now, looking to see where our ideal (spot is),” Spathakis said. "Demographically, we know. It always comes down to you want to be in the area where all the chains are, so I'm looking out in the Warwick area. But do I go to East Greenwich to be in the town?” Or does he go somewhere else?

    Supply chain issues and COVID-19

    As so many businesses have, Mystic Market has run into supply chain issues over the past couple of years. For instance, Spathakis said, "We couldn’t get turkey. My wife would say, ‘I can't believe you’re talking about turkey every day.’ She'd hear me on the phone – she’d go, ‘Don't tell me — turkey.’”

    The market had set up contracts with companies for turkey, but the companies couldn’t provide it, saying it was a labor issue, with workers calling out sick with COVID-19 and so on. Avian flu had an impact as well.

    "This last year, I spent more time sourcing the product just to keep things going,” said Spathakis, who does a lot of the purchasing.

    The market saw other changes during the first phases of COVID-19. For instance, during the holidays, people didn’t want to have big family get-togethers and go out to a restaurant; there was consequently a big spike in sales of Mystic Market’s holiday meals.

    What the market is doing is focusing on its high-volume items, which include the sandwiches, prepared foods and salads, and soup.

    “What COVID-19 made us learn is you can't do everything,” Spathakis said. “And what I used to do 10 years ago is not as easy to do now because the labor market is so tight, especially in culinary. In this field, in food, it's become extremely difficult. You can't find the right help. We're blessed that we have all the great help we do — I have people who have been with me for many, many years. Our core has remained consistent. And they have absorbed a lot of the stress, especially the last couple of years. I commend them all the time."

    Marking the 30th anniversary of Mystic Market, Spathakis said, “To think back on how we started to where we are now – it’s been an amazing journey.”

    The golden ticket

    In celebration of its 30th anniversary, Mystic Market is offering various prizes and discounts throughout the year.

    With a nod to the golden tickets from “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory,” the market has hidden coupons in Gourmet to Go meals. The coupon might be for a free large coffee or a free sandwich, or it might be for 10% off the next in-store purchase. Other possibilities: deals at Aspen for free cocktails, appetizers or 25% off.

    In addition, each Wednesday is “Senior Citizen Appreciation Day,” where seniors buying three Gourmet to Go meals get one of equal or lesser value free.


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