New London - For Bob Stuller, chairman of the city's Conservation Commission, a trip to Fiddleheads Food Co-op Sunday to pick up some raw milk and other necessities had the promise of a warm reward when he returned home.
"I'm going to have some hot chocolate," he said. "At least, that's what my wife promised."
Jeannette Bradford of Waterford, another shopper Sunday, said she enjoys the fresh produce from local farmers as well as the ability to get small quantities of dried fruits and nuts from the Broad Street store's bulk-foods section. The organically raised meats are a draw, too, she said.
"I don't tend to go to those big commercial places anymore," she said.
Stuller and Bradford were just two of the customers during a busy Sunday at Fiddleheads, an 8,000-square-foot enterprise that started as an indoor farmers market but more and more is resembling a hometown grocery store. The operation, which recorded a near-doubling of sales to $1.8 million last year, celebrates its fifth anniversary next Saturday with a winter farmers market from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. There will be local musicians, children's activities, refreshments, prize drawings and a 10 percent discount on purchases.
The latest touch, a 500-square-foot cafe at the front of the store, was completed late last year and includes a small area with tables and chairs as well as a spinnet piano that customers are free to use. Students from France who visited the co-op last year were particularly amused by the piano.
"They had never seen a piano in a grocery store," Sheila Herbert, Fiddeheads' grocery store manager, said.
Richard Virgin, general manager of the co-op, said the cafe is intended for customers who sample Fiddleheads' expanding section of prepared foods. In the future, he hopes to add food prepared in-house to the items that can be purchased at Fiddleheads - a list that already ranges from beer to bread and toilet paper to candles.
The co-op recently replaced its old, cracked glass door with a new, sliding entryway, and had an attractive awning installed to bring attention to the building, which had been a California Fruit grocery store for years and, before that, an A&P. Other recent changes include a new floor, improved lighting and a new computerized point-of-sale system to better track product movement.
In the near future, Virgin said, the co-op - organized originally in the Mystic area but whose customers are now split evenly between New London and out-of-towners - will enter a new era by instituting online purchasing.
"Everything we do is a celebration ... because we're growing incrementally," Virgin, former principal of the ISAAC School in downtown, said.
In 2010, the co-op passed the 1,000-member plateau, and a year later it cracked $1 million in sales.
The store's hours of operation have grown as well, and Fiddleheads is now open seven days a week. The mutually owned co-op with 1,400 members also now has a handful of employees, whereas it previously had been run entirely with volunteer help.
Members often make requests for special items, and Fiddleheads personnel do their best to track them down.
"They own the store, so they should get what they want," Virgin said.
Still, Virgin must keep in mind both members and non-members, since either could be a customer. The store accepts food stamps, for instance.
"Anybody can shop here," Virgin said.
One of the biggest advantages of shopping at a food co-op, said city resident Stuller, is that managers serve as a gatekeeper for determining which foods are grown in a sensitive way while avoiding pesticides and other harmful chemicals.
"Our emphasis is on organic, but we're not purists," said Virgin. "We try to make sure that products don't have pesticides, herbicides or preservatives - that they're food, not a bunch of chemicals."
Virgin said he has to take particular care when larger companies buy out small firms that make natural and organic products, because the formula often begins to change.
While some residents may pine for a local Trader Joe's or Whole Foods Market, and others regret the loss of the independent Puritan & Genesta natural food store in Mystic, Virgin said Fiddleheads can deliver much the same fare - at a competitive price.
Ellen Anthony, coordinator of bulk foods at Fiddleheads, said for instance that the store offers 11 different varieties of almonds as well as surprising products such as chocolate-covered macadamia nuts.
Amelia Lord, assistant coordinator of produce, said she works with many local farmers but this time of year is forced to search out fresh fare from Georgia, Florida and California, along with other temperate climes.
"You know you're getting good food," said Sherburne Stidfole of New London, a Waterford music teacher regular customer. "You know where it comes from."
Charles Frink, an 84-year-old former City Councilor and retired New London High School teacher, said in an unsolicited letter to the co-op last week noting the organization's anniversary that, for him, "Fiddleheads ... has made the difference between death and life."