Just a couple of months after Auntie Crae’s closed down, a new tenant has taken over the space and has ambitious plans to open a new business by the beginning of March.
Local businessman Dave Hopley — owner of Living Planet, Johnny Ruth and Pi — along with four other partners, took over the space Feb. 1, and is working to renovate the interior before reopening as Rocket Bakery and Fresh Food.
“We had a casual conversation, talking about opening a bakery. We were doing some preliminary investigation,” said Hopley, in the second-floor office above the empty former specialty-food shop on Water Street in downtown St. John’s.
“I think it was in September when we heard that (Auntie Crae’s owner) Janet Kelly might be retiring or closing out, so we approached her to see what her plans were, and she said she was probably going to end things this year or next. Around about October, she contacted us and said she was definitely retiring, so we made an offer to rent the space, and that’s what set the whole thing in motion.”
Hopley says Rocket will have a full bakery, with breads, desserts and cookies, and the store has a cake decorator on board. He plans to expand beyond simply soup and sandwiches for lunch to pasta, quiches and rice, as well as takeout. An expanded coffee section is also in the works, with local offerings and full barista drinks such as cappuccinos and lattes. Rocket also wants to offer gourmet items or hard-to-find items to cater to home chefs.
The food section will be in the hands of a pair of locals: Phil Goodland will look after the bakery, while Mike Hopley will oversee the catering and prepared foods. Hopley said the third-floor space will be available for catering, receptions, corporate meetings and musical events.
Hopley said he and his partners bandied about a few “Newfoundland-ish” names for the new venture, but nothing sounded quite right, so they went in a different direction.
“We liked the icon of the rocketship. Myself and one of my partners are fans of sci-fi imagery from the ’50s and ’60s,” he said. “And you can read into that there is the word ‘Rock’ in it, like Newfoundland, and ‘rock it,’ as in rock music, so there’s that type of thing. But mostly it’s just a fun name that we can use the imagery.”
Hopley acknowledged there’s a certain amount of pressure following Auntie Crae’s, a popular institution since 1977.
“There’s certainly a lot to measure up to. We don’t want to disappoint people,” he said. “We’re pretty excited about what we’re going to have to offer, but we recognize that there’s a history here.”
At the same time, said Hopley, Auntie Crae’s laid the groundwork for a clientele that he hopes to recapture.
“It’s sort of taking her basic concept and working with it. We’re not changing the whole thing entirely, so we’re hoping to satisfy a large chunk of her customer base and expand on that,” he said. “Even while we’ve been working away, people have been coming up and knocking on the door — either they didn’t know she was closed or they’re asking when we’re opening.”