Owner Joe Fournier outside A&C Grocery at 131 Washington Ave. in Portland. Fournier has been told his lease will not be renewed when it expires next February. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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Joe Fournier knew his customers would appreciate his sense of humor when he posted April 1 on social media that his Washington Avenue business would be closing.

Fournier, the owner and self-described one-man operation at A&C Grocery, said the timing of the April Fool’s Day post was intentional, but not a joke: the business is closing next winter, although he hopes to reopen someplace else.

“It was a surprise,” Fournier said about finding out his lease would not be renewed. “If you know me, you know I’m a loose cannon, and I shoot from the hip and I’m honest about stuff. So, I’m probably not the sexiest tenant.”

Joe Fournier in the kitchen at A&C Grocery, which evolved into a restaurant after opening initially as a grocery and sandwich shop. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

A&C at 131 Washington Ave. was the product of “a lot of blood, sweat, and tears” Fournier said. He opened as a grocery store in February 2017, but eventually, the store transitioned to only being a restaurant.

“People were coming in and buying lunch, they weren’t buying Cheerios and a gallon of milk,” he said. “So, I stopped beating myself up over having cans of beans or eggs, because I’m one person and it was too many balls in the air, too many plates spinning.”

Fournier said he wasn’t given a reason why he wouldn’t have the option to renew his lease. But although he was heartbroken about losing the location at the top of Fox Street, he said he didn’t want to press the issue to find out why. Instead, he said he just wanted to focus on moving on.

“I’m not going to spend any time thinking about it,” he said. “I’ve got to move on and I’ve got to find a new home. It’s just another minor and trivial setback.”

Fournier, who grew up on Munjoy Hill, said he’s seen the neighborhood dramatically change. He described the feeling as being “an island in high tide” when he moved into the standalone building, with Portland Pottery as the only other nearby neighbor. Now, the neighborhood is much busier than it used to be, with Forage Market, Root Wild Kombucha, Maine Craft Distilling, The Cheese Shop, and Ramona’s steps away. 

“When I moved in I was sandwiched between the Creighton & Sons flower wholesaler and the old Sahara Club,” Fournier said. “No one walked down here. I created this cool little Never Never Land … and I kind of created this really awesome culture and lifestyle. A lot of my clientele are service people, and I love service people. It was a cool little getaway, a good hiding out spot for all the cooks and line workers and bartenders that need a little respite.”

Fournier said he wanted to keep the relationship with his landlord “as friendly as possible,” and was grateful for the opportunity he had to grow his business. According to city records, the building is owned by Fox Street LLC in South Freeport.

Fournier, 42, said he decided to start A&C Grocery after being a partner at the Farm Stand (now Solo Cucina Market), a farm-to-table grocery on Ocean Street in South Portland. Before that, he was the operations manager for Rosemont Markets. Fournier said he was previously a classically trained chef at restaurants in New York City and Boston before returning to Portland, where after trying to find a “real job,” he focused on creating a neighborhood grocery store.

He said the challenge on Washington Avenue was twofold.

The first was that “no one lives in this neighborhood anymore,” Fournier said, with more short-term renters and owners of vacation homes – two demographics who don’t rely on a local market. The second was the rise in competition from non-specialty stores, especially after Amazon bought Whole Foods.

Fournier said his store got pegged as a specialty, higher-end store, something closer to Rosemont rather than the basic, lower-cost goods he was selling. That led him to eventually transition to only selling the five items on his menu and abandoning being a full market.

 “My vision was to make it more inclusive and approachable,” he said. “I wanted everyone coming in whether you live in subsidized housing or a million-dollar house. And it continues to be about inclusion. It always will be about that.”

Fournier said he’s not in a rush to find a new home for the business, since his lease won’t expire until next February. But he said he wants the new space to continue to be a “reflection of what Portland is,” which he described as a “melting pot of personalities and weirdness.”

He said he’s keeping an open mind on where the next phase of A&C Grocery, which is named after his two daughters, will be. But he did say he’d prefer to find something closer to downtown rather than staying on Munjoy Hill.

The most important part, he said, is remaining faithful to the true stakeholders of A&C Grocery: the customers.

“There’s a certain level of intimacy, people really bought into the culture,” he said. “I owe it to them to find a home that’s as good or better.”