Don't be fooled by the sign in the window at 229 Congress St. in Portland. It's really the new home of A&C Grocery. (Courtesy Portland Food Map)
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If your first thought while recently walking along Congress Street just below Washington Avenue in the city’s East End was that the last thing the city needs is another Starbucks, don’t worry: Joe Fournier agrees.

Fournier couldn’t resist taunting passersby with a sign in the window of 229 Congress St. suggesting the global coffee chain would be opening another shop there this fall.

As it turns out, the storefront across from Eastern Cemetery is about as far from Starbucks as you can get.

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)

The sign was Fournier’s twisted way of announcing he will move his popular lunch spot A&C Grocery from inner Washington Avenue at the end of Fox Street to the stretch of Congress Street that includes the Snug, Otto Pizza, Cocktail Mary, and LB Kitchen.

Fournier said it was “serendipitous” that he found the location, and he’s happy it’s in the same neighborhood.

“I saw a customer of mine walking out of the space as I was driving by, and I pulled over, and I find out he’s the building owner,” Fournier said. “… So I asked him ‘what do you think the landlord would want for this?’ And he said ‘What do you mean, I’m the landlord.’”

Fournier, who opened A&C Grocery in 2017, learned earlier this year that he would not be able to renew the lease at 131 Washington Ave. when it expires next February. He was never given a reason, although in past interviews admitted he probably wasn’t the most attractive tenant if you’re looking for someone who doesn’t share their opinions.

He announced the closure on April Fool’s Day, an intentional decision to have fun with his customers, and spent the following months looking for a new location for the business.

While A&C Grocery started out as a local neighborhood market that also served lunch and dinner, Fournier transitioned to almost exclusively being a restaurant, with a menu of just five items: a fried chicken sandwich, a chicken parmesan sandwich, an Italian sandwich, a cheeseburger, and an Impossible vegetarian cheeseburger.

He said the change happened because customers weren’t buying household staples; they were mostly coming in for lunchtime sandwiches.

Fournier plans to keep the same offerings on Congress Street, where there will also be indoor seating – something he doesn’t have on Washington, where only outdoor seating is available. Fournier wouldn’t say if he’s planning to expand the menu but did say he has “a few surprises” planned.

Fournier plans to operate both locations until his Washington Avenue lease runs out. The original A&C will cater to the lunch crowd, while the Congress Street business will be open in the evening.

“I’m happy about I because it’s in the same neighborhood and I don’t have to rebuild the clientele,” he said. “The location is great. And I’m happy to be next to Cocktail Mary. (The owner) and I are old friends.”

Fournier said he hopes the new A&C will be open by September, and he’s running a GoFundMe campaign – which he likes to call “Joe Fund Me” – to raise $25,000 and help offset the cost of the move. As of last Saturday, when the fundraising initiative itself was just over a week old, he had pledges of $8,000 from more than 80 donors.

Fournier said crowdfunding will pay for “permitting and the usual startup costs.” He said he didn’t qualify for Paycheck Protection Program funding, wasn’t eligible for disaster relief funding from the city or state, and received “minimal” emergency disaster money.

“So my hands were tied,” Fournier said. “I had to find the money somehow, and I had enough loyal supporters to crowdfund it.”

Fournier said customers seem excited about the new location, and the amount of emotional support he has received from his regular customers has been important.

“My supporters are very happy I’ll be staying in the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s a very small, tight space like I have (on Washington Avenue). It’s linear, all on one floor. It will have a great little communal feeling.”

In the meantime, people walking by the new space are still greeted by the Starbucks “coming soon” sign – which includes a smartphone-scannable QR code that takes users not to the Starbucks website, but to the A&C Grocery page and a video of Fournier announcing the move.

“It’s not Starbucks, it’s me,” he says with a chuckle. “This is the new home of A&C Grocery. Pleased to meet me. Have a great day, see you soon. Ta-ta for now.”

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