WRITTEN BY CAROL GODETTE PHOTOS PROVIDED
“Our store is gone. It’s just a story now,” states Marcia Hellwig, co-owner of Pepper’s Market from 1978-2001. November 23, 2020 signaled the end of the neighborhood landmark – Pepper’s Market ( a.k.a. Moby Rick’s Seafood). The white clapboard structure was demolished, leaving many old-time Saratogians heartbroken. A pile of rubble, all that was left of the 100-plus-year old store, saddened passersby as they stood on the corner of Lake Avenue and Warren Street. Many gathered to reflect on their fond memories of the once-beloved store.
Most recently the 50 by 70 foot lot housed Moby Rick’s Seafood. But for the better part of 100 years, the city directory categorized the business under “Meat and Provisions.” Pepper’s was the oldest continually operated meat market in Saratoga County.
Each owner adapted their wares over the years to fit the times. When competition from larger markets became a challenge, the deli aspect of the store became featured. The most recent owners to operate under the Pepper’s name- Damien Haas and Christopher Pringle- featured takeout meals, such as chicken parm.
The property was originally owned by Judge William Lafayette Warren,for whom Warren Street was named. Warren sold the land in 1866. The Saratoga Springs City Directory’s initial entry for a grocery store at this location,run by John Gillespie, appears in 1872. After his death in 1886, the Gillespie family continued to run the store until 1889. A series of stores, including Haights Market and Lake Avenue Market followed. In January 1937, butcher Victor Pepper and his wife, Blanche, purchased the market. Victor died only 7 years later. Blanche remarried, yet the name “Pepper’s” lived on. “You don’t change the name of a successful business,” notes former store owner Spencer Hellwig.
For much of my adult life, Pepper’s Market defined the neighborhood. It was more than a place to get the best potato salad or baked beans in town, it was an early morning coffee club; a well stocked newsstand; an unofficial historical center; an unofficial breakfast spot for kids as they waited to walk to nearby Lake Avenue School; an extended family; a pizza parlor; and a place where you were always treated with warmth and respect.
For me, the name Pepper’s was synonymous with Spencer and Marcia Hellwig, who owned the store for 22 years.
In September of 1978, unbeknownst to his wife Marcia, Spencer Hellwig purchased Pepper’s in a foreclosure sale. Spencer must have foreseen the long hours of work ahead of the couple. He sent friend, the late Carol Tarantino, to break the news to Marcia.
Spencer and Marcia soon found out they had to wear many hats. Spencer excelled in hand stuffing sausage and pounding veal into scallopini. Monday through Sunday, he worked 10-hour days. When the Hellwigs first took over the store, opening time was 7 AM. Retired postman John Armstrong, nicknamed “Army”, entered one morning and declared, ”What’s wrong with you people? You open too late.”
Spencer tossed over the keys to the store to Army and said, “If you wanna open early, here you go.”
Army opened the store every morning at 6 a.m for 22 years. He organized the Saratogian, New York Times, Daily News, Gazette, Times Union and the Racing Form. He made coffee for Judge Michael Sweeney and Nate Goldsmith, regular morning visitors. Army became an integral fixture at the store even though he never was on the payroll. “We didn’t make much money on the newspapers, but you could lose a lot of money if you didn’t keep track of inventory. John was very good at this,” remembers Marcia.
There were no pretenses at Pepper’s. Splintered wooden floors and simple wooden shelves lined the walls of the one-roomed space. And that was part of its charm. It didn’t matter if you were Alfred Vanderbilt, a famous jockey, or a neighborhood child with five cents to spend on Swedish Fish -everyone was treated with the same warmth and kindness.
Customers were the number one priority and the Hellwigs quickly became known for their specialized service.” If a customer came in for an item we didn’t have, Spencer would say, ‘Come back in an hour and I’ll have it for you’.” recalls long-time employee Mary Beth Moran. Instacart could have taken lessons from Spencer. This store mastered home delivery.
“I was always impressed with the way that Spencer and Marcia rolled with the times, adding things like a pizza oven,” states daughter-in-law and long-time employee Debbie Hellwig. When Spencer could no longer get bread from Vita Rich Bakery, he took classes at Schenectady Community College and learned how to bake it himself. Pepper’s soon became known for their bread, a key feature of their mouth-watering sandwiches. Neighbor Deb Reed would often go to the store just to buy Spencer’s bread.
"I loved it when they added pizza to the menu. They used quality ingredients for everything. Nothing since has ever matched that pizza,” remembers a wistful Debbie Hellwig. The Zanetti family were frequent pizza customers and Marcia was fond of their children. She knew Shane didn’t like red sauce on his pizza so when Marcia boxed it, she made sure there was always one slice with no sauce.
As life long Saratogians and parents of three sons, the Hellwigs were heavily invested in the community and local economy. Marcia made sure to stock local corn from area farmers, meat from Double A in Glens Falls as well as Al Polacsek, and milk from Price Dairy.
John Greenwood, owner of Price’s Dairy, reports, “ I delivered 18-20 half gallons of milk to their stand up cooler every Mon-Sat. morning for 10 years. It was always one of my favorite places on my route because I never left there without a Saratoga history lesson. They knew everyone. It was the quintessential family-run store.”
Pepper’s was also “the August place to be.” After morning workouts, horse trainers, jockeys, and stable boys headed straight down Ludlow Street for an early lunch or groceries. At 10 a.m., the lines would be five deep at the counter.
“Our first year we never imagined what August would be like. We never would have imagined over 50 percent of our year’s gross was done in just one month- August,” reports Marcia. In the late 70’s grocery stores did not accept credit cards. Instead, racing households set up their own local charge accounts.
“We would sell to the big houses on North Broadway and around town. The cooks would call and I would sit down with a legal pad and write up their lengthy orders for delivery. They would often request specialty products like Major Grey’s Chutney and we would find a way to supply them with it,” says Marcia.
August required extra help and college-bound neighbors were hired. Mary Beth Moran, Jen Ross, Debbie Moran and Adam Britten became an extension of the Hellwig family.
“It did not feel like a job, I loved every minute of working there. The lessons I learned from Spencer and Marcia stayed with me my whole life,” says Mary Beth.
The long hours began to take a toll on the Hellwigs.
In 2001 chef Damien Haas expressed interest in buying the store. Spencer, tired from a long August of nonstop work, said, "I’m going on vacation. Call my lawyer.”
Damien and partner Chris Pringle soon took over the operation. They were able to preserve the same family feel of the store for the next 11 years. In 2012, Moby Rick’s Seafood arrived, bringing daily fresh fish. They were an instant success.
In 2017, Gordon and Mary Sacks, of Schuylerville - based 9 Miles East Farm, eyed Pepper’s corner for a neighborhood market featuring homemade pizza and carefully selected local farm products. Sacks loved the location for its history and character. Then property owner at that time, Tom West, envisioned a neighborhood market featuring Moby Rick’s Seafood and the produce of 9 Miles East. But the original structure, towed from Lake Avenue Fire Station, was in disrepair. There was no foundation and no way to make all the necessary improvements to the building. “It had no bones,” reports Tom, an environmental attorney.
Through the lengthy variance process Tom believed, "We need to support neighborhood markets. They are an important part of the fabric of our community.”
However, after a few long years of waiting for approval, Tom decided to sell the property.
"Although we had lots of support, we met a small amount of opposition. It took a longtime to get clearance," Sacks says. Meanwhile, 9 Miles East was able to acquire Sid Stark’s garage on Excelsior Avenue, a short distance from Pepper’s. "We’re very happy to still serve the neighborhood from a slightly different location," stated Sacks. Moby Rick’s has relocated to Congress Plaza.
Samantha Bosshart of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation comments, "Pepper’s fate is a good reminder. If the building is not in a historic district, you have the potential to lose it and with that you lose an aspect of a community’s social history."
However, a little bit of Pepper’s will still live on. Anthony Caruso, owner of Caruso Home Builders, hopes to incorporate salvaged shiplap from the original structure in an accent wall of the new townhouse on this site. His building plans call for a 2200 sq. ft. unit facing Lake Avenue and a 2000 sq. foot unit facing Warren St., which was designed to look like a single family home.Caruso also pulled up the original sidewalk bricks to be laid back down.
Oh, if those bricks could talk, what a story they would have to tell!
Author’s note: Thanks to Marcia and Spencer Hellwig, Debbie Hellwig, Mary Beth Moran,John Greenwood, Jack Armstrong, Mitch Cohen, Samantha Bosshart, The Saratoga Room, Gordon Sacks, Tom West and Anthony Caruso for their contributions to this article.
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