FORT GREENE — With her Midwestern charm and mind for business, Amy Bennett has her finger on the pulse of the neighborhood's changing demographics and has a feel for its growing needs and desires.
Those instincts, combined with a deep love for her neighborhood, has created a recipe for success for the former lawyer. Bennett has built a flourishing, yet self-reflective, food and drink empire on Fulton Street, in the heart of Fort Greene.
“We are responsive to the community and truly try to cater to what the people who live here want,” Bennett said.
In 2004, she took a chance on a wine shop with her then-boyfriend, Jason Richelson. Greene Grape opened before the neighborhood knew it was ready for a shop solely for wine.
The police officer who fingerprinted Bennett for her liquor license application questioned her sanity.
“A wine shop in Fort Greene?” the cop asked Bennett. “Never gonna work.”
But work it did, as locals quickly became enamored with the large selection of affordable wines and a nifty database designed to remember their favorite bottle.
Basking in the merlot-tinted glow of its quick success, Bennett and Richelson in 2008 rented a new space down the block to house a small artisanal grocery store, Greene Grape Provisions. Locals were ready this time, as Provisions quickly spilled over with lines of eager neighbors, hungry for grass-fed beef and local organic produce.
Three years later, the space across the street from Provisions became available and The Greene Grape Annex was born, serving locally roasted brews and buttery baked goods.
Fast forward to 2012: a new day and a new endeavor.
As Bennett looked down Fulton Street at the corner of South Portland, she pointed out storefronts, remembering the many businesses that have come and gone in the 12 years since she moved in.
One of those currently on the way out is Southern food restaurant, Night of the Cookers, started by Phil Myers in 1999.
"Night of the Cookers is the last neighborhood bar of its kind in this area," said Howell Wildo, 88, who moved to Fort Greene in 1964. Wildo recalled "swingin'" nights in the bar where live jazz and good company always welcomed patrons.
"I am sad to see it go," he said.
But Myers is ready to settle down, Bennett said, and is happy to rent her the space.
“Phil watched me grow up as a business,” she said. “He has been nothing but supportive.”
Bennett recently picked up the keys to her new space.
The plan is for the Provisions market, currently at 753 Fulton St., to move into the new and larger space at 767 Fulton St., next door to the wine shop at 765 Fulton St.
“Its current space isn’t laid out well,” she said. “The line snakes around the store. We have outgrown it.”
The new Provisions will have a large butcher counter, where butchers trained in-house will carve whole steers and other local livestock and hang and cure their own meat. There will also be a sustainably caught fish and seafood counter.
Bulk food bins will be installed where locals can stock up on grains, legumes and more. There will also be space for a more expansive selection of produce and cheeses. Bennett sees the possibilities for the new space as endless, hoping that everything will be bigger and better than before.
Local mom Camella Aitcheson is excited about the expansion. She has lived in the neighborhood 12 years and has shopped at Provisions since it opened.
Aitcheson admits that it can be pricey, but the staff is the friendliest around. And to her, there is no better place to buy fresh fish, olives and coffee in the neighborhood.
Ray Goodman agreed that the Grape's expansion is a good idea. He's only lived in the area for a year but says that the market needs more space.
"It is way too crowded in there," he said.
The smaller spot that currently houses Provisions will be converted into a shop for prepared foods. Bennett envisions a possible salad bar and rotisserie chickens.
She is open to community input, however, and is currently circulating a survey, asking locals what they would like to see happen in the old space.
There is no doubt Bennett is slowly conquering Fulton Street between South Elliot Place and South Oxford Street, but she does it with heart and an eye toward the community. She recently hosted a phone bank and fundraiser for President Obama in her new space and is working with Clinton Hill–based 'Occupy Sandy' to gather and deliver donations to Hurricane Sandy victims.
She is also employing more than 70 people, and takes the fact that they depend on her very seriously.
“I have to be financially savvy, not only for myself but also for my employees,” she said.
When asked if she thinks that Greene Grape's expansion is contributing to gentrification of the neighborhood, Bennett could not give a definitive answer.
“The neighborhood is changing,” Bennett said. “Whether I am helping to create that change or just responding to it, I’m not sure."
But she was sure that in 40 years, she hopes Greene Grape will still have a place in the ever-changing neighborhood.
And Wildo, with or without Night of the Cookers, said, "Fort Greene is still swingin.'"