Even before they began talking delicious Common Crow foods, like Beef Cabbage-Roll Soup, owners Pat Towler and Kate Noonan began our interview thanking people, starting with builder Stanley Poole, who did everything he could to create an environmentally responsible building for his new tenants: all LED-lighting, state of the art, high efficiency refrigeration and HVAC systems. An example of the detail in this environmentally responsible pledge? – the heat generated from the refrigeration units is reclaimed to preheat hot water in the kitchen.
Poole had not even known the organic natural market existed in Gloucester, but confessed he always envisioned a “farm store” in his new Pond Rd. and Eastern Ave. space. From the beginning of their owner/tenant partnership Poole was as committed as Towler and Noonan to creating an environmentally responsible building.
“It’s really hard to find a contractor with that point of view,” Towler said. Building a grocery store, she added, is the third most complex kind of structure to build, right behind an airport or a hospital. With imposing refrigeration, a commercial kitchen’s hygienics, and the finesse of well-placed shelving, a grocery is part lab, part hospital, part general store. Environmentally responsible building means additional expenses, but a long return on investments for the community and the environment.
Towler and Noonan thanked the City of Gloucester, who provided a Community Development Block Grant intended to help small businesses grow, and which helped fund the new building. The new Common Crow created twenty-eight new jobs for the Cape Ann community. The store grew 60%, going from twenty-eight to fifty-six employees when it moved to Eastern Ave from downtown.
Speaking of downtown, Towler says the decision to leave their “nest” on Elm St. meant “some convincing” and “some heart-wrenching.”
“We had forty-five years of representation downtown,” she said, referring to a natural food culture that began with The Glass Sail Boat (now Alchemy), included the old Food Coop on Emerson Ave., and then the Crow’s shift to an independent natural food grocer, nested first on Pleasant St. and then on Elm.
“We always thought we’d be downtown,” Noonan admitted, but the parking and facilities necessary to support a larger downtown grocery store proved too hard to secure.
After some resistance, many of the downtown customers have found their way to Eastern Ave. For some “heritage” customers, the LED-bright expanse was “jaw-dropping.”
“Long-time customers have walked in the door and burst into tears,” Towler said, proving how poignant if feels to trust a food source, how strong and significant that bond can be.
Towler and Noonan thanked Bob Gillis at Cape Ann Savings Bank for allowing them to purchase more expensive, lower-emission equipment, again that investment in community and environment. These immense costs are almost invisible to the shopper focused on bulk oats and organic milk. These costs lumber unsexy, unseen in the walls and backrooms, but their impact on the environment proves how this group – Pat Towler, Kate Noonan, Stanley Poole, and Cape Ann Savings Bank – were committed to so much more than good groceries when they began to build.
Have you noticed a whole new look to the Common Crow, their bold, board sign with the modern, serif-less font? Rockport resident Stephanie Cornell, whose grocery resume includes helping run an eight million dollar renovation of the large Austin, Texas grocer, Central Market, has managed the Crow’s new version of their old message. The font is new but the Common Crow message has not budged from its origins.
“Grocery stores are basically real estate arranged by large manufacturers,” Towler said. Cereal and soda companies, and vendors who can afford it, “rent’ shelves. While the new Common Crow is grander, brighter, and more energy responsible, the integrity is the same.
“I bring real food to people in the community, food we trust, and believe in, food that is made the way we want all food to be made – with no chemicals, using fair trade practices, on a human scale. My space is not for sale,” Towler said with her singular quiet authority.
And how about the food? That kitchen is producing (from scratch!) all organic prepared entrees, wraps, and soups like, as mentioned, that Beef Cabbage Roll, Coconut Curry Vegetable, and Kale Sausage. Soup stocks are created, just like home, from simmering organic chicken bones. In fact, my favorite new addition to the new Common Crow might be their homemade chicken and vegetables stocks available in the refrigerator. Cook Rung Mclean is in the kitchen preparing authentic Thai recipes like Panang curry and spring rolls. The gleaming stainless steel kitchen includes two full-time bakers (almost).
There is just more room for more small producers, more possibilities for humanely sourced, organic, fair trade and local products now that the Crow has more shelves. Valle Sante pastas, Flying Bird Botanics, Grindstoneneck smoked fish, and of course Alprilla Farm local produce are examples of new products and old friends. Remember that heritage turkeys from Stonewood Farms in Orwell, VT can be ordered in advance through the Common Crow. And this year, Towler and Noonan have invested in Essex farmer, Liz Jaeger who has started a local heirloom, turkey business. To the very lucky, a few of these birds are available to order. About those well-stocked Crow shelves? – some of the Crow’s fixtures are original Glass Sail Boat pieces, practically Cape Ann heirlooms.
The last Common Crow thank you – in the shape of “Crow Fest” – goes out to the whole Cape Ann Community. An all-day celebration this Saturday, Crow Fest begins on your bike; join up with friends to ride your bike to the new Crow, where all kinds of Crow-ish fun like cider pressing, drumming, and a “family plant walk” will be happening, along with, of course, good local food and music. It is also, by the way, National Food Day.
Pat Towler offers this luscious, nutritious Smoky Chipotle Sweet Potatoes recipe,, which would “crow” beside slices of heirloom turkey on our favorite day to say thanks.
Pat Towler’s Smoky Chipotle Sweet Potatoes
4 large sweet potatoes
1/2 cup (1 stick) grass fed butter, salted
1/2 cup organic Grade B maple syrup
1 chipotle pepper in adobo, chopped
2 tablespoons reserved adobo sauce
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
10-12 cloves peeled garlic, smashed
1 teaspoon smoked sweet paprika
1 teaspoon paprika salt to taste
- Preheat oven to 400ºF Wash the sweet potatoes and cut into 2-inch chunks. Parboil in salted water for 5-7 minutes; potatoes should still be firm. Drain and transfer to a large baking dish.
- In a saucepan over low heat, gently melt the butter with the maple syrup. When just melted, stir in the remaining ingredients all at once. Warm over a low heat for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Pour the warm mixture over the potatoes and toss gently. Bake for 30 minutes, turning once, or just until caramelized.
Crow Fest Schedule of Events
- 9am Bike Brigade Road: Bikes meet Jim Dowd at Niles Beach, Gloucester for Guided Ride to Store. Mountain Bikes meet Erin Canniff at Dock Square, Rockport for Guided Ride through South Woods
- 10am Crow Fest Begins Cider Press Demonstration and Fresh Cider Sampling by Essex County Greenbelt, Community Tables with Cape Ann Farmers Market, Rockport Exchange, Open Door, Cape Ann Fresh Catch, Salt Marsh Poultry Farm, Cape Ann Vernal Pools, Reptile Display, Vendor Demos and Storewide Samples & Giveaways
- 10-11 Music: Bonnie Barrish & Jane Shapiro
- 10-12 Kid & Family Art Activity: Coco Berkman & Rocky Delforge Printmaking Station
- 11am Wellness: Family Plant Walk with Dr. Nicole Andrade
- 12-2pm Wellness: Common Crow Medicine Show with owner Pat Towler
- 12-1pm Music: Drumming with John Holland & Lisa Bouchie
- 12-4pm Kid & Family Art Activity: Crow Mural painting with Tina Lamond
- 1-2pm Music: Brian King with Mike Leggio
- 1-2pm Ayurvedic Tour with Angela Corcoran
- 2-4pm Wellness: Complimentary Chair Massage by Karen Lohnes
- 2-4pm Wellness: Meet the Herbalist with Margi Flint
- 2-4pm Music: Treehouse Charlatans