New Atkins Store Opens in North Amherst Mill District

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 31st, 2015, by Scott Merzbach

Bins filled with corn, lettuce and tomatoes — as well as tables displaying locally grown fruits and vegetables, including apples and peaches — will greet customers entering the new Atkins Farms Country Market satellite store in North Amherst.

“The mainstay at Atkins has been the produce,” said store manager Matt O’Brien. “It will stare you in the face right as you walk in.”

While no products were yet on display inside the store during a recent tour, workers were completing the installation of shelves, cases and cabinets, and hooking up the freezers and refrigerators. Atkins Farms will be ready to open its new store featuring the “best of” its products at 113 Cowls Road Monday at 7 a.m.

Loyal shoppers

With so many area residents already regulars at the Atkins flagship store, opened in South Amherst in 1962 by Howard Atkins, O‘Brien said a key to the North Amherst location’s success is to ensure those customers will be able to get most of the same products at the new site. “We’re trying to get everything we can into the store, but of course there will be things we overlook,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said the location will feature well-known favorites, from the line of ready-made “Savory Suppers” to the store’s famous pies. There will be tables of olive oils, rubs, barbecue sauces, salsa and guacamole, a meat cooler with hamburger, steak, chicken and seafood, and two freezers with ice cream. The store will sell conventional and organic eggs, as well as milk, dairy-related beverages, cottage cheese, yogurt and whipped cream.

There will be a salad bar and a full deli offering meats and cheeses as well as lasagna, chicken salad, tuna salad and chicken parmesan. Another area of the store will feature desserts and bakery items such as cannolis and pecan pie squares, a selection of cakes, Pierce Brothers coffee and a variety of doughnuts, muffin and bagels will be in another area. Nearby will be a tower of the always-popular cider doughnuts.

A limited stock of grocery items, such as paper towels, toilet paper and cat food, will also be available.

O’Brien expects the store’s staff to number about five to six people — fewer than the 40 at the flagship location, in part because no food production will be done in North Amherst.

While there will be some direct deliveries, with local producers delivering fruits and vegetables and milk and cheese directly to the store, many of the products will be brought by vans first thing in the morning from the South Amherst store and then resupplied throughout the day, O’Brien said.

The “soft” opening of Atkins, which will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., comes in advance of a grand opening event scheduled for Sept. 12 from noon to 3 p.m. The event will include a ceremonial ribbon cutting at 1 p.m. and free samples, along with a raffle to benefit the Amherst Survival Center.

From the outside, the business appears ready to open, with a freshly paved parking lot, a sign over the entrance and the store’s logo — a large “A” with an apple centered over it.

Renovating the ‘Cow Palace’

The store is located in a 4,200-square-foot renovated farm building known as the Cow Palace, which reflects the agricultural heritage that once existed alongside the lumber operation at W.D. Cowls. About 2,500 square feet will be set aside for retail space.

The renovation — performed by Integrity Development and Construction, using plans developed by Kuhn-Riddle Architects — included efforts to maintain as much of the building’s original appearance as possible, using its timber frame and preserving its full structural shell. Only minor changes were made to the building’s exterior, bringing back the original red siding and keeping the roofline intact.

W.D. Cowls President Cinda Jones said Atkins will be an important component of the continued commercial development of the Mill District, located between Montague and Sunderland roads, where numerous commuters pass by daily to get to and from the University of Massachusetts.

“We want this to not be your grandmother’s Atkins,” Jones said. “This will be faster-paced, more fun, and attract families and young professionals.”

Anna Cook, president and co-owner of Integrity Development and Construction, said work on the project began shortly after the company completed another building in the Mill District: the Trolley Barn, which is now occupied by the Lift hair salon and Bread and Butter restaurant. While Integrity had converted barns into dwellings before, this was the company’s first time working on a conversion to a commercial establishment, Cook said.

“Working around old structures is more time consuming,” she said, noting that the work involved replacing almost the entire foundation and assessing the structure timber-by-timber to bring the building up to code. Some original beams remain in place and a portion of the hay trolley on the ceiling — once used to deposit hay to the cows in their pens — is still intact. Cook said some steel was used to support the roof at its highest point.

Jones said it was a lengthy process to get the building ready. “Converting a cow barn to a commercial food store is a complicated project,” she said.

But, she said, she appreciates the work Integrity did. “We learned a lot about the costs and benefits of building out an antique structure,” Jones said. “This one was an education and we now know how to do better next time.”

Jones declined to provide the cost of the project, but said it would have been cheaper to build from scratch. “It was more costly and expensive than building from the ground up,” Jones said of the decision to refurbish the former barn.

Besides the hay trolley, other elements of the store’s decor will pay homage to the building’s history, from handmade signs reading “bull pen,” “calf pen,” and “milking room” to bathroom signs reading “bulls” and “cows” to a large ceramic cow positioned above a refrigerated case.

Future of the Mill District

Atkins is the latest development in an area Cinda Jones envisions becoming a destination for shoppers and diners — with the hope that the district will eventually feature entertainment, too.

Jones said she is trying to figure out what to do with the former sawmill building, rebuilt several years ago following a fire, and the Antique Barn, a prominent building that faces Montague Road.

Mollye Wolahan, vice president of real estate for W.D. Cowls, is in charge of this process. Wolahan said she is meeting with town planning staff about what municipal bylaws would allow, and how to preserve and productively reuse the buildings. If Cowls can renovate the Antique Barn, it may do another build-out for commercial purposes.

Those who have worked on the project are confident that Atkins will find similar success to what it has in South Amherst, because North Amherst is considered a food desert. While there are stores like Watroba’s Market and Cumberland Farms where neighborhood residents can buy the basics — as well as Cushman Market and Cafe a mile or so away — there is no small-scale grocery store.

Cook said even if she hadn’t overseen the renovation work, as a Shutesbury resident she has yearned for a place closer to home where she can do much of her grocery shopping.

“People in North Amherst are desperate to have a place like this,” Cook said.

If Atkins North proves popular, an addition could easily be completed — Cook explained that utilities were intentionally installed out of the way of any possible expansion area.

Evan Jones, president of the Cowls Building Supply store, said he hopes for success — and then, maybe, an expansion project.

“We’re ready when they say go,” Jones said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at