Chapel Hill shop 3Cups to close

Jan. 22, 2013 @ 08:45 PM

Lex Alexander, co-founder of the Wellspring grocery stores that sold to the natural grocery chain Whole Foods in 1991, launched the 3Cups shop in Chapel Hill after coming out of retirement.
The shop sells coffee, tea, wine and other products from a space on Elliott Road in Chapel Hill. But the store will close Feb. 2, according to a statement on the company’s website, as the owners believe the business model is no longer financially sustainable.
“Most Americans buy on price and commodity, they don’t really care about quality,” said Ann Alexander, Lex Alexander’s wife, the co-founder of Wellspring, and the executive director of downtown’s Durham Central Park. “The people that do get what we’re trying to do at 3Cups, there just aren’t enough of them.”
The Alexanders co-founded Wellspring in 1981. They moved from California, where they worked in a food store, and had spent time traveling in Europe, where they had seen stores like Wellspring, Ann Alexander said.
“There were very few food stores that had artisan, good, high quality food – kind of a European approach to food, fresh food,” she said, in the country. “We just sourced the best products we could possibly find,” she added. “Everybody does that now. It wasn’t happening back then.”
Lex Alexander, who said he’d previously worked as a golf pro, raised a small amount of money from 20 to 30 people to launch the Wellspring business. He also said two of their friends moved to Durham from California and stayed for a year to help.
The first Wellspring opened in Durham at 1002 Ninth St., which is the location that most recently housed the Magnolia Grill restaurant before it closed, Ann Alexander said. The store moved in 1986 to the space that previously housed George’s Garage. It was after the acquisition by Whole Foods that the store moved to Broad Street, she said.
In 1990, they started another Wellspring location in Chapel Hill, she said. They were looking at starting one in Raleigh, but the opportunity with Whole Foods came up.
“We had two kids and 200 employees,” she said. “It was a wonderful opportunity…”
For about 10 years subsequently, Ann Alexander said her husband worked for Whole Foods, and developed the company’s private label product line. He retired, and when he was tired of being retired, he started 3Cups.
With the shop, he set out to start a business that would carry the artisanal products that he’s passionate about, she said.
“The reason I did 3Cups is I believe there are certain places in the world, like Darjeeling, India, that produces crops of what I call archetypal, extraordinary flavor,” Lex Alexander said. “So 3Cups’ mission was to find these products, to be the storytellers, to get people to try them,” he added.
The first 3Cups location was on West Franklin Street in the development known as The Courtyard. The shop moved to its existing location on Elliott Road following a dispute with the Franklin Street property’s former owner. The Courtyard is now under new ownership, and is undergoing a redevelopment.
“Every small business needs a long runway to take off, and our experience there was the landlord didn’t pay the rent on the parking lot, and the parking lot got chained off, and essentially ran us out of business there,” he said. “And that definitely made a shorter runway. We had to take a lot of our capital to relocate the business.”
Ann Alexander said the store started at the location “at the worst possible time” about eight years ago. She said that while the shop had a supportive, passionate customer base, there weren’t enough of those customers.
Lex Alexander said the closing is bittersweet.
“I’m so proud of 3Cups, and the one thing I’m so sad about, other than not being able to get a lot of these products myself, and being able to tell the story of these extraordinary farmers, from … locations around the world,” he said.
Ann Alexander said that her husband had a stroke a year and a half ago. She said that’s not a direct reason for closing the shop, but “life is a little bit different now.” As to what’s going to happen next – she said it will not be another retail establishment.
“From 1981, the whole thing was to find the highest quality food and to support the food artisans in the country, and the world, that are putting out the best, highest quality food, at a decent value,” she said. “He’s been doing that since 1981, that’s what we did at Wellspring, that’s what he did at Whole Foods, and that’s what he did at 3Cups.”