A unique store closes doors

Jan. 26, 2013 @ 10:34 PM

Lex Alexander, who for more than three decades has worked in various ways to bring upscale groceries with a natural-food emphasis to the Durham-Chapel Hill area, is hanging up his apron – again.

Alexander, who brought the predecessor of Whole Foods to Durham in 1981, founded 3Cups, a wine and specialty food store after selling to and eventually retiring from the chain.

Now, 3Cups will be closing its doors Feb. 2, according to its website.

It’s always disheartening to lose a local business, especially one that had carved out such a unique niche as 3Cups. The retail business is perilous and fluid, of course, and stores trendy in one decade may fade in another. Changing consumer needs or habits and the rise of competitors can upend a business.

In some ways, listening to Alexander and his wife, Ann, talk about the decision to close their business is to suspect the store is victim to the very explosion of grocery and food-shopping options the Alexanders helped to initiate.

When the Alexanders came east from California and cofounded Wellspring grocery in 1981, our grocery scene was far blander and more limited than what we enjoy today, almost without a second thought.

“There were very few good stores that had artisan, good, high-quality food – kind of a European approach to food, fresh food,” Ann Alexander recalled in talking to The Herald-Sun’s Laura Oleniacz last week.

“We just sourced the best products we could possibly find,” she said. “Everybody does that now, it wasn’t happening back then.”

3Cups struggled to find a foothold in the crowded marketplace.  Lex Alexander said he believed there were “certain places in the world that produce crops of what I call archetypical, extraordinary flavor…3Cups mission was to find those products, to be the storytellers, to get people to try them,” he said.

But 3Cups had to contend with a messy dispute with a landlord at its first location on West Franklin, and then with the Great Recession after it moved to Elliott Road. In the end, it had passionate customers – just too few.

“The people that do get what we’re trying to do at 3Cups, there just aren’t enough of them,” Ann Alexander said. 

But those folks – and many others that savored the concept even if they were not frequent customers – will see a hole in Chapel Hill’s retail food and wine scene with the store’s closing.