The aisles of Cunha’s Country Grocery were bustling with customers on Thursday afternoon, but the business was too little, too late to save the 85-year-old Main Street icon.
Like a funeral procession, locals streamed through the checkout line to pay respects to the employees as they rang up what could be their final purchases. Citing about two years of lagging business, the owners of Cuhna’s Country Grocery announced on Thursday they would close down the Half Moon Bay landmark in the coming weeks.
The surge of customers and sympathy was a nice gesture, said longtime clerk Ana Contreras, who said some of the sympathy seemed hollow after years when it felt to her many in the community had turned away from Cunha’s.
“Everyone comes in saying, ‘We’re sad to see you go,’” she said. “Well, we’re sadder … If some of these people shopped here, maybe the store wouldn’t be closing.
“Being the nice store on the corner, that’s not enough to survive anymore,” she said, reconsidering her words.
Operating for decades as the city’s local grocery, Cunha’s was a popular destination both for locals and tourists in the city’s downtown core.
Not so long ago, community support for Cunha’s was obvious. Locals rallied around the business in 2003, helping to rebuild it after fire roared through the building.
But the current owners of the property, Franco Carrubba and family, say the business has been struggling for years to compete for customers against Safeway and New Leaf Community Market, two grocery chains with larger inventory and more resources. Speaking for his family, Giuseppe Carrubba said the decision to close was necessary in order to save the family’s other businesses. The family has been embroiled in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings since 2009. The family also owns the San Benito House and a section of the Shoreline Station, both in Half Moon Bay. Carrubba said those businesses would remain open.
“It’s a sad thing to do on a personal level, but on the business level, it’s the best thing my family could do,” he said. “We tried to keep it open because it’s a Half Moon Bay landmark, but there’s only so many months and so many years that we can keep losing money.”
No closing date has been set, but Carrubba indicated it could be within the next month. The family now intends to lease or sell the building to pay the remaining mortgage.
Operating Cunha’s Country Grocery has not been easy for the Carrubba family. It purchased the landmark Half Moon Bay business for more than $5 million from Bev Ashcraft in 2007. A year later, Franco Carrubba threatened legal action against Ashcraft, saying she broke a provision of their contract by working for rival New Leaf Community Markets. At the time, Carrubba accused Ashcraft of trying to destroy his business.
In 2009, Carrubba briefly listed the 80-year-old grocery for sale. At the time, he denied the business was really for sale, and his real estate agent said Carrubba was merely looking for investors to help cover costs.
Later that year, Carrubba filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and creditors who were owed more than $1.5 million went to court seeking to foreclose on and auction off Carrubba’s Half Moon Bay properties. At that time, bankruptcy documents provided a list of his debts, including a $748,250 promissory note to the United American Bank of Half Moon Bay and more than $200,000 in credit-card debt spread over 10 accounts.
In 2010, court documents revealed that Wells Fargo and East West banks were owed $9.8 million — an amount bank attorneys said exceeded the $7.7 million worth of Carrubba’s commercial holdings in Half Moon Bay. Carrubba said the bankruptcy claims were severely understating the value of the family’s property.
The effects of the bankruptcy at Cunha’s became clear, with a small cadre of employees being asked to handle multiple jobs. Butcher Jason Farbakhsh was hired after leaving Andronico’s Market, another Bay Area market that was forced into bankruptcy. He recalled taking on more and more duties at Cunha’s, including ordering supplies, cleaning and marketing. Through it all, he prided himself on having the best-stocked meat selection on the coast, even though it didn’t always draw customers.
“You can only lead a horse to water; you can’t make him drink,” he said.
Clay Lambert contributed to this story.