Arethusa Farm Dairy officially welcomed customers to a new West Hartford Center location at 975 Farmington Avenue on June 17.
By Ronni Newton
George Malkemus is already in love with West Hartford Center, and even though he was wearing a mask as he greeted patrons Wednesday you could tell he was smiling from ear-to-ear.
The shop was ready, and so was the West Hartford community, and on the day that Phase 2 of Reopen Connecticut went into effect, allowing inside dining among other operations, the Arethusa Farm Dairy store officially opened its combination dairy store, bakery, and café in West Hartford Center.
It’s been just over a year since Malkemus and Tony Yurgaitis, both former top executives with Manolo Blahnik, announced their plans to open Arethusa’s third shop in a portion of the former Toy Chest space at 975 Farmington Ave. in West Hartford Center.
The West Hartford Center location is different from Arethusa’s other locations – “the guinea pig,” Malkemus said – as it’s the first to combine the dairy shop, ice cream, and restaurant operations into one space. The plans took a while to perfect, and then, COVID-19 came along and slowed things down a bit more.
“This is the first [of our locations] where you can buy an ice cream cone, a milkshake, a bagel with cream cheese, a salad, a panini,” Malkemus said, as well as milk, cheese, yogurt, and other products.
“We have quiche, our egg sandwiches are well known, our bistro salad, the best bagels outside New York City,” Malkemus said. Making good bagels is “all about the kettle.”
Yurgaitis said he is proud of the lettuces – also currently available for sale in the West Hartford location – and other produce being grown at 3-acre Arethusa Gardens.
“It’s really seed to table,” Malkemus said.
Malkemus had nothing but great things to say about the reception they have received thus far, from patrons as well as from the town’s building department. He said he appreciated the nature of the zoning laws because they are protective of the town’s atmosphere.
“This is a beautiful, beautiful town,” Malkemus said. He likened it to Soho when he first moved to New York in the late 1970s – vibrant and walkable.
Malkemus is passionate about Arethusa’s brand, and he and Yurgaitis were very deliberate in choosing West Hartford for the newest location, believing that the community will appreciate the quality of the the products.
“There’s not a product that’s in this store that I personally don’t love, that I wouldn’t want you to have, or your family to have,” he said.
“It all starts with the milk,” Malkemus said. “It’s milk like it used to taste.” And butter like it used to taste, and ice cream like it used to taste.
Farm fresh eggs will be for sale in West Hartford as well, beginning next week.
Malkemus said that when he decided to buy a historic dairy farm in Litchfield 20 years ago, his accountant told him he was crazy. But Malkemus, who grew up in Texas and spent summers working on his uncle’s peanut farm where one of his jobs was milking the cows, is more than just a hobby farmer.
The very abbreviated background story (click here for more details) is that Malkemus and Yurgaitis, who were living in New York City, initially just planned to preserve farmland, and to give the farm back its original name of Arethusa (named for a small pink orchid that grows on the property), but a few years later they started raising dairy cows, and now their Holsteins, Jerseys, and Brown Swiss number more than 300 (spread out on 300 acres) and have won many awards.
Images of Melanie (the black and white) and Veronica (Jersey), Arethusa Farm’s prize-winning cows, are on the labels of all of their products.
“Every single drop of milk goes into my dairy products,” Malkemus said. The coronavirus pandemic may have slowed some aspects of their sales, but they didn’t waste milk, they just made more ice cream which has a longer shelf life.
Everyone who works for Arethusa has to visit the farm, to understand the operation. Everything – even the potato chips, the crackers that go with the cheese, and the waffle cones – is house made.
Malkemus and Yurgaitis are no longer associated with Manolo Blahnik but still have roots in New York City, where work stalled due to COVID-19 is finally back on track for a boutique featuring Sarah Jessica Parker’s line of SJP handmade Italian-made shoes. Malkemus’ attitude toward fashion, and Arethusa, are similar: “If you don’t start with the right fabric, you can’t make a good dress,” he said.
“You have to have passion for what you do.”
The West Hartford space is decorated in Arethusa’s classic black and white concept. The ice cream and the cheese counter are in the front of the store, and the cafe is toward the rear.
A small kitchen was built as well, where soups, sandwiches, salads, and everything other than the bakery products is prepared fresh. The baked goods – bagels, bread, pastries, etc. – are delivered fresh from Bantam every morning, using a new Arethusa van that Malkemus said he purchased just for that purpose.
For now, Arethusa Farm Dairy will be open from 8 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. The hours are likely to change, Malkemus said, depending on the demand and the constraints that coronavirus has placed on operations.
There is capacity for seating 85 people inside as well as outside on patios in the front and back of the shop, but currently the state has limited inside dining to 50% occupancy, plus many people are taking their food to go.
People were maintaining “a cow’s distance” as the signs instructed, as they lined up to order salads, sandwiches, bakery items, or ice cream at lunchtime Wednesday.
Nick and Alice Savaria came from Middletown to experience the first day of Arethusa Farm Dairy’s West Hartford location. Nick works in Middletown and often visits the New Haven location, and the couple also makes the drive to Bantam on a regular basis. They were excited to have all of Arethusa’s products available in. one place.
Krista Schoppenhauer, store manager, said while she is new to Arethusa, she is a certified cheese professional with the American Cheese Society. When COVID-19 restrictions permit, she said she looks forward to hosting cheese tastings in West Hartford.
Arethusa Farm Dairy employs about 20 people, including several West Hartford teens working at the counter.
The store is located at 975 Farmington Ave. (860-726-4593) and more information can be found on the Arethusa Farm website.
In addition to the West Hartford, New Haven, and Bantam Arethusa Farm Dairy stores, the company also operates the bakery and café Arethusa al mano and the acclaimed restaurant Arethusa al tavolo in Bantam.
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