Columbia mall fixture set to close

Residents say Bun Penny's end undermines sense of community

December 28, 2007|By June Arney | June Arney,sun reporter

The Bun Penny, a gourmet food, deli and coffee shop that has been an institution at The Mall in Columbia for more than 36 years, is expected to close its doors in the next few weeks.

"I think this is just a warning, really, for small businesses of what's to come in this area," said McKenzie Ditter, 18, the daughter of store owner Jeff Ditter. "It's hard for a small business to survive in such a world and in such a mall."

Jeff Ditter declined to comment yesterday on the status of the store, which his daughter said he has owned for 18 years, after starting as a deli boy more than 25 years ago.

Yesterday, the store saw a steady flow of customers even as signs announced: "Clearance sale! Almost everything on our floor now half price."

Wines and warm beer are 20 percent off, while the half-price deals apply to all candy, cookies, gourmet foods, housewares and baskets, the signs said.

The family is behind on its rent payments, which have risen to $38,000 a month, according to the daughter. General Growth Properties Inc., the owner of the mall, declined to confirm any details of the lease or to discuss what business might come into the space.

However, several mall employees say they have been told that the space will be the future home of a Williams-Sonoma store. General Growth officials would not confirm that the upscale cooking and house wares store is coming. A spokesman for Williams-Sonoma did not return phone calls.

"General Growth Properties values the relationship that we share with each tenant and therefore it is our policy not to offer comment on the details of any lease," Karen Geary, senior general manager of the Columbia mall, said in a statement. "Bun Penny has been a tenant of The Mall in Columbia for many years and we will work with them to make their next transition as smooth as possible."

Jeff Ditter was contacting employees this week to tell them the news.

"It's very sad," said Yvonne Beck, a Bun Penny employee for the past nine years who just learned that the store will be closing. "We've been like a family."

Bun Penny was among the original tenants when the mall opened in August 1971.

"It really just hit me like a ton of bricks," said Missy Walters, who left Bun Penny in November after eight years, most recently serving as buyer and merchandiser. "We were like family there. It's sad to me. I'll miss it."

Walters, currently assistant manager at Kokopelli, a boutique in the mall, said she met her husband, Mark, at Bun Penny, where he still works as head caterer.

McKenzie Ditter said she does not blame General Growth for Bun Penny's fate and doesn't think there is much the large corporation can do at this point.

"I just think that there's not as much of a sense of community anymore," she said. "They're based in Chicago. I don't think they're as in touch with the locality and its customer base and what it means to people."

McKenzie Ditter said she grew up at the store, learning to make gift baskets at a young age. She points to the windows with trees she said she painted, to the tablecloths she said she made and the couch that she bought at a thrift shop, with the tag still on it. The store created memories not only for her family and its employees, but for members of the public who came for Tuesday night chess games, family dinners, Bible meetings, gift exchanges and women's gatherings.

"It's different from the rest of the mall," she said. "It's not a big corporation. It's something a family did. It has a different personality."

She would like to see incentives offered in the future to encourage family-owned businesses in the mall.

"If you don't have family-owned businesses, what sense of community can you have?" she asked. "It's like tradition isn't as important as it used to be."

And she continues to hold out hope that Bun Penny's story can have a happy ending.

"The Bun Penny name and good will, and its following could be saved," she said. "Maybe someone could buy it and move it somewhere else. I think there are so many businessmen out there who might see this as an awesome opportunity."

Richard Shin, owner of Custom Tailor & Cobblers of Columbia, across from Bun Penny, was surprised by the news.

Shin, who said he leases 1,150 square feet of space for $6,000 a month, frequently has customers leave Bun Penny and then stop by to say hello to him.

"It's all the time busy," said Shin, whose contract with the mall extends to 2012. "If Bun Penny is gone, I'm not happy too."

Alan Klein, a spokesman for the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, said his organization found out Wednesday that Bun Penny would be leaving. He said Bun Penny has been a tradition, a mainstay and a staple of mall life.

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