New Leaf aims to be ‘hub’ of Aptos

New Leaf Community Market in the Aptos Village Project, shown here on Tuesday, is fully stocked and ready to handle opening day. Note the original wood floors, which have been restored and preserved to help maintain the tone of the historic Hihn apple barn. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian

Market opens doors to public Wednesday

APTOS — New Leaf Community Markets has branded its new location as “The New Heart of Aptos.”

It is not a title the local grocer takes lightly, and that is apparent from the moment one steps in the door of the repurposed historic Hihn Apple Barn.

Original wood salvaged from the barn’s structure during its move and refurbishing in 2016 lines the floor of the entrance. Antique pieces of wood are interspersed between metal beams along the ceiling. And the wall mirroring the entrance reads in giant letters “Welcome to the Aptos Apple Barn, EST. 1891.”

“That felt right for us, because it’s not about us,” New Leaf Store Manager Justin Reyes said about the entrance. “It’s about preserving the barn. The barn is so impactful to this community — it means so much to this community. For us to take ourselves out of that, I think that was important.”

Reyes was one of dozens guiding media members through New Leaf’s newest addition — its fourth location in Santa Cruz County — on Monday afternoon before the frenzy of Wednesday’s grand opening. 

On the menu for the press: fresh baked organic pizza, decadent local and organic cheeses and samples of sustainably raised meat — just to name a few options. All products that will be available for purchase once the grocer opens its doors to the public after a three-year refurbishing that brought the century-old barn into the tech-driven world.

And no other section of the market showed off its tech prowess like the extensive deli, which featured made-to-order sandwiches, as well as a pizza bar, sushi, wok and ramen bar and made-from-scratch soup and salad bar. Tablets lined each station, giving patrons full customization over their order and allowing them to peruse the menus at the pace they choose.

Soon, shoppers will also be able to order online for pickup.

“Everything in here makes things more accessible for the customer,” said deli manager Dennis Byars. “It streamlines the whole process.”

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Tracy Hardin, store support, shows how customers and make custom orders on an electronic tablet inside The Kitchen wing of New Leaf Community Market. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian

The store also has inside and outdoor seating adjacent to the deli. The latter features state-of-the-art heaters, and a large open courtyard that serves as an impromptu stage for entertainment.

On a clear day, Byars said, you can catch a glimpse of the ocean from the heated patio.

“This is a great place to be,” Reyes said.  

Reyes can attest to that. The lifelong Santa Cruzan has worked for New Leaf for the last eight years, starting at the Pacific Avenue location before moving over to the Capitola and Westside sites.

Reyes said he’s stayed with the company for so long because of how it has treated its employees and reinvested in its community. 

New Leaf, according to Reyes, gives every employee that works at least 24 hours full benefits. It also recently made the decision to raise its minimum wage to $15, Reyes said.

Its “Envirotoken” program, in which the company donates 10¢ to a participating non-profit whenever a customer shops with a reusable bag, also helps multiple organizations across the county.

“We want to be a big part of the community,” Reyes said. “It’s in our name. We take a lot of pride in it.”

Willy Elliott-McCrea, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank, was on hand for Monday’s tour and was giddy with the look of the new location saying it had “a lot of soul to it.”

The Second Harvest Food Bank, Elliott-McCrea said, has had a strong 30-plus-year partnership with New Leaf. The grocer has donated more than 500,000 healthy meals and 50,000 pounds of smart chicken in the Santa Cruz County alone.

“I love these guys,” Elliott-McCrea said.

In all, the Aptos location will have roughly 100 employees, according to Reyes.

“Once these other businesses move in, this is really going to be the hub of Aptos, and that’s exciting,” Reyes said.

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The New Leaf Community Market had its grand opening Wednesday morning. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian

Among those other businesses is Penny Ice Creamery, whose opening in 2008 sparked a spate of other artisan ice cream shops to open in Santa Cruz.

With its flagship location in Santa Cruz and a second in Pleasure Point, the Aptos store will be the third for owners Zachary Davis and Kendra Baker.

Davis said he has had his eye on the location for the past five years as planning progressed and property managers vowed to fill the business spaces with local business.

“I felt it was a great spot to be a nucleus of the community,” he said. 

Davis estimates he will open within the next few months.

Penny has since its inception made its ice cream entirely from scratch, using locally sourced ingredients, Davis said.

While that part of the business model has not changed, Davis said he plans to give the new location its own personalized decorative touch.

“We definitely don’t do the cookie cutter design,” he said. 

Also included in the village’s culinary offerings is Cat & Cloud coffee shop and Mentone, a Mediterranean-themed restaurant led by chef David Kinch, whose 3-Michelin-starred Manresa is considered one of the best restaurants in the U.S. 

Ellen Gil, who has owned Sockshop & Shoe Company in Santa Cruz for 31 years with her husband Eric, hopes to open their new location in the village in the first part of May.

She said the opportunity for business owners to purchase their spaces rather than rent made the move a “no-brainer.”

The Aptos location will share space with a wine-tasting room, offering the “perfect pairing of wine and shoes,” Gil said.

She added that the village has given Aptos a central neighborhood gathering spot, and is ideal for a population increasingly looking to keep their business local.

“It’s going to be a great little center,” she said. “The exciting thing about this project is that it’s going to become its own little community. I think it’s going to be an incredible spot.”

Built on the footprint of a once undeveloped lot abutting the entrance of Nisene Marks State Park, the 12-acre property also includes nearly 50 condos and townhomes.

The current development is the first phase of the three-phase project. Phase Two will begin when the first phase wraps up, and is projected to take approximately 18 months.

Editor's Note: This article will publish in the May 3 edition of the Register-Pajaronian. 

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