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Co-Op Market Aims to Benefit Locals' Wallets and Diets

Closest to the Vine, which opened at the Wells Fargo shopping center last week, plans to offer locals fresh produce at lower costs than big name grocery stores.

Cheaper produce without skimping on quality or freshness.

That's what Castro Valley's newest co-op brick-and-mortar market is offering local residents and businesses.

Opened on Nov. 23 by Castro Valley resident Asti Benoit, Closest to the Vine features local and imported produce and products for a few cents less than competing grocery stores.

"If we work together, we can bring quality produce to Castro Valley as well as provide better-tasting restaurant meals," Benoit said.

She is currently providing produce to and Woodroe Woods School in Hayward. Benoit said she needs at least 25 local businesses in or near Castro Valley to make her business work.

The more in-demand certain produce becomes among her business and restaurant buyers, the more often she can purchase it in bulk, thus dropping the prices dramatically not only for those buyers but also individual shoppers at her store.

Also, the more often a product is requested, the more often she can turn around and purchase more of it — making the freshest and highest quality produce available to her clients.

However, until that quick turnaround begins and her recently ordered refrigeration unit arrives, she plans to blend the riper fruits and veggies into soups and smoothies. She also donates some of the riper products to local shelters and churches such as Castro Valley's .

Starting this week, customers can purchase a cup of soup, two pieces of fruit and a bottle of water for around $3.

Benoit said these next few months are a trial run to see if the Castro Valley will embrace Closest to the Vine. Despite opening shop in a troubled economy, she said it's something she truely believes in not just as a business but as a way to improve the community's food options and overall health.

"In order to get the fruit on the tree, you have to go out on a limb," she said. "You have to go out of your comfort zone because you won't make it if you don't believe in it."

Supermom Does It All

Business and marketing in the food industry isn't a new career path for the 44-year-old mother of two. Benoit spent the past six years as chief financial and marketing officer of Martinis Corp., a company specializing in Greek olive oil and olive products. She also served as chief executive officer of DELPHI FRUITS Inc., the female owned and operated Mediterranean importer and online distributer of Martinis Corp.

She continues to sell the company's products at her store. However, when asked why she traded in her corporate role for opening up her own shop, she points to her daughters: 10-year-old Chase Madison Benoit-Martinis and 4-year-old Athia Benoit-Martinis.

"I have a lot to live for," Benoit said. "My personality may be 'suit' but my heart is 'mom.'"

A special play room is set aside at the shop for her girls, who enjoy eating fresh and healthy, just like mom.

"I like a lot of fruits and vegetables, but I don't like hamburgers," said Chase Madison. However, one of her favorite foods is neither a fruit nor vegetable, but rather an herb.

"I love basil," she said.

Benoit said the idea to open shop came two months ago when she thought of starting an extra virgin olive oil bar. She's a firm believer of the health and wellness benefits tied to "EVOO" and wanted to offer that to her community. Starting in January, she plans to introduce the EVOO bar at her shop.

Keeping Your Produce Close and Your Employees Closer

Aside from the most of the produce and products, Benoit is also trying to keep employment local.

To protect the shop's fruits and veggies from strong sunlight, she hired local artist Jillian Silva to paint a produce-inspired mural on the windows of the shop.

Silva, who usually paints on shoes and canvases, expects to spend around 16 hours total on the window mural.

"It feels really neat to represent my community in this way," she said.

Benoit also hired Hayward resident Cristina Casillas, who was her barista at . Casillas said one day Benoit just offered her the job.

"I don't know what it was, I guess I make her coffee right or something," Casillas joked.

She said she had been looking for a second job but didn't realize she would gain much more than an extra paycheck when she started at Closest to the Vine.

"I'm getting healthier working here," she said. "I think everyone should be more aware of what they're eating and where it comes from."

Closest to the Vine is open Mondays through Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

For more information on prices regarding produce orders and sourcing from Closest to the Vine, contact Benoit at 925-386-6178 (925-EVOO1ST) or e-mail her at abenoit@Evoo1.com.

Norma Kvool December 06, 2011 at 04:21 PM
I sure hope she will be successful. This is the kind of new businesses we need in Castro Valley... something different and HEALTHY.
Analisa Harangozo (Editor) December 06, 2011 at 06:53 PM
Have you been there yet, Norma? What did you think?
shelia December 06, 2011 at 09:30 PM
This sounds like a great store for Castro Valley, I plan stop by Closest to the Vine really soon and I will spread the word. Thank you CV Patch for featuring this article, I probably wouldn't have never known that the store was their because I take the back streets to the grocery store. ;-)
Analisa Harangozo (Editor) December 06, 2011 at 09:36 PM
Haha no problem, Shelia.
Silvia Brandon Pérez December 07, 2011 at 05:07 PM
Wonderful alternative to pretend eco-friendly Traitor Joe's, with its anti-labor practices...

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