WILMINGTON — As you step through the doors of Lovey’s Natural Foods and Cafe in the Landfall Shopping Center, you are transported to another era; to a time when buying food was more than just a determined walk through aisles of product in search of just what you needed. You’re not in a supermarket, but in a marketplace, where not only can you buy, but eat it as well. You can chat with the proprietors and greet friends and neighbors. You can linger as varied intoxicating aromas fill your nostrils. Baked bread, fresh fish, cooking meat.
In Lovey’s shopping for food is, as it was in the past, a social occasion.
It’s not hard to imagine that back then, in the midst of the heady marketplace atmosphere, someone would tip over a soapbox, stand on it and address the assembled crowd about some burning issue of the day. Marie Montemurro and Karen Stewart, owners of Lovey’s Cafe, don’t use a soapbox, but their commitment to North Carolina’s coastal environment, not insignificantly connected to their commitment to the sale of healthy, organic food, will find one or both of them circulating through a Lovey’s lunch crowd. They won’t intrude on a customer’s enjoyment of a meal, but they will chat about Titan America’s plans to build along the banks of the Northeast Cape Fear River what would be the country’s fourth-largest cement plant. Montemurro and Stewart will urge patrons to stop by the register on their way out and sign a petition to help stop Titan.
“If I’m working the register,” said Montemurro, “I’ll get 20 signatures. I don’t know for sure, but we’ve probably collected at least 1,000 signatures.”
The N.C. Coastal Federation gave Montemurro and Stewart 2012 Pelican Awards for their work against Titan. The federation gives the annual awards to recognize exemplary efforts to protect the coastal environment.
“They are a petition-gathering machine for the stop Titan effort,” noted a Federation press release announcing the award. “They have also made their business available for Stop Titan events, posted action alerts, volunteered at events and donated yummy snacks to keep our supporters happy.”
Though Montemurro and Stewart believe themselves to be exactly where they were destined to be, and happy about it to boot, neither of them would have envisioned it in the earlier years of their separate lives in New York. Montemurro grew up working in her grandmother’s store in the Soho section of Manhattan. After college and a stint at hairdressing school, she worked her mother’s store — Lovey’s Gourmet Specialty Foods and Catering — in Warwick, N.Y. She took over managing the store when her mother, Lovey, died in 1992.
“It was a little crazy,” she said, noting that through the last full-time management part of it, she was a breast-feeding mother of a very young child. “All the deliveries and the wholesale (part of it), and working all hours of the night, I swore I was never going to do that again.
“I came down here with no job,” she said, “which was very stupid.”
That was in 1997. Montemurro got right back to food with a job for a catering company, and then worked in the deli department of Harris Teeter and later, ran the deli and kitchen for All About Food. She looked into the possibility of buying Doxey’s Market, where Lovey’s is now, but when she determined that the owner wanted too much for it, she settled for running its kitchen. When Doxey’s was finally sold to someone else, she signed on as its manager.
Stewart, meanwhile, had started out in Long Island with the idea of being a florist. She attended community college and got a degree in biology. She stayed an extra semester in order to get a degree in chemistry, but abandoned the plan when she was afforded the opportunity to work at something she really loved.
“I owned a pony out in Medford (Long Island) and had always loved horses,” she said of a job offer she accepted with the Long Island Game Farm, training animals for performances. She went on to work at the Roosevelt Raceway in Westbury, NY, originally as a groom, but with an eye toward eventually training race horses.
It was, she said, “challenging, rewarding, and the best job I ever had,” but it was not to be. “I considered being a jockey at one time, came really close to it, but decided not to, because I thought it would be too dangerous.”
She instead owned a cleaning business, was a bookkeeper for her brother’s landscaping business and owned a pet shop. She moved to North Carolina in 1996 where “homes were cheaper, taxes were cheaper.” Unlike her last winter in New York, she didn’t have to shovel 13 feet of snow.
Settling along the southeast N.C. coast, Stewart began eating at Doxey’s Market, where she would occasionally travel to eat. “It was the best place to eat,” she said. “Very healthy food and the cafe and salad bar were fantastic.”
Stewart met Montemurro, and together they bought Doxey’s Market. After some major remodeling, they opened for business in July 2002. They eventually doubled the store’s original 3,200 square, encompassing four store fronts.
Montemurro told Stewart about the atmosphere of the original Lovey’s Cafe in Warwick. Stewart wanted their new venture to be just like it, and they settled on re-naming the market Lovey’s Natural Foods and Café. If you look real close in a tinted window, just inside the store’s entrance, you’ll see a hand-painted, wooden sign from the original. Between Montemurro’s experience in the food business, and Stewart’s experience with retail and health foods, the match was a natural.
Their work with the effort to Stop Titan was just as natural.
“We live here,” said Montemurro.
“We have children,” added Stewart.
“You like to think you can make a difference,” Montemurro said.
“You can make a difference,” said Stewart.
“We love it here,” they said.