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Cantwell's future uncertain

?New? owner weighs ways to keep store open in Ashland

ASHLAND — The Cantwell era is coming to an end, but a new owner plans to refocus the business and says the popular store isn't going away.

Tom Burt, who was Tom Cantwell's partner when the gourmet grocery store first opened in 1993, purchased the business in February and is trying to get it back on track.

Cantwell built a successful Ashland business, but his operation fell on hard times after a failed expansion into Medford. He opened one Medford store in 1997 and another in 1998, only to see both close by fall of 1998 under mountains of debt.

While popular — and profitable — — in Ashland, the store failed to find similar success in Medford.

It didn't go as well in Medford, Cantwell says. The sales just weren't there. Sometimes, you just make a bad call.

After working as a consultant to help Burt through the ownership transition, Cantwell is moving to Seattle to work for a grocery chain there and make a fresh start.

While sales from the Ashland store remain strong, debts from the failed expansion put a strain on the business.

It's still a good, strong business, says Burt. I'm amazed at how strong the business has stayed. There is a good, loyal following.

But debt from the expansion remains tied to the business and Burt is searching for the best way to dig out from under it. He is considering a variety of options, from taking on a partner to selling the store altogether. He may also keep it, change the name and hold a grand re-opening.

He plans to decide in the next few weeks.

We're looking at all kinds of things to refocus the business, says Burt, a former Ashland resident who moved to Truckee, Calif., in 1993, and sold most of his stake to Cantwell in 1995. We are just going to get it back to where it was.

The gourmet grocery store built a solid client base in Ashland. And while the first Medford store on Black Oak Drive did relatively well, a second store off of Biddle Road proved to be too much expansion, too quickly. That store closed after four months and the Black Oak location followed in September 1998.

Cantwell's went into bankruptcy briefly last year, mired in heavy operating debts. However, Cantwell says the proceedings had to be dismissed after a creditor — the owner of the Black Oak Plaza — refused to sign off on the reorganization plan.

After the bankruptcy was dismissed, I just sold the assets and walked away, Cantwell says.

Though terms of the sale to Burt weren't revealed, Cantwell says he didn't make anything on it — the proceedings went toward the secured debt. He figures he lost $1.6 million.

It's history, he says. There's nothing to do. I'm just making a new start.

Cantwell expects the store to remain successful, once it gets out from under the debt.

It makes a lot of money, he says. But with the debt you have to pay off, it's tight there.

Burt bought the business, which employs 35 people, to save it from creditors and protect himself and other investors from further losses. He runs a similar but smaller store in Truckee.

Burt wants to get a clear picture of the business and figure out the next step, he says.

Things are definitely in flux right now, he says. We are figuring out what's best for the employees, the community and the store.

Cantwell's future uncertain