Say a bittersweet farewell for the Milk Pail.
The open-air grocery that has been a staple of Mountain View for 45 years closes its doors later this month. The store's corner lot at the San Antonio Shopping Center is destined to be rebuilt as a multi-story office building.
But it was still a happy occasion for the store's many loyal customers who visited on Saturday. As a way to say goodbye, Milk Pail owner Steve Rasmussen and his family threw a party as one last hurrah. And the event went off with a bang -- hundreds of people made a pilgrimage to see the store at least one last time.
Strolling between the raffle table, the food trucks and the bandstand, Rasmussen was grinning from ear to ear. He could barely finish a sentence before another customer walked up to shake his hand. Some were complete strangers; others were old friends he had known for decades.
"This is a great way for the Milk Pail to leave while holding its head high," he said. "I'm so tickled that my two daughters and their friends have put this on."
Food author Susie Wyshak came up to Rasmussen and gave him a hug and a thank-you. Since she first discovered the store 23 years ago, she credited its cheap cheese selections with expanding her palate and giving her the freedom to test out exotic fare. But with all the change in the area, it had seemed for a while like the Milk Pail's days were numbered, she said.
"I think it was just inevitable that this would happen in this hot real estate market," Wyshak said. "Everyone knows how much harder it is these days for small businesses."
Rasmussen echoed those concerns. He was delighted to see the turnout, but he admitted the event was still tinged with sadness. His market held out for years in a hostile market mainly because he had the good fortune to buy "a piece of dirt" decades ago, but that would be nearly impossible for any aspiring merchant today. With this area's overpriced costs, he asked, how could any young person start a new grocery, or a bakery or a butcher shop?
"I have a fundamental concern about the younger generation," he said. "Anyone who wanted to own a bakery or anything today, there would be no way to get the money to start."
Stepping up to shake hands, San Jose resident Kirkwood Rough remembered meeting Rasmussen when he was just starting out more than 40 years ago -- "back when the Milk Pail still sold root beer milk," he said. At the time, Rough remembered watching Rasmussen struggling to fix an old milk pasteurizer, and then he asked if he could help. It was the first of many odd jobs Rough did around the shop. In trade, Rasmussen would always bring over an assortment of cheeses whenever he visited.
On the subject of the Milk Pail's closure, Rough and his wife Susanne began to get sentimental. They starting thinking about the South Bay businesses they had once loved that had now disappeared: a movie theater, a classic Italian diner and the Orchard Supply Hardware chain.
"All these closures might feel familiar by now, but this is still a big loss," Susanne said as she looked around at all the new office towers surrounding the Milk Pail. "All of these are just cookie-cutter buildings."
It remains to be seen what lies in store for the Rasmussen and his family. His eldest daughter, Kai, said she intends to return to the University of California at Berkeley to finish off her bachelor's degree. Her college education has dragged on for about seven years because she had to take extended leave to help manage the family market. Her younger sister, Erika, said she was still figuring out her future plans.
"As sad as it is to close the Milk Pail, we wanted to end it on a high note," Kai said. "It's heartwarming to see so many customers and to realize we were part of such a great community."