Santa Fe New Mexican / By Tantri Wij / February 3, 2015
Erin Wade is not messing around. When she opened her popular eatery/salad mecca Vinaigrette, she redefined the term farm to table, serving vegetables grown on her actual farm on her actual tables, and using the organic trash from the restaurant to grow the vegetables on the farm. Now Wade has taken that ethos of reductionist sustainability to another level and opened that most quintessentially American of establishments, an honest-to-goodness general store called Modern General.
Their slogan is, “Nothing you don’t need.”
Modern General, which had its soft opening Monday, is not really a cafe, not a grocery store and not a hardware store — but it’s somehow all of these things at once, and more. The building, located right in front of Vinaigrette at Don Cubero Alley and Cerrillos Road, has been transformed from the warren of tiny developing rooms that was once Visions photo lab into a bright, open space with big windows, aromatic wood floors, and open shelving that invites you to reach out and touch everything on display. Every item is carefully curated by Wade, who selects things for sale based on the stuff she actually uses.
“I hate running errands,” Wade says. “Why can’t that experience be joyful and elevating? You can get a juice and sit down and check your email and pick up odds and ends that you need.”
Wade’s concept of a general store harkens back to days of yore, when such establishments were as much community gathering places as they were retail shops. Modern General is cozy and inviting; the long community table invites laptop-loitering, and there are cheery window seats, chairs pulled up to little tables made of tree stumps, and even hay bales for sitting on while you have your coffee.
While its upscale vibe and sleek decor may give you the impression of a high-end retail store, Modern General is not a Disneyland attraction or a twee hipster playground, but rather a civilized, minimalist haven for people who are tired of having to make a million decisions every time they need to run out for a cup of sugar.
Modern General’s intent is to sell you only things you need — a hammer, measuring tape, a bucket, dish soap, lotion, shampoo. Not 20 different shampoos for every niche and need — just one shampoo, carefully selected and sold in bulk, to be dispensed in a refillable bottle. “Everything’s had to earn its place here,” Wade says. “Part of what we’re offering is that we’ve done the legwork for you.”
For people who spend hours reading consumer reviews for every jar of mustard they buy online, such a concept is downright revolutionary. “We have decision fatigue,” Wade says. “In some cases it’s great [to have tons of choices], but it can be tyrannical.”
Modern General also sells a very select array of tools for the kitchen and garden — very select, as in only the tools you really need, and only one kind of each item. If you want to sort through the panoply of the world’s available hammers, there are places to do that. Modern General will sell you one kind of hammer, the hammer Wade herself uses. The same goes for kitchen tools: a cast iron pan, a wooden spoon, a solid cutting board, all of which you can buy there. It’s not the place to go for bargain-basement prices, but the items they sell are selected for quality and meant to last.
Over at Vinaigrette, Wade practices an ethos of sustainability and a fanatical devotion to reducing waste. That ethos carries over to Modern General, where Wade hopes to do away with unnecessary packaging as much as humanly possible. Most items will be sold in bulk in ball jars, in linen flour bags and glass bottles, including the bath products. “There’s an island somewhere made of just my lotion bottles,” says Wade, shaking her head. “There’s no reason why something that disappears should come in a [plastic] bottle that lasts forever.”
An old-fashioned grain counter sits just inside the door and will feature a stone grinding mill. Wheat, brown rice, lentils, amaranth, purple barley — all will be ground in-house. And in case (like 99 percent of the population) you have no idea what to do with amaranth, handy recipe cards sitting nearby can help you out. If you want a little more guidance, there’s a book about cooking with alternative flours at the same counter. While you’re at it, you can pick up coffee, tea, milk, eggs (from Wade’s farm in Nambé, when available), an array of herbs and spices, sugar, salt, etc.
The cafe menu is as simple as the retail offerings. It features juices and smoothies — not an exhaustive, choose-your-own-adventure kind of list, but rather five simple choices of each, plus tumeric-cayenne shots and fresh wheatgrass. Wade’s answer to the cloying sweetness of wheatgrass is to serve it as a cocktail reminiscent of a tequila shot, rimmed with Himalayan sea salt and a lemon wedge to cut the natural sugary taste. “I think I’ve cracked the code,” she laughs.
For a light breakfast or lunch, Modern General serves strata, which is essentially breakfast casserole, or a simple breakfast sandwich on a house-baked English muffin. If you want something sweet, you can opt for the day’s granola offering or a kolach, a round, yeasty Czech pastry with a fruit filling, of which Modern General offers two different kinds every day (including apricot, which is the classic flavor) made from Wade’s grandmother’s recipe. If you want something more lunchy, there will be a sandwich available every day. That’s right — one kind of sandwich.
And one kind of coffee. Just one — just coffee, a particularly fine drip coffee, made fresh every half-hour and served, if you like, with whipped cream. The only choice you have to make is whether you want it or not.
This is not the place to come when you need a specific exotic ingredient or when you want your favorite brand of kombucha. But coming to Modern General for your staples involves, in a way, rethinking the way you live your life, and how much of it is devoted to finding your identity in your choice of dish soap.
“I don’t want to have every single thing,” shrugs Wade. “And that might take people some getting used to.”
Because clearly at Modern General, less is more. In fact, less might be everything you want.
And nothing you don’t need.