Flavor Profile: The Cafe at Ripka's Market in Bridgeport

"Used to be you couldn't buy an apple downtown," says Clyde Ripka. In June he opened what he says is the first grocery store in almost 50 years in Bridgeport. Located in the renovated, historic Main Street Arcade Mall, the 7,500-square-foot market has a butcher, fishmonger, produce section, cheese, desserts, prepared foods and a selection of groceries.

Now, The Café at Ripka's Market has opened in the back of the market, in an attractive, brick-walled, high-ceilinged space filled with Parisian bistro chairs and wood tables, and a bar. Chef David Johnson, formerly of Backstreet in Darien, will be creating a casual and homey bistro menu, serving soups, salads, pizzas from the pizza oven, charcuterie and cheese boards. "It will be a rotating menu," Ripka says, "Using what we've got in the market."

Two weeks in, happy hour has become popular, especially "Raw Bar" Thursdays, from 4 to 7 p.m., with $1 oysters and shrimp and 50 cent clams. The weekday happy hour menu offers $5 drinks (wine, beer and spirits) and appetizers. Wednesday is wine and cheese night. Friday is "Margarita Madness Pizza" night.

Like many an investor in downtown Bridgeport before him, Ripka is facing the same challenge — will the local economy support Ripka's Market, and how do you pull in people from outside downtown and from the surrounding towns? It hasn't been an easy start.

"We opened in June and then it rained for 21 days," he says. Summer is notoriously slow for retail in Fairfield County. But business always picks up in the fall, and Ripka believes the numbers are with him. And "Ginsburg Development realizes how important this market is to all their efforts in Bridgeport," he says.

The Bridgeport courthouse, law firms, and downtown banks bring approximately 5,000 to 7,000 people into downtown every day, he says. The lunch scene is dominated by people working in the buildings. In the evening, the atmosphere grows more bohemian, he says, with 1,500 local residents. More residential units are coming. "There are great people involved with the city," he says. Each day brings new people to Ripka's Market. "They say, 'I didn't know you were here.' People are prideful it's in their town."

The biggest challenge is changing outsiders' perceptions of Bridgeport, and getting people not only from surrounding towns like Westport and Fairfield, but from other parts of the city too, to visit. "When they walk through this wonderful old building and see the 100-year-old floors, and the brick walls, and they walk through the arcade, they say, 'I can't believe this is Bridgeport.' Our battle is getting people to think differently."

"The bones of this city are beautiful and it's clean," he says. "People don't understand what a walkable city this is," he says. Downtown Bridgeport is full of art deco buildings and old, sturdy, stone bank buildings, their height a comfortable scale. "It's not some scary place," he says.

The only scary thing is how much money it's cost to open and run Ripka's Market. The only scary thing is wondering if he's ahead of the curve.

Ginsburg Development, which owns the building, had been talking to Ripka for years about opening a market. Ripka's long career in the restaurant business began when he was 12. Since then, he's opened and run restaurants, markets, delis and food concession businesses, including Rowayton Seafood, Rowayton Market, Bull's Head Deli and SoNo Café. He also has the concession for the clambake cruises on Sheffield Island.

At Ripka's Market this slow summer, he had to let go half of his opening staff of 50. "I had to adjust rapidly," he says. On a recent mid-morning, the store was quiet, and the staff behind the counters were friendly, offering to answer any questions. At the bakery counter, a regular bought her favorite fresh-baked coconut pecan cookies. Behind the prepared food counter, Chef Robert put together his sweet-potato, pulled pork and greens potpie. (There's a turkey version too.) The butcher worked behind a case full of smoked turkey wings, ham hocks, chicken breasts, and porterhouse steaks, sliced thick or thin. Behind him, a blackboard offered thin sandwich steaks, beef tripe, bison, goat, rabbit and duck.

He's looking forward to fall. He's been talking to Bridgeport's Downtown Cabaret Theatre about prepared boxed dinners. (He used to put together boxed dinners for Shakespeare on the Sound.) In the Café, this fall he plans to make confit, homemade sausages and pâtes. "We have the ability to do just about anything. Even fine weddings," he says. "Nothing scares us."

The Café at Ripka's Market

1005 Main St., Bridgeport, (475) 422-9000