Fresh Plus -- Minus Dave

Hyde Parkers mourn Dave Rackel's departure from the Fresh Plus grocery store.

The Hyde Park Fresh Plus might never be the same without manager Dave Rackel.
The Hyde Park Fresh Plus might never be the same without manager Dave Rackel. (Photo By John Anderson)

Last week Dave Rackel, the popular store manager of the Hyde Park Fresh Plus and for many regulars the face of their neighborhood grocery, resigned after 17 years with the company. Rackel says he left his post on good terms with owners Jake and Arnette Knippa (who could not be reached for comment) because "it's time to move on and establish other goals." But not everyone is convinced that the story is as simple as that.

For many regular customers, the news of Rackel's departure dealt a blow. "He was fabulous in every way," said Peter Ravella, who has been shopping at Fresh Plus for about seven years. "Fresh Plus is overpriced, of course, like all small grocery stores, but it's a great place. When you go to get your jar of Prego, you're not really looking for much, but when you get your Prego at Fresh Plus, you get to talk to Dave."

Rackel, who is now looking for employment, says he will keep in touch with Fresh Plus' new management staff if they want his aid. "I did not die," he said. But he admits the transition has been difficult, especially because he's been employed there so long and watched many customers' children grow up. "I've been told by a few people in the past weeks thanks for helping my kid -- I got them jobs while working through college. But I left of my own accord. I wasn't forced out. There are some people angry because it happened so suddenly."

Several Rackel supporters, among them local novelist, columnist, and former Fresh Plus employee Spike Gillespie, believe Rackel did not in fact resign, but was fired by new managers who want to streamline the store and crack down on the quirkiness that Rackel helped cultivate. When Gillespie learned of his departure, she began hanging out in front of the store with a "boycott Fresh Plus" sign, fliers, and her dog.

"I was out there because I don't like the way the store's being run," Gillespie said. She doesn't wish ill will on new management, she added, but doesn't think they're a good fit. "I just wish it could go back to the way it was -- the atmosphere."

Early this past Saturday morning, Gillespie invited fellow Hyde Park residents and Rackel supporters for a quasi-political "Celebrate Dave Rackel" party in front of the store. Signs featured marker drawings of broken hearts or gushed "Thank you Dave and Josy" (another Fresh Plus employee who recently left the store) -- the latter bearing the names of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Assn., the Cub Scouts, and other groups whose members had received help from Rackel in the past. As children played chess or chased each other in the parking lot, adults drank coffee and pondered how Rackel's absence might affect their neighborhood grocery. Many of the roughly 35 partiers wrote poignant farewells in a hardcover notebook they'll pass along to Rackel, who did not attend.

Calle Lacouture, a college student who worked at Fresh Plus for a year, praised Rackel for his laid-back style and sense of humor. "He was the best boss in the world," she said. "It's going to suck without him." Added regular customer Debbie Marasco, "Dave was really part of why I stopped in here to get stuff. I'm kind of scared it's going to change a whole lot now that he's not here ... He always knew who you were. Now it's going to be like, 'who are you?'" Marasco said she hasn't noticed any price increases since new management came on board, "but I'm a cat-food-and-coffee kind of buyer."

The store manager on duty during Saturday's party said she was told not to comment on accusations that Rackel was fired as part of store "streamlining." But office manager and wine buyer David Wildermuth, who has worked at Fresh Plus since 1984, says he's "not aware" of any price increases or major shifts in management philosophy. "We're always changing things," he said. "We try to be responsible to the customers. Customers should address their comments to our store manager."

Rackel says he's "honored" to be the recipient of so much community support. Meanwhile, Gillespie and other dedicated Rackel supporters say they've already decided to begin buying their food elsewhere.

Savedave@austin.rr.com, an e-mail address Gillespie set up to collect positive stories about Rackel and pass them on to the Knippas, has already generated some responses, she said. "I'm glad we did what we did," Gillespie said, "but I'm just frustrated because it's not going to do any good ... unless it makes Dave feel good. But it feels like we've just lost another cool place in Austin."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Fresh Plus, Dave Rackel, Hyde Park, Jake Knippa, Arnette Knippa, Pete Ravella, Spike Gillespie, Calle Lacouture, Debbie Marasco, David Wildermuth

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