Dining

Road Food

Muffin’s General Market in Whately strives for greatness.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

It’s shaping up to be a beautiful Saturday morning as I pull into the parking lot at Muffin’s General Market in Whately to find a party going on.

Outside the market, the proprietor—yes, Muffin, or Diane Korza, if you want to get formal about it—sits with a radio personality from the local country music station, answering questions about the day’s big event: MGM’s third anniversary. A big American flag draped on the wall behind her billows in the breeze. As she speaks into the microphone, her eyes throw a keen, bright glance from her interviewer to the crowd milling under a huge tent adjacent to the parking lot.

The scene has the feel of a country fair. As people browse the wares and sample beverages and foodstuffs on offer from the twenty or so local vendors who’ve set up tables under the tent, Muffin’s husband, Billy Korza, emerges from the market, lugging boxes of hamburgers and hot dogs.

“C’mon, Billy! Get that grill fired up!” barks one of Muffin’s regulars, a local contractor from neighboring Hatfield.

Korza, a rugged man who looks as if he could easily beat a dozen longshoremen into submission, glares at the man. Slowly his countenance changes from menacing to reassuring.

“I won’t let you starve,” Korza says, flashing a bright white smile.

It’s a special day at Muffin’s General Market, with the anniversary celebration going on and Bear Country 95.3 FM’s Kevin Collins broadcasting from 10 a.m. to noon and a band showing up to play after that, but most of the ingredients (minus the radio DJ, the band and the big tent) are here every day. The products the vendors have on display—including coffee from Indigo Roasters in Northampton, craft beer from Lefty’s Brewing in Greenfield, chocolates and confections from Chilean Sweets in Easthampton, and milk from Mapleline farm in Hadley—are all given shelf space at Muffin’s. So, too, are a variety of locally made home goods, pottery, jewelry, candles, soaps and lotions.

The market, sitting on a tract of flat land along Routes 5 and 10 in what most people consider a pretty and rural part of the Valley, provides all the items you’re likely to find in a convenience store. Muffin’s has newspapers and lottery tickets and cigarettes. It carries products—soda and beer and snack food—made and distributed by huge conglomerates that spend millions if not billions promoting their products worldwide. But the Korzas are adamant: Muffin’s isn’t a convenience store. One step inside and you’ll instantly see the difference.

The interior space is open and airy, with dark wood floors and very tall ceilings. The exposed beams above a long deli counter suggest that the building wasn’t always used to house an eclectic market, that its roots are industrial and agricultural.

 

But there’s nothing mawkish about the place. Muffin’s projects a notably contemporary attitude. If you’re like me, your eyes will be drawn instantly to the display of meats—including some of the thickest, freshest cuts of beef you’ll find outside Texas or Chicago—in the case nearest to the door. As your eye follows the long deli case deeper into the room, it’s hard not to be impressed by the selection and quality of cold cuts and cheeses. By the time you get to the back of the room, to the coolers of beer and racks of wine and shelves of spirits, you realize you’re not in your average mom and pop store.

The selection of top-shelf products—the offerings of craft beer alone will delight even the pickiest beer snob, for example—isn’t just wide; it’s careful, thoughtful. Muffin’s doesn’t carry everything, but what it does carry runs in quality from good to great, often with a local option: bourbon from Berkshire Mountain Distillers in Great Barrington; goat milk soap from Potash Hill Farm in right here in Whately.

Muffin’s is also a restaurant, offering daily specials and a wide variety of salads, sandwiches and soups. A glass-enclosed dining room just outside the main market gives patrons a cozy, informal place to eat and drink.

For all its boutique flavor, there’s nothing pretentious about Muffin’s, nothing preachy. The staff is friendly, down-to-earth, bantering easily with regulars, unfazed by requests from occasionally demanding customers who need, say, to sample three types of cheese before ordering a sandwich.

Big-name brands like Coke and Budweiser have a place on the shelves, but they don’t get to dominate. For local people who don’t want to drive into Northampton or up to Greenfield, Muffin’s is surely convenient, but again, it’s not a convenience store.

In fact, while the Korzas list its main offerings as “food and grocery” on their Facebook page, Muffin’s also sells a variety of building and landscaping products and materials, including stone, decorative dark mulch and loam. That part of the business carries over from Billy Korza’s long background as a contractor in the area.

As storm clouds threaten the anniversary festivities at Muffin’s on this particular Saturday, I have to leave to run some errands. When I return later in the afternoon, expecting to see the band packed up and the crowds dispersed, I find the party still in full swing. A rain shower came through briefly, and the band, a Needham-based outfit whose two-set performance the Korzas bought as high bidders in a charity auction at Gillette stadium months earlier, packed up all their amps and headed for cover. They’re now playing for the hell of it, hanging with the Korzas and their customers, most of whom are also friends.

After making the rounds with a bomber of Lefty’s beer, topping off the little sample cups everyone is using, Billy Korza raises his cup and toasts the band, the day, the people around him.

“To Muffin’s!” exclaims one of his friends

“To Muffin’s,” rejoins the crowd in a penetrating baritone.

A bit later, I find the Korzas together, his arm around her shoulder, the epitome of mom and pop. I remark how well attended the event has been, what a crowd the vendors under the tent drew. I ask what they charged for booth space. Billy Korza frowns and shakes his head.

“Nothing,” he says. “That wasn’t the point.”

“This was a celebration,” Muffin adds. The party wouldn’t have been complete “without the people who supply us with all this great stuff,” she says.

It’s almost five o’clock—three hours after the band was due to call it quits—as I pull out of Muffin’s parking lot. Through my open window I hear Billy Korza shout, “One more song!” The crowd of stragglers cheers as the band’s frontman counts off the next tune.•

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