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Bun Penny's 36-year run ending

The Baltimore Sun

The shelves were nearly bare, but the deli and the dessert counter continued to do a brisk business late last week at Bun Penny, which was scheduled to close its doors yesterday.

"It is sad -- that's why we're getting our LaBella's while we can," said Clarksville resident Nicole Miller, of the drink that combines coffee and chocolate milk over ice, topped with whipped cream and cocoa. "I've probably been coming here for 15 years."

There were still plenty of fresh cookies, a German chocolate cake and a variety of salads. But, elsewhere in the gourmet food, sandwich and coffee shop, virtually all that remained was a handful of compact discs being sold for 25 cents apiece, a few cases of Coca-Cola, some jelly beans and a table containing baskets selling for $1 a piece with a sign that said, "All sales absolutely final."

"I have spent the last few days listening to nothing but what Bun Penny has meant to people," said Jeff Ditter, the store's owner for 18 years. "I think our customers felt a sense of ownership in Bun Penny."

Every third or fourth story that people tell about the store, which has been an institution at The Mall in Columbia for more than 36 years, seems to involve its famous chicken salad. One person told of remembering eating it at the age of 6, and another, a National Public Radio Moscow correspondent, reported heading directly to the mall from the airport to get a chicken salad fix, Ditter said.

News of the store's closure became public late last month. But Ditter had received a letter from mall owner, General Growth Properties Inc., the day before Thanksgiving saying that the store would need to leave the mall by Jan. 15, according to Ditter's daughter McKenzie. The family was behind in its rent payments, which had risen to $38,000 a month, she said.

Mall officials have declined to confirm any details of the lease or to discuss what business might come into the 6,000- square- foot space.

Jeff Ditter said he did not know what store would replace his.

"I wouldn't want anyone to feel badly about whoever comes in here, like they precipitated our departure, because they didn't," Ditter said. "Whoever it is who comes in here, I wish them well."

Ditter's eyes filled with tears as he talked of the former employees who made the trek into the mall to talk with him after hearing the news and of those whose first job was at Bun Penny. Many returned on college breaks and even once they had full-time jobs.

"To hear them attribute some of their success in life to lessons learned here when they were 15 can be overwhelming," Ditter said.

Each contributed to mentoring new employees and bringing them up in "The Bun Penny Way," a philosophy that included putting customers first and exceeding expectations, he said.

Bun Penny was among the original tenants when the mall opened in August 1971.

Through the years, customers have begged him to bring a Bun Penny to wherever they are from -- whether it is Bangor, Maine, Frederick, Arizona or North Carolina, Ditter said.

Nine-year employee Yvonne Beck, 54, said Ditter and her co-workers supported her when she quit smoking and recently earned a driver's license.

"They didn't give up on me," she said.

They weathered 9/11 together and the sniper attacks that terrorized the Washington-Baltimore area in October 2002, she noted.

"We're a family," Beck said. "It's like sitting by the bedside of a friend, and you know you have to pull the plug. That's what it's like. It's like the breakup of a love affair. It's really sad."

Jimmy George of Catonsville, who works nearby at Ann Taylor Loft, said he has stopped by and bought something just about every day for the past two years.

"Pretty much everyone at Ann Taylor Loft comes here," he said. "We're all really bummed. It's a sign of the times. They're trying to get rid of all the mom-and-pop businesses. It's really sad."

The fact that Bun Penny offers one-stop shopping has been part of its downfall, Ditter said.

"We're between a sandwich shop with coffee and a full-scale gourmet supermarket, and that's a tough niche to fill," he said.

Ten years ago, when Bun Penny moved to its current location, retail was a large component and sales were growing each year, he said.

"We unfortunately hit it at a time when we met a lot of competition," he said. "People can now find products many places that were once only found here. When you're trying to support a square-footage that relied on that volume of business, and that retail business isn't there, it's a problem. Certainly, if we re-emerged, it would be in a different form."

And while Ditter has no immediate plans to open another business, he appears to be keeping the door open.

"I will say that the response has been so overwhelming and so positive," he said. "I now realize that Bun Penny offers something that is not available elsewhere. There's definitely a sense of regret that customers will be left trying to fill that void. It does make me think a little bit more about the possibilities."

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