Local Grocers Up Their Game

Anita Moos is marketing manager of Newark Natural Foods, which next month will move into a new, 20,000-square-foot facility. (Photos by Joe del Tufo)

Faced with competition from boutique supermarket chains, Target, Walmart, etc., mom-and-pop food outlets use their home-field advantage

It’s a week before Thanksgiving, and Paula Janssen has one thing on her mind. Technically, 350 things: the last big shipment of fresh turkeys from T.A. Farms in Wyoming. Around the holidays, for gourmands and locavores these coveted birds are like the poultry golden ticket. “I’ve never seen fresher turkeys,” says Janssen. “They slaughter on Friday, deliver on Saturday.”

Across Delaware, the locally owned mom-and-pop grocery stores are a small but steadfast bunch. They have to be, considering the barrage of competition from national supermarket chains, megamarts like Walmart and Target, plus a wave of boutique grocery chains like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, not to mention an upcoming Wegman’s location near Painter’s Crossing.

But stores like Janssen’s manage to stay ahead by beating the competition at their own game. Along with others—like Harvest Market in Hockessin and Zingo’s in Newark—the neighborhood shops simply have to out-fresh, out-local, and out-healthy even the trendiest chains. After all, they have home-field advantage.

Paula Janssen deals with around 250 vendors per week to keep Janssen's Market offerings fresh and varied.
Paula Janssen deals with around 250 vendors per week to keep Janssen’s Market offerings fresh and varied.

Opened in Greenville in 1952, Janssen’s Market relies on close-knit relationships with local and regional farmers to fill its shelves with the best and the freshest. It’s one of a handful of retailers lucky enough to receive T.A. Farms turkeys, and founder Joe Janssen, Sr. has personal connections that go back for decades with farmers like Steve and Ronnie Rosazza, who own Glen Willow Farms in Avondale, Pa. The store also employs buyers who scour the Philadelphia produce market each day for seasonal produce, meats and cheeses. “We source our products very differently from other markets,” Paula Janssen says.

Larger national and regional grocery chains usually maintain their own centralized warehouses and trucking fleets, while smaller or specialized chains often purchase from cooperatives. Janssen’s, meanwhile, dizzyingly sources around 250 vendors per week. “That’s the challenge,” Janssen says. “It keeps the day interesting. We do have a lot of balls in the air, but it allows us to buy from people we trust, and believe in what they do.”

And while the farm-to-table movement has brought locally grown products back in vogue, it’s always been Janssen’s mission to support places like the cheese makers of Doe Run Farm in Unionville, Pa. The farmers gain extra revenue streams, and the store nets a superior local product. “We’re able to support local farmers and producers who are doing something different,” Janssen says. “But we benefit from their excellent cheese. The cheese is just really good.”

Harvest Market Natural Foods

Bob Kleszics opened Hockessin’s Harvest Market Natural Foods in 1995 with a similar mission. The shop prides itself on a carefully selected range of organic and natural foods, nutritional supplements, and natural health care products. The store’s encyclopedic list of local vendors includes, to the north, Landenberg, Pa.’s Mother Earth Organic Mushrooms, and to the south, Dover-grown hydroponic tomatoes. Harvest, too, was one of the lucky few to carry T.A. Farms turkeys during the holiday season.

Unlike the faceless megamarts, Harvest embodies real social values, like sustainable agriculture and organic farming. The store maintains close involvement with the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, the Delaware Nature Society, the Land Conservancy for Southern Chester County, and other likeminded organizations. It’s an official sponsor of the Kennett Square Farmers’ Market and the New Garden Growers Market in Avondale, Pa. It also serves as a CSA pick-up site for the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, which represents more than 70 family farms in Lancaster County, Pa. CSA programs—short for community supported agriculture—provide customers with a basket of local, seasonal fruits and veggies in exchange for a recurring subscription. Harvest even hosts an all-flower CSA from Pennsylvania’s Three Birds Bouquets, which creates seasonal organic bouquets each week for subscribers. “They’re definitely a highlight in people’s week,” says Communications Coordinator Holly Tyson.

While Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have seemingly endless aisles of vitamins, supplements and health products, Harvest boasts an on-site herbalist and registered nurse (the renowned Donna Merrill), who offers complimentary consultations for any health concerns every Monday, Tuesday and Friday—no appointment necessary. It’s just part of the store’s focus on healthy living, which is bolstered by its varied selection of natural and organic foods. For instance, the store recently forged a connection with a North Carolina grower of fresh turmeric, a plant known for its strong anti-inflammatory properties and other bodily boosters.

“Our customers want the best for their families,” Tyson says. “And I think a lot of people are going for organic today because it is better for your health. It lacks the pesticides and the hormones you might see in large-scale growing operations.”

“People come in for all reasons,” says Tyson, citing health, environmental stewardship, Fair Trade philosophy, morals, values and beliefs. “And then there’s the quality. When you start eating with the seasons, it’s just going to be the best quality. That’s what keeps people coming back. They commit to the lifestyle because it truly tastes better. Local is the best for that, eating seasonally has the best results nutritionally and flavor-wise.”

A Variety of Local Grocers

Other independent grocers support local business in their own ways:
Zingo’s Supermarket in Newark is home to an array of locally made products, and is the headquarters of the Pike Creek Coffee Roasterie. It’s the place to find Henretty’s crab cakes from Hockessin, Wilmington’s Freakin’ Fresh Salsa, and Kennett Square’s OpaYo Greek Frozen Yogurt.

Family-owned Byler’s Country Store, with three locations in Dover and Harrington, is famous for its Amish-made crafts, furniture and pastries, plus local products like sodas and root beer from Dominion Brewery.

Lloyd’s Market in Lewes carries Sussex County produce and honey, plus milk and cream from Lewes Dairy, Fifer Orchard’s apple cider, bratwurst and pickles from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, and sticky buns baked at nearby Dorman’s Donut Shoppe.

Meanwhile, farmers markets throughout the state continue their renaissance (A full list of locations and schedules can be found on the Delaware Department of Agriculture’s website, dda.delaware.gov).

Newark Natural Foods

But few do hyper-local quite like the Newark Natural Foods Co-Op, a longtime fixture on Main Street. While the USDA defines “local” produce as anything sourced within 400 miles, Newark Natural Foods maintains a 100-mile limit. Inside the store, customers can find grass-fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free steaks, roasts and pork from Weaver Valley Farms near Lancaster, or organic milk from Natural by Nature in Avondale. Its regularly scheduled farmers markets comprise 24 local vendors and craftsmen.

The not-for-profit store extols not only local produce, but local people. The cooperative began as a food buying club in the 1960s, and incorporated in 1975. Since then, the

Staff from Harvest Market Natural Foods brings back organic produce from Esh Farm in Ephrata, Pa., weekly during the growing season. (Photo by John Anthony Campanelli)
Staff from Harvest Market Natural Foods brings back organic produce from Esh Farm in Ephrata, Pa., weekly during the growing season. (Photo by John Anthony Campanelli)

socially-conscious membership has ballooned to 12,000, with more than 3,600 active members in the past year. For a $10 household fee, any customer can become a member (though you don’t have to be a member to shop at the store). Members can continue $10 payments quarterly until a $100 lifetime membership is accrued.

This is not a coupon club. Members do receive a general 2-percent discount on purchases, but the co-op is designed to allow anyone with the desire to become involved in the entire operational process. Working shifts at the store, or volunteering at its weekly farmers market or other co-op activities, are incentivized with larger discounts. More important, members are encouraged to take part in the co-op’s democratic decision-making process by voting at meetings or running for election to the Board of Stewards. The idea is to celebrate community and fellowship while sharing the labor, talents, and resources of the like-minded membership.

With assistance from its board member architects, bankers, business leaders and volunteers, Newark Natural Foods next month will relocate its entire operation to the Newark Shopping Center (at the site of the long-abandoned Newark Department Store), which will double its capacity to around 20,000 square feet. The shop will soon host new features like an in-house café serving hot and cold foods, a coffee bar, and juice bar. The new location also will double the size of the farmers markets and provide community event space for rent.

The move came as a direct response to increased competition from places like Whole Foods, says General Manager Karen Taylor. “When Whole Foods opened, it definitely hurt our sales. But it did help us up our game,” she says. “It made us look at our positioning, our mission, and how we improve that by expanding our space. We look at it as our opportunity to reach way down into Newark,” to create something better for the community.

“What used to be our niche has become our competition,” she says. “It used to be only us and Harvest Market in this area, now it’s Acme, SuperFresh and Walmart.”

According to the National Grocers Association, there are 39 independent grocers that must battle the big guys for customer attention. The association defines “independent grocers” as privately-owned food retail companies, publicly traded companies where the controlling shares are held by a family, or food retail companies owned by the company’s employees. Delaware’s independent grocers, according to a 2013 economic impact study, generate $359.79 million in annual sales, and are responsible for creating 3,100 jobs and more than $91.81 million in wages paid.

Creating a Fun Shopping Experience

As large chains impede on their market, local stores look to stay ahead of the curve. Whole Foods took a bite out of Janssen’s sales during its first three months of business, but customers steadily returned, Paula Janssen says. “You just have to be good at what you do, listen to your customers, and try new things to make the shopping experience fun for your customers,” she says. “If you stay the same, you fall behind.”

Whole Foods grew renowned for its selection of made-on-site items—from superfood salads to brick-oven pizzas—and its ethnic, vegan and vegetarian offerings. So Janssen’s responded in kind at J’s Café, adding dishes like Bombay curried vegetables to a menu of sandwiches, snacks and salads.

“We’re willing to try new things,” Janssen says. “If there is just one product we want from Washington state, we’ll be the first store in our area to buy that produce.”

Between a “Taste of Miyagi” fair in October—a sold-out event that welcomed producers from Delaware’s sister state of Miyagi Prefecture in Japan—and a visit from Delmar’s own Suzuki Farms in November, Janssen’s has continued to heighten its international food appeal.

At Harvest, Chef Megan Bushnell and a small but dedicated kitchen team head up a popular prepared food division. Seasonal dishes like curried turkey salad, roasted winter vegetables, and black bean and quinoa salad are house specialties.

Another, less tangible quality separates Delaware’s indie grocers from the pack: Call it a personal touch. Through their generations of dealings with customers, vendors and employees, local stores have fostered personal relationships in each area that feed into the overall shopping experience. At Harvest, years of outreach, community proselytizing, and direct contact with farmers developed into an uncanny expertise among employees. Newark Natural Foods’ network of eco-conscious warriors helps to support and empower an entire community, as well as many small, family-run vendors.

With less meddling from corporate overseers and stockholders, and smaller but more dedicated workforces (Janssen’s, for example, has 10 employees with more than 20 years of service), local grocers can concentrate their powers on delivering high-quality, personalized and interactive shopping experiences to their customers, no matter where the latest trends might lead them.

“We forget that food is one of the most personal experiences that we have,” Janssen says. “Knowing the people who make the food, grow the food and, in our case, sell the food, is a very comforting feeling.”

Second and Third Chances

Thanks to the team at West End Neighborhood House, James Anderson has rebounded from 10 years in and out of trouble with the police and found full-time employment. (Photos by Joe del Tufo)

Lives crippled by crime and addiction can be saved, with help from private and state-run organizations devoted to helping people get back on their feet

Whenever James Anderson met a troubled soul at West End Neighborhood House or while roving the streets of Wilmington, he shared the wisdom that he’d worked so hard to earn: With time, perseverance, and a sturdy support system, anything is possible. No matter how dire the personal struggles, fresh starts and second chances are out there for those who seek them.

“People say it’s impossible,” says Anderson. “I’m living proof that it isn’t.”
Anderson, a 35-year-old from Kennett Square, Pa., spent the better part of 10 years in and out of trouble with the law, including a three-and-a-half-year stint in Chester County Prison on felony drug charges.

Even after his release, his criminal history made finding a job exceedingly difficult. Eventually, he was referred to the West End Neighborhood House in Wilmington for its free Employment Training program. “I was there every day,” Anderson says.
While he advanced through the various job preparedness workshops and training sessions, he also volunteered to help with some of West End’s projects and events. In 2012, after he earned his Customer Service Certification, West End’s director, Paul Calistro, offered him a part-time position as an outreach recruiter. “I was walking around the city, recruiting kids to sign up, trying to get them to reap some of the benefits that I did,” Anderson says.” My main goal was to show them there was something different out there.”

His story is not uncommon to many young people in and around Delaware. Anderson was raised by his grandparents in a predominantly black neighborhood in Kennett Square. Constance and Melvin Anderson provided for James and his two cousins as best they could, but James soon gave in to the allure of the streets and the fast money to be made in dealing drugs. By 14, Anderson began selling marijuana so that he could afford the things his grandparents couldn’t buy for him. Not long after graduating from Avon Grove High School, he says, “I decided there wasn’t enough money in that, and I turned to crack cocaine.”

His brushes with the law escalated. At 27, he was charged with his first felony. Two years later, he was caught by Delaware police with an ounce of crack, and served six months at Sussex Correctional Institution’s “Boot Camp” program in Georgetown before being extradited to Pennsylvania for another 18 months in prison.

From there, Anderson moved in with family members in New Castle, which turned out to be a bad idea. “There was no support system,” he says. “Almost right away I turned back to that lifestyle.” Just two months after his move, he violated his probation and was sentenced to the maximum jail time, plus more probation, extradition and house arrest. The experience humbled him.

During his incarceration, he missed birthdays, celebrations and milestones. His grandfather passed away. And he lost touch with his young daughter. “A life of fast money was worth more to me than my family. I’ve lost things that I can’t get back.”
In jail, he decided his life needed forward momentum, so he signed on to work in the prison’s kitchen, at 28 cents an hour. The job was thankless and tedious, but it was a job. “I thought, if I can do this in here there’s no reason I can’t do it out there. Why can’t I work a minimum wage job and get myself in order?”

Once released, Anderson found his way to Brandywine Counseling’s drug-focused Plummer Center program, where a counselor referred him to Catherine Hoopes, a community outreach employment coordinator at West End. “I called and set up an appointment,” Anderson says. “And from the beginning they said: if you put the work in, we can help.”

Thanks to Hoopes, Calistro, and the team at West End, Anderson found fulltime employment as a forklift operator last year. Since then he’s earned two raises and a promotion. He’s also been prematurely released from his probation.
“They took a chance on me when no one else would,” he says. “Coming out of a situation like mine, it’s tough to find people to have your back. That’s what West End did for me. I can walk in there today and be welcomed.”

Anderson’s experience at West End is one of many transformations that have occurred at the century-old center on Wilmington’s Lincoln Street. In 2013 alone, the agency served more than 9,000 individuals, providing “outcome-driven programming” in areas like financial management, housing, education, and family services.

Joe Annese had a revelation in a holding cell that helped put him on the right path. He's now a full-time resident specialist with Sunday Breakfast mission.
Joe Annese had a revelation in a holding cell that helped put him on the right path. He’s now a full-time resident specialist with Sunday Breakfast mission.

In Joe Annese’s case, transformation came only after divine intervention.

It was four years ago, and Annese had just drifted to sleep inside a holding cell at Howard R. Young Correctional Institution when he heard God speak.

“It was a loud inner voice saying: ‘Have you had enough? Are you ready for my help?’”

Annese says. “I knew it was God talking.”

Annese wept. “I was humbly in tears. That night I devoted my life to Jesus.”

Hours earlier, he and several housemates had been arrested for selling drugs. For the 50-year-old Wilmington resident, the journey from dishwasher to corporate chef to prison inmate, and finally, to the Sunday Breakfast Mission, was a long and winding trip.

As a smart but hyper kid growing up near the Brooklyn/Queens border in New York City, Annese constantly found himself in trouble, particularly when it came to drugs and theft. His parents raised him Catholic, but he was hardly devout.

He got hooked on cocaine in the ‘80s, and later, crack. For 10 years he was clean, and climbed to the upper echelon of management at food service titan Aramark. His job took him around the region—from Baltimore to Philadelphia to Cecil County, Md., and Annese settled in Wilmington. But old habits returned, and he was caught embezzling money from his employers. He quickly relapsed on drugs, and supported his habit by selling them. “Instead of trying to fix the broken problem, I made things worse,” he says. “So the cops came to my house, kicked the door in, took me to jail.”

After his revelation in the holding cell, Annese spent 90 days at the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution near Gander Hill on drug charges before being transferred to Pennsylvania for the embezzlement charges. He was released in 2010 on seven years’ probation. He owed the City of Wilmington massive back taxes, and he was told his home would soon be auctioned off. “I was in a very depressed state,” he says. “All I did was eat, sleep and read the Bible. I wanted to go to church, but didn’t know how to find the one I needed.”

By March of 2011 he was homeless. With nowhere to go, he consulted with Newark’s Rockford Center, who directed him to the Sunday Breakfast Mission. He spent the next seven months as a transient guest there.

He enrolled in the mission’s Men’s Life Issues Discipleship program, and he earned an internship at the facility’s kitchen. He also became an ordained minister through Bible courses at Word of Life Christian Center in Newark. And he began chipping away at an associate’s degree in religious leadership and management from Liberty University online.
One weekend in May, while he was away on a ministry conference, he received a call from the Sunday Breakfast Mission, offering him a fulltime job as a resident specialist. “It was the answer to my prayers,” he says. “Getting paid to minster for God.”

Drawing from his own experiences, Annese counsels residents at the mission, preaching the power of second chances. “The important thing is not only helping them with their life issues, but also their salvation. There’s nothing that God won’t forgive. All you got to do is ask Him.”

Organizations devoted to helping people get back on their feet—be they religious, secular or otherwise—are operating throughout the state. Places like Goodwill of Delaware, the Delaware Skills Center, Sojourners’ Place, Homeward Bound, and the state-run Division of Employment and Training help people in compromised positions gain employment. Additionally, a multitude of state- and privately-run organizations devote services to substance abuse treatment for prisoners and past offenders.

According to the Delaware Department of Corrections, 80 percent of the state’s offender population has issues related to substance abuse, and without intervention and treatment, recidivism rates can top 70 percent. The state offers offenders vocational skills like garment production and auto repair through its Delaware Correctional Industries program, but its capacity is limited.

Faith-based missions like The Ministry of Caring and Sunday Breakfast Mission aim to save lives through devotion. At Sunday Breakfast Mission, located on Poplar Street in Wilmington, Rev. Thomas Laymon and a crew of about 30 fulltime staff plus volunteers encourage a Christian relationship with God. Their comprehensive approach addresses addiction, mental illness, life skills, family relationships and more. Discipleship ministries provide residents like Jennie Rowe and Megan Thing—who’ve suffered through addiction, mental illness and homelessness—the counselling and vocational instruction to pursue post-secondary education classes. Today, Thing is working toward a data management degree from online college Strayer University, while Rowe attends online lectures with Argosy University. She plans to become a Christian counselor, Laymon says.

“We see everyone here as a gift from God, and we’re certain of the fact that He has a plan for each of them,” he says. “Our job is to help each guest find the strength, hope and motivation to discover that very plan.”

 

Need help?

You’re not alone. Contact any of the agencies below for vocational assistance, substance abuse counseling, and many other valuable social services.

West End Neighborhood House
710 N. Lincoln St., Wilmington
658-4171
www.westendnh.org

Goodwill of Delaware
300 E. 43rd St., Wilmington
761-4640
www.goodwillde.org

Delaware Skills Center
1300 Clifford Brown Walk, Wilmington
654-5392
www.deskillscenter.org

Sojourners’ Place
2901 Governor Printz Blvd., Wilmington
764-4713
www.sojournersplace.org

Homeward Bound
34 Continental Ave., Newark
737-2241
www.homewardbound.org

Ministry of Caring
119 N. Jackson St., Wilmington
658-6123
www.ministryofcaring.org

Sunday Breakfast Mission
110 N. Poplar St., Wilmington
652-8314
www.sundaybreakfastmission.org

Division of Employment and Training
det.delawareworks.com

4425 North Market St., Wilmington
761-8085

Pencader Corporate Center
Suite 221, 225 Corporate Blvd., Newark
(302) 453-4350

Suite 104, 1114 S. Dupont Highway, Dover
739-5473

Suite 207, 600 N. Dupont Highway, Georgetown
856-5230

Ultimate Appeal

Sportsmanship and respect for fellow players rule a game that demands plenty of athleticism

Wherever life took him, Josh Twilley managed to find a sense of home and community on a grassy field with a plastic disc.

Between college in Philly, grad school in Connecticut, career stops in New York and D.C., “One way I always got involved in the community was through Ultimate,” Twilley says. “Wherever I lived, I always could find someone that I could relate to.”

Playing Ultimate—Ultimate Frisbee—enabled Twilley to connect with people in a new city, either through casual pick-up games or through more organized leagues. But when he moved back to Delaware in 2004, he found a surprising dearth of organized Ultimate activity. The nearest league operated out of Philadelphia—the well-established Philadelphia Area Disc Alliance. But he sensed that there was a critical mass of experienced and potential players in and around Wilmington—enough, he thought, to form a new league.

So he formed one.

Working with his connections in Philly, who provided logistical guidance through issues like insurance and online registration, Twilley launched a marketing campaign to attract players, and secured game sites. Finally, in the spring of 2008, he unveiled Delaware Ultimate at Wilmington’s Rockford Park.

In its first season, Delaware Ultimate had 38 players, enough to field four teams. That grew to six teams the following year, and then eight. Today Twilley, who is 39, estimates that 150-200 participants play in an average season. They come from around the region, including parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and the Delaware beaches.

The nonprofit organization runs year-round leagues from Alapocas Run State Park (plus a winter league at the Delaware Sportsplex in Newark) that include men’s, women’s and co-ed seasons. The meager $25 registration fee covers a t-shirt and a Delaware Ultimate-emblazoned disc. It’s a tiny investment for a game participants say finely balances fun and athleticism; a seriously tough sport that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Alex Grintsvayg and Kristen Frentzel fight for the disc during a game. (Photo by Matt Jones)
Alex Grintsvayg and Kristen Frentzel fight for the disc during a game.

For the uninitiated, Ultimate might resemble a non-contact amalgam of soccer and football, where seven-player teams advance down a 70-yard field toward an end zone while tossing a disc to one another. A player must stop running while in possession of the disc, but may pivot and pass to any of the other receivers on the field. Breakneck transitions from offense to defense, and players “laying out,” or diving through the air to catch or defend a throw, are Ultimate hallmarks.

Like soccer, there are rarely breaks in the action, so Ultimate players are constantly in motion, whether they’re on offense or defense. Each thrower has only 10 seconds to release the disc to a teammate, as defenders attempt to block or intercept any pass. If a pass falls incomplete, is intercepted, or caught out of bounds, the opposing team immediately gains possession. Between ample bursts of sprinting, diving and throwing, Ultimate can be aerobically demanding. “We think of something like kickball as an excuse to kick the ball around,” Twilley says. “But there’s a lot of athleticism involved in Ultimate on the level of soccer.”

Most important, Ultimate is governed by the “Spirit of the Game,” an abstract ideal of sportsmanship and respect for fellow players. Ultimate games are self-officiated, and players are responsible for calling any infractions or resolving disputes.

“Different sports attract different types of people,” Twilley says. “There may be rugby types, or baseball types, and Ultimate has a type. It’s somebody who is attracted to the idea of the spirit. We’re here to have fun and play the game, and that’s the kind of community that I like.”

Besides fostering camaraderie and enhancing the game’s social component, the Spirit of the Game also helps usher beginners into the sport. In the Delaware league, teams are assembled by a group of captains, and always have a mix of experienced and inexperienced players. During game breaks, strategies and rules are discussed for newbies. “We actively help new players,” Twilley says. “We try to be very open and noncompetitive, although we do get competitive. We really want to help people along, and retain people as much as possible.”

Andrew Wisor of Wilmington joined the Delaware Ultimate league having only some cursory experience in pick-up games. A former high school athlete, he’d grown weary of the intensity and mean-spiritedness that uber-competitive team sports sometimes generate.

“On our soccer team there was a guy who was getting red cards every game, and we’d have to sit there and wait for him to throw his temper tantrum while he was getting thrown out,” says Wisor, 29. “I thought this had gotten a little too competitive for my tastes.
“With Ultimate, the spirit of the game is part of the rules. I don’t know how it just seems to happen, but it’s kind of amazing. People who have never played before, they just have a sense of sportsmanship.”

Keala TeKolste defends against Arwin Thomasson. Players must keep the disc moving. (Photo by Matt Jones)
Keala TeKolste defends against Arwin Thomasson. Players must keep the disc moving.

Wisor stuck with the Delaware league, and eventually supplemented his love of the sport by forming a Delaware-based travel team and organizing regional tournaments at Alapocas. Most of his friends, he says, are people he’s met through playing. “In the beginning, I wasn’t aware of what an Ultimate league could mean,” he says. “I was looking at it from a fresh perspective of having fun, getting exercise, and meeting new people. It was great for me.”

Ultimate traces its roots to Columbia High School in Maplewood, N. J., where students invented the game in 1967. Columbia alumni took the game with them to college, and Ultimate germinated throughout the region. Its anti-establishment Spirit of the Game ethos resonated with counterculture movements of the era.
Stephen “Sven” Peterson was a student at the University of Delaware in 1975 when he first noticed a banner hanging near the Harrington dormitories that read, “Learn How to Throw a Frisbee.”

“That day changed my life,” he says. “I took to it right away. It was, ‘Oh my god, this is so fun.’”

Peterson captained the first-ever team at UD, and after college he embarked on a long playing career with club teams and tournament teams. By the 1990s, UD had developed an official club team, and Peterson was its coach. While Ultimate remained popular on Delaware’s campus, it was largely contained there.

“I played all over the world, at the highest levels, and in world championships,” Peterson says. “But when I came back to Delaware, there was nothing there. Maybe there were some pickup games, but nothing you could sustain.”

Peterson, like many local players, had to drive up to Philadelphia to join a league, so when Twilley approached him with the idea of forming a league in Delaware, “I was just thrilled,” he says. “We’d started some concept of a league before, but there just weren’t enough consistent players, and the UD team was dominating their area and age group. There was a big void. I applaud Josh for recognizing it.”

At 57, Peterson is the elder statesman of the Delaware Ultimate scene. He’s appeared in Ultimate National Championships in every decade since the 1970s, and for the fledgling Delaware Ultimate league he acted as a coach and captain as well as a counselor and guru, offering support and encouragement on top of tactics and instruction.

“By that time I’d been through 30-some years of Ultimate, and almost everybody there was in their first few years,” he says. “So I like to think I provided a lot of the spirit, and I’m very proud that the spirit of Ultimate is imbued in this league.”

For more info, or to become involved, visit www.delawareultimate.com.

Slam Dunk to the Beach Returns

LeBron James appeared with St. Vincent-St. Mary in the 2001 edition of Slam Dunk to the Beach. The Fighting Irish will return to Lewes this December along with an impressive collection of regional and national high school basketball powers. (Photo by Getty Images)

After a 10-year absence, the legendary tournament returns to Lewes with a lineup of national powerhouses

Jerry Kobasa still remembers the buzz that pulsed through the cold beach air in December of 2001—the year LeBron came to town.

“From the coaches, the people in the community—it was, ‘did you see this guy?’”
For four days, the future NBA megastar took his talents to Lewes, Delaware, where he and his high school team, the defending Ohio Division III state champion St. Vincent–St. Mary Fighting Irish, came to play in one of the toughest, most high profile basketball tournaments in the country: Slam Dunk to the Beach. It was one year after Carmelo Anthony played in the tournament, and two years before Dwight Howard.
“You think about that—little old Delaware,” Kobasa says. “And you look back and think—jeez, LeBron was in Delaware playing basketball. Any basketball fan would be excited about that.”

Kobasa, the head coach of Wesley College men’s basketball team, didn’t miss much of the excitement during the initial, highly popular run of Slam Dunk to the Beach, which ran each year around Christmastime from 1990 to 2003 at the 2,300-seat gymnasium at Cape Henlopen High School. During its 14 years, the tournament grew into one of the nation’s premier showcases for young hoops talent, attracting some of the best teams and blue chip players in the land, and transforming a quiet beach community into a basketball hotbed once a year.

After a 10-year absence, the tournament has returned. Tipoff is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 27, and play continues through Monday, Dec. 29.

In 2004, Slam Dunk’s founder and CEO Bobby Jacobs unexpectedly pulled the plug on the tournament and disappeared to Florida. As Slam Dunk’s unpaid bills piled up, Jacobs was arrested in 2007 in Miami and pleaded guilty to forgery and theft. In January 2008 Jacobs was sentenced to two years in prison, with one year suspended, and was ordered to pay $400,000 in restitution after pleading no contest to one felony count of misappropriation of property for taking thousands of dollars from the tournament fund.

In the years that followed, Jacobs dragged Slam Dunk’s legacy further into the abyss. He feuded with the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association, and sought vengeance on former collaborators who he believed helped reveal his accounting scams to authorities. He mailed threatening letters to some, and in June of 2009, he was arrested again—this time on three counts of felony stalking.

The tournament seemed dead. But this June, the fledgling Delaware Sports Commission announced that it had grabbed the rebound. Launched in 2009, the commission is a not-for-profit think-tank focused on state tourism, economic development and athletic events. The group was instrumental in attracting the Delaware 87ers as well as the U.S. Women’s National Team exhibition later this month.

Cheick Diallo and Our Savior New American School (Centereach, N.Y.), ranked No. 9 in the nation last year by USA Today, will also appear at this year’s Slam Dunk. The 6-foot-9 Diallo is one of the top front-court prospects in the U.S. (Photo by Jon Lopez)

“We kept hearing from people wanting an event down in Sussex during the winter,” says the commission’s chairman, Dr. Matthew Robinson, a professor of sport management at UD’s Lerner College of Business and Economics. “So we revisited the tournament, did our legal diligence and decided to do it.” And though the Slam Dunk name might’ve been tarnished, it still had major brand recognition.

“And now we have to bring back only positive associations,” Robinson says. “We have the opportunity to create our own history.”

Slam Dunk 2.0 is already off to a solid start. With recruiting help from the Phoenix-based marketing firm Position Sports, this year’s tournament has lined up a slate of nationally ranked powerhouses like Sunrise Christian Academy from Wichita, Our Savior New American School in Centereach, N. Y., and Gonzaga College High School from Washington, D.C.

And just like its predecessor, the tournament will give Delaware schools a share of the spotlight. Salesianum, St. Georges, Sanford, Caesar Rodney and Cape Henlopen are set to participate. And LeBron’s alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary, will be back.

Organizers hope it’ll be enough to recapture the old Slam Dunk atmosphere. Besides Anthony, James and Howard, the first iteration drew future NBA talent like Tyson Chandler, Kendrick Perkins, J. J. Redick, Kris Humphries and Tayshaun Prince, as well as college and NBA scouts and coaches (Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Louisville’s Danny Crum famously attended).

“When it was in its heyday, the atmosphere was awesome,” says Kobasa, who was entrenched in every tournament during its first run, first as a caterer with his Sail Loft Restaurant, then as head coach for Sussex Tech High School.

“The gym would be lined with major college coaches and scouts checking out the talent. And you would see a lot of people that would get there at eight in the morning, set their chair down and not leave until after the last game at 10. Other than to get up to stretch their legs, they were there for the duration.”

The games also generated valuable tourism dollars and publicity. A 2002 study by UD’s Center for Applied Demography and Survey Research estimated 20,000 in total attendance for the tournament, and a $3.5 million bump to the local economy.

“What we want it to be is an event that’s all about high quality basketball,” Robinson says. “A positive experience for the student athletes and the people of Delaware. But what it’s also about is driving business into Sussex County during the winter.”

The community, the fans, and the basketball world stand poised for the re-launch, while prep school wunderkinds like Tyus Battle, Rawle Alkins and Cheick Diallo prepare to show Delaware a new superstar.

Says Kobasa: “Anytime you see talent like that, you just marvel at it.”