Where Did My Supermarket Go?

06view360-sub-superjumbo November 4, 2016

By Ronda Kaysen, The New York Times

In New York City, distance is measured in blocks. The number of blocks a New Yorker has to trek lugging an armful of groceries could mean the difference between a great neighborhood and a crummy one.

For many, that walk seems to be growing longer as corner markets and grocery stores have closed in neighborhoods across the city — forcing many New Yorkers to rethink their daily routines and in some cases changing the very tenor of a neighborhood.

The neighborhood grocery store — with its dim and narrow aisles full of provisions precariously stacked from floor to ceiling and the cashier who greets you and your dog by name — is a critical piece of a New York life. Supermarkets of suburban proportions, like Whole Foods, are making their mark on the city; Wegmans will open its first city store, in Brooklyn, in 2018.

But while these stores have distinctive — and sometimes pricier — offerings like artisanal cheese and artichoke ravioli, they cannot replace the labyrinthine corner market, a linchpin for any neighborhood. It can keep a neighborhood manageable for new parents who need diapers now or seniors who cannot carry their groceries a long way.

And one of the first questions on any apartment hunter’s mind is: Where’s the nearest grocery store? Even if the corner market seems sad and shabby and its aisles are barely wide enough to accommodate a single mini-shopping cart, you can dash in for a carton of milk or a loaf of bread. Need some oranges or apples? Great. They’re piled beneath the faded awning just outside the door.

Many of the city’s grocers, large and small, have struggled to survive. Some have succumbed to high rent, narrow profit margins and increased competition from upscale supermarkets, online grocers and drugstore chains that have expanded their wares to include grocery items.

“It’s depressing,” said Charles Platkin, the executive director of the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College. “When a supermarket in your area closes, it feels like you’re moving backward.”

Tally the losses, and it certainly seems as if the ground is shifting. Between 2005 and 2015, the city lost around 8 percent of its greengrocers — family-owned stores of less than about 7,000 square feet. About 300 such stores closed during that time, about a third of them in Manhattan, according to the Strategic Resource Group, a retail consultant.

“The greengrocers that New Yorkers grew up with have become more a thing of the past,” said Burt P. Flickinger III, the managing director of Strategic Resource. As for supermarkets, he said, “New York City is worse than New Orleans post-Katrina.” A 2008 report issued by the New York City Department of City Planning describes “a widespread shortage of neighborhood grocery stores.”

Midsize grocers, the fast-expanding and perennially packed Trader Joe’s aside, are also struggling. Garden of Eden, a 22-year-old chain with only three remaining stores in Manhattan, filed for bankruptcy over the summer. D’Agostino, opened in 1932, is down to nine locations from a peak of 26 in 1996. The remaining were teetering, their shelves bare, until John A. Catsimatidis, the owner of Gristedes, delivered a $10 million line of credit in August, with plans to eventually merge the two companies.

But Gristedes is not immune to market forces either, closing two locations on the Upper East Side since 2015. The trend can be seen not just in Manhattan, but all over the city, say grocers and industry experts.

“The rent is too high — nobody is making ‘money money,’ ” said Mr. Catsimatidis, a billionaire who started in the grocery business 48 years ago. According to Mr. Catsimatidis, Gristedes stores fare better than their peers partly because they are part of his Red Apple Group, a conglomerate that operates, among other things, an oil refinery. In the 1970s, he said, rent consumed 2 percent of sales; now it’s 10 percent to 12 percent.

Competition is fierce, and not just from Whole Foods. Even those street vendors parked on the sidewalk a few steps away from the grocery store cut into profits, selling items like bananas and strawberries for a fraction of what they cost inside.

And “don’t forget, look what entered the market,” Mr. Catsimatidis said. “Every corner has a Duane Reade.”

For two decades, drugstores like CVS and Duane Reade (a.k.a. Walgreens) have been steadily taking over retail space that once housed grocery stores. “The drug chains have had an insatiable appetite,” Mr. Flickinger said. As smaller grocers have steadily retreated, the drug chains have morphed into a 21st-century take on the old general store. Between 2013 and 2015, the number of Duane Reade, CVS and Rite Aid locations in the city grew to 555 from 517.

Approximately 30 percent of sales at drugstore chains are for consumables, which means that the three drugstores capture an estimated $1.2 billion, or 9 percent of the $13 billion brought in by the top 20 food retailers in New York City, according to a CUNY study.

Walk into Duane Reade, and you can get a flu shot and buy a prepackaged tuna sandwich for lunch, along with bread, crackers, milk and grapes. But a drugstore is no corner market. Its selection is limited, and frequently random, and the vibe is often austere, hardly a place where a family would want to get its weekly groceries.

“There is no way that a drugstore is ever going to fill the void of a supermarket,” said Sabrina Baronberg, a founder of the Healthy Food Retail Networking Group, a coalition working to improve healthy food options in stores in poor neighborhoods.

And speaking of voids, few drugstores, or for that matter, supermarkets, are likely to hold your keys for your brother, or inform you that your husband was just in and already bought dinner. That’s the time-honored business of a neighborhood market. Chances are, you’ve watched the owner’s children grow up in the photos proudly taped to the register.

At some markets, particularly the smaller ones, the owner might wonder if you are running low on paper towels or give you a corny but much-anticipated calendar for Christmas. For New Yorkers who live paycheck-to-paycheck, a local grocer might even run a tab, something a national chain would never do. A senior citizen might receive a delivery even if a delivery service does not officially exist.

“We’re there for the community,” said Ramón Murphy, the president of the Bodega Association of the United States, and the owner of Red Apple Deli in the Hamilton Heights section of Manhattan. “There’s a reason we call it the family store.”

Convenience, of course, can also be a casualty when a neighborhood market closes.

Short on peanut butter? Need scallions for tonight’s stir-fry? You probably do not want to wade through the crowds at Trader Joe’s, and would rather avoid the opportunities to buy quirky, but unnecessary, items like cookie butter. You need a place at the corner, with a tiny shopping cart that looks like a toy. But it works, squeaky wheels and all, as you careen through the produce section with dust-covered spice containers stacked on the shelves above. The corners are tight — it’s every man for himself as you make that sharp turn into the aisle that contains bread, cereal and cat food.

Yes, many New Yorkers depend upon Fairway or the Union Square Greenmarket. But where would we be without Gristedes, Associated and the smaller stores with names we can’t recall?

“It’s really important that people have access to all different types of food retail — a supermarket, a bodega, a farmer’s market,” Ms. Baronberg said.

When the Gristedes at 40 East End Avenue and 81st Street closed this summer to make way for an 18-story condominium, neighborhood residents were dismayed, Arline L. Bronzaft among them.

“Look how many more people are coming,” said Ms. Bronzaft, a board member of GrowNYC, a nonprofit organization with an interest in greenmarkets, among many other things. “High-rise buildings are coming onto a block where there is no food. Does that make sense?”

The neighborhood lost a larger Gristedes last year at East 86th Street between First and Second Avenues, this time for a 20-story condo. “I went there for specific things, but those things are gone,” said Kathryn A. Jolowicz, the president of the East 83rd/84th Street Block Association. “Of course, I can go to Whole Foods and Fairway, but those places are zoos.”

The city has tried to convince grocers to stay with its Fresh program, which provides incentives to establish and retain neighborhood grocery stores. Fresh “made it really attractive for developers,” said David J. Maundrell III, the executive vice president of new development for Brooklyn and Queens for Citi Habitats, a real estate brokerage.

As an example, Mr. Maundrell pointed to 33 Lincoln Road, a rental building under construction in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn. When the nine-story building opens in January, it will house Fresh Fanatic, an organic market, on the ground floor.

While some developers see a grocery store as a valuable amenity, others are wary of leasing space to a business that generates trash and needs space for endless delivery trucks. A grocery store could be “a very good tenant, but it could be problematic,” Mr. Maundrell said.

Although it seems as if the options are diminishing, there are approximately 170 more supermarkets in New York City today than a decade ago, according to planning department data.

But between 2013 and 2015, according to a CUNY study, the number of supermarkets in Manhattan stayed the same, with new stores opening as old ones closed. But if a store closes in your neighborhood, it is cold comfort that the store that replaced it statistically is across town or in another borough.

The loss of Pathmark, which folded last year, was a particular blow to many in the city. For decades, the supermarket chain had provided New Yorkers with access to reasonably priced groceries in large quantities. After the Pathmark on East 125th Street in Harlem was boarded up, its shoppers were not consoled by the Whole Foods under construction a 10-minute walk away on West 125th Street.

“Pathmark was a community place — we all knew each other,” Natalia Padilla, a saleswoman at Citi Habitats, said of the Pathmark at 227 Cherry Street on the Lower East Side, which is now making way for a luxury residential tower. When it closed, “it was like a memorial,” said Ms. Padilla, who has lived in the neighborhood for her entire life. “It was like someone died.”

In a city of eight million, the shops on the corner are the ones that make New York feel like a small town. Without them, a neighborhood can feel less like home.

“These are unique relationships that you had with these shopkeepers,” said Tommy Berger, who lives in the South Slope and was stunned when Eagle Provisions, a small Polish grocer on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, closed last year, ending a run that began in 1939. In March 2015, the building sold for $7.5 million as a redevelopment site.

“I count on them being there in sunshine and rain,” Mr. Berger said. “And if they go away it disrupts my whole worldview.”