When I first moved to New York City from Chicago a few decades back, I was shocked, just shocked, to find the wretched quality of Manhattan “supermarkets” — and I use that term loosely. The Manhattan food stores were far from “super” anything. Small, at an average of 6,000 to 10,000 square feet, and dank with freezers that were too old and quirky to actually keep frozen foods frozen, the D'Agostinos and Gristedes were pathetic compared with the bright, spacious Jewels and Dominick's I had known growing up in and around Chicago.
Space on the Island Manhattan, I came to understand, was at a premium, and that meant you, the shopper, had to make do with limited product selection and brutally narrow aisles that resulted in some serious bumper-car action.
Over time, some of the chains opened bigger, brighter stores, often on two levels to make the most of limited footprints; but still they couldn't rival the offerings available to shoppers in supermarket flyover country. For a special occasion, Manhattanite foodies could hook up with the famed New York gourmet stores, Zabar's and Balducci's, where you could find a wide selection of, say, olives and cheeses and smoked salmon and prepared foods. But the prices were so high, they were, for many of us peasants, mainly reserved for Sunday morning lox and bagels and special parties. There are also two giant Fairways offering a massive selection and friendly prices, but tucked into out-of-the-way locations uptown neither is exactly set up for regular shopping trips.
How that has changed.
Within a half mile of my office in Chelsea, I can now shop at two giant Whole Foods markets, a brand-new Trader Joe's (Manhattan's first) and a museum-quality Balducci's, the 21st century incarnation of the old Greenwich Village family grocery, now owned by Sutton Gourmet. On top of that, there's the old-fashioned farmers' market in Union Square.
New York is finally the food capital it deserves to be. And I am working in the center of it all.
And you know what's disappearing? The local food chains. Not just in New York, but in flyover zones as well, as only the fittest can survive against the discounters, health food stores and traditional supermarkets that have created a niche for themselves. (See story on page 30.)
The last Manhattan A&P closed in January. The latest casualty of the revved-up food wars is a D'Agostino store on University Place near Union Square, within a half mile of a giant Whole Foods and the swanky Balducci's, all of which have opened in the past nine months.
Indeed, the number of food stores in Manhattan with 5,000 square feet or more of space has expanded to 196 stores from 154 in the past decade. And it's not the traditional chains that are benefiting from the growth. New York supermarkets have finally caught up with New York's epicurean tastes.
Whole Foods Market: 44 E. 14th (Union Square)
Whole Foods Market: 250 7th Ave. (at 24th St.)
Trader Joe's: 142 E. 14th (former Palladium Concert Hall)
Balducci's: 14th St. and 8th Ave (former New York Savings Bank)
Greenmarket Farmers Market: North Union Square Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.