Manhattan is a city of more than 8 million people driven by as many passions, with food and real estate—even in a down market—heading the list. And come August, these two interests will collide at West 97th Street and Columbus Avenue.
Where a cluster of restaurants, retail stores and a C-Town supermarket once stood, the next generation of retailers—Borders, Modell’s Sporting Goods, a Crumbs Bake Shop and more—will emerge toward summer’s end. The centerpiece of the new luxury high rise, now dubbed Columbus Square, will be a Whole Foods supermarket. Less than 100 yards away, a weekly greenmarket featuring locally sourced foods has been taking over the sidewalks every Friday morning for more than a decade. Vendors there seem to have mixed feelings about the national chain’s imminent arrival, and are looking to previous Whole Foods-greenmarket relationships to get an idea of what’s to come.
“The rumbling of trucks in and out of the store’s loading docks is what I’m concerned about, said Pam Mullins of Ronnybrook Farms, a Columbia County, New York dairy. “But the store will get people to come out. And they’ll stop into the market.”
“We stand behind our product,” said Jeff Luciano of the DiPaola Turkey Farm, awarded a 27 for quality from Zagat for its moderately priced “fat free, never frozen” turkey products.
Others aren’t so optimistic. A farmer who declined to give his name because of a business relationship with Whole Foods said, “When Whole Foods came into Tribeca, it wrecked my business. Stroller moms who used to come to the market to shop instead just sent their nannies to Whole Foods during the week. My business fell by two-thirds.”
Down at the greenmarket on Greenwich and Warren streets, Keegan Stephan of Blue Moon, a Mattituck, N.Y., fishmonger, reported a smaller impact.
“A little drop in sales, not much,” he said of his business activity post-Whole Foods. “But when you shop at the [green]market, 90 percent of the money stays in the community. Whole Foods is a national corporation.”
Jackie Lebak of Lebak Farms was confident as the scent of her lilacs spilled into the spring air of Tribeca.
“Faithful customers will always want to buy from farmers,” she said, adding, “Some of the younger crowd will always head to Whole Foods.”
Known for its spacious stores, high-end organic produce, prepared foods and dinning area, Whole Foods has become a destination as much as a supermarket. Meanwhile, the greenmarkets, in existence since 1976, have become the darlings of the city’s ultimate foodies: professional chefs.
“The greenmarket is about personal relationships,” said Mark Forgione, restaurateur and chef-owner of the Tribeca eatery that bears his name.
Forgione examined a large sea trout ordered a week earlier from Blue Moon. The faint perfume of salt water laced the air.
“These guys tell me what’s nice in the market, so I can plan my menu,” he said. “I miss them all winter.”
Another shopper, Deirdre Kelly, added, “You walk into Whole Foods you see fish from Chile and Mexico. That’s not local. The quality’s better here.”
But other businesses near the Tribeca location are clearly feeling the Whole Foods impact. Bazzini’s, a gourmet market, now offers a 20 percent discount on weekends (with the exception of prepared foods) to boost sales.
“Mom and pop stores go that little extra for the customer,” said J.C. Delvas, a store employee. “We rotate food out. There’s no giant warehouse for this store.”
Meanwhile, in Union Square, the two markets seem to have achieved a partnership. According to Fred Shank, a Whole Foods spokesperson, “five percent of the national annual profits go to charities. The Union Square store donated to the greenmarket in addition to City Harvest and the Food Bank of New York.”
Avery Miller, a seasonal market manager with the Greenmarket Council, said, “The addition of Whole Foods at 14th Street made Union Square a food destination.”
Both Union Square and the Upper West Side serve neighborhoods of economically and ethnically diverse shoppers. The 97th Street Whole Foods is expected to bring 400 jobs to the community, as well as a wine store featuring local vintages. It will be the only Whole Foods with an onsite vintner in the area (the company is allowed one license per state).
Meanwhile, the 97th Street greenmarket is seeking indoor space to provide farmers with year round sales opportunities. And Whole Foods is at “the beginning process of reaching out to build relationships and partnerships with greenmarket vendors and the community, just as it did with the Manhattan Youth Center in Tribeca,” said spokesperson Shank, referring to a neighborhood group.
On a recent Friday morning, the greenmarket brimmed with crowds squeezing, tasting and sniffing offerings from a dozen or so vendors: apple varieties, old-fashioned ice cream, yogurt and artisanal cheeses. Over at Pura Vida Seafood, Captain Rick instructed a customer on how to prepare scallops. (“Lightly flour, a small amount of butter, don’t turn too often. A half a cup of good white wine at the finish.”) Daniel Fort of DiPaola Turkey Farms was busy grilling samples of savory turkey sausage. At the end of the block the uncompleted Whole Foods sat silent.
“Every store is custom designed,” said Shank—and custom takes time.
Ronnybrook’s Mullins sold a grateful customer some of the dairy’s famous ginger ice cream and sighed, “Hey, I’m an Upper West Sider myself. I’m happy about the new Whole Foods. But even they can’t complete with the guy that sells the Concord grapes that comes here later in the season. He maybe elderly, but he comes to life when he holds a cluster of those purple grapes in his hands. He tells his customers all about how the grapes are grown and it’s magic. And that’s a magic you won’t find in any Whole Foods.”
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