The smell of bacon and bleach fill most bodegas around the city. Scuffed wooden floors are proof of years of traffic. Cold cuts, 99-cent bags of plantain chips and greasy grilled cheeses are available at any hour, along with cold bottles of water and beer. But now the organic greens and perfect, shiny apples are replacing the crusty shops as they creep farther, expanding where there used to just be musty, dusty reliability. This past summer, baby coconuts could be purchased outside the bodega at North Seventh Street and Bedford Avenue, along the L-train station. It’s been going on for years, but the battle for bodega dominance is still being challenged in the city’s emerging neighborhoods.
Brooklynites are now deciding which flavored sorbet they prefer, or whether Thai or Korean works as the best frozen dinner, thanks mostly to the success of Khim’s Millennium Markets.The organic markets, with their fancy leafy greens and shiny wire shelves, first cropped up nine years ago in Williamsburg, and the chain’s largest superstore opened January 1.
If the gentrification in Williamsburg is partly about the young, artistic, independent types moving in to the traditionally Hispanic neighborhood, the influx of Millennium Markets is emblematic of that sea change.The stores have followed the free-wheelers, and their disposable income, as they took over the neighborhood.
In the 12-block stretch that encompasses Khim’s empire along Williamsburg’s main drag of Bedford Avenue, nine delis offer an assortment of meat products and canned goods. Khim’s five markets vary in size depending on their location throughout the southern and eastern ends of Williamsburg, but the general set-up and stock is the same: organic produce is set out in shiny new refrigerated units, dried fruits are stacked in wooden presentation cases. Each individual fruit type is organized in perfect pyramids, separated and protected with paper towels. Rows upon rows of organic and good-for-you cereals, grains, box soups, jars of baby food and dog food are meticulously arranged. The freezer sections are stocked with fruit-flavored flax, assorted artisan flatbreads and high-quality, lowsodium TV dinners.The colorful assortment of craft beers and microbrews is a cheery tableau of bright, artful stickers and, in keeping with urban deli tradition, bottles are priced individually or by the six-pack.
Khim’s floors are polished linoleum and the cash registers are behind counters with smiling cashiers. There is pleasant lite-FM playing. Shoppers are giddy with foodie options. One customer said it’s the "secondbest thing to Whole Foods," and easier than the four L-train stops to Union Square. Say bye-bye to the sad comfort found in that corner bodega.
Charlie Khim, the family’s de facto spokesman, oversees the hiring and buying for the markets. He is one of four brothers, and they each run an aspect of the family business. Charlie immigrated to Queens from Korea 22 years ago, and has worked intermittently as a grocer wholesaler. He’s a thin man, and dresses the part of a typical businessman in khakis and subtly patterned button-downs.
Nine years ago, Charlie and his brothers opened their first market: a 2,000square-foot store at 324 Graham Avenue, a block from the Graham Avenue stop on the L-train in eastern Williamsburg. Up next was a market half that size at 265 Bedford Avenue, just south of Metropolitan Avenue, and then a return to the East Williamsburg/Bushwick area, with a generously sized 4,000-square-foot market at 260 Bushwick Avenue.The spaces were former restaurants or renovated buildings, although the Graham Avenue spot did replace a former bodega.
The brothers found a bigger space at 265 Bedford Avenue, directly across the street from its first market, at 280 Bedford Avenue, and opened up their fourth outpost. The two stores sell many of the same products, and yet the smaller, 1,000-square-foot one has the feel of a bodega—scuffed wooden floor, plastic curtains over the beer-and-water refrigerators—and the proper market, twice its size, has more of a grocery-store feel.
Charlie Khim doesn’t stick out as the man in charge as he strides about his stores, until you catch him checking displays and ordering around his staff. He has a specific vision of what his groceries will look likeand will make sure every aspect follows in suit accordingly.
A personal gripe, he says, is when he goes into a bodega and the cashiers aren’t speaking English."I don’t know if they are talking about me," he says in his own rough English. "There are so many stores in the neighborhood, but for me, I tell my workers to smile, say hi, do the simple things. I always talk to customers; I make a friend. People have a habit: When you go to one store, you always go to the one store. So I try to get their name. I speak English, and I say, behind the cash register, my workers must always speak English."
(Whether those rules are followed when he is absent is another question, since we found most of the employees chatting in Korean to one another when we visited without Charlie around.)
This past January, the empire expanded again when the Khims opened a 10,000square-foot superstore at 460 Driggs Avenue in a former furniture store space that stretches nearly the length between N. 10th and N. 11th streets, just at the edge of McCarren Park and in the heart of the area’s booming residential developments.
There are more plans to expand, but not into Manhattan: "There’s too much of a headache," Charlie explains. The rents are comparable at this point, according to Charlie, but the Manhattan customers are too pushy and too needy, he says. Plus, there’s too much competition. Now building owners come calling the Khims, says Charlie, trying to lure them to their trendy ground-floor retail spaces. Charlie declined to name names, but he did say the calls are mostly from landlords of downtown residential buildings who think the markets "would be good for their tenants."
When pressed for more details, Charlie was hesitant to elaborate further about his ideal locations in Brooklyn, but he hinted at Park Slope. The goal is to open two or three more stores, within the next three years. How the economy factors into that goal, Charlie says, isn’t quite known yet. He only says sales are "OK," when asked how the current recession is affecting Khim’s bottom line, adding that the company is looking at ways to lower prices.
And that must be a concern for many. Those laundry detergents, for example, average $12. Organic lemons run 99-cents each; the regular lemons one rack over go for two for 99 cents. Shoppers can get a bouquet of freshly cut, deep-pink orchids for $24.99.
These price points are touchy, particularly in a neighborhood where early entrepreneurs set up shops to accommodate the new masses of a generation ago.Whenever a chainhowever family-run it may becomes in, there will always be contention.
"I enjoy giving my business to the bodegas whenever I can for things that I could get anywhere; I feel like the neighborhood is more theirs than anybody’s," said Simon Taylor, 24, and a frequent Khim’s customer. "But I do care about my health," he added, laughing and holding up a bag of fresh organic apples he had just picked out.
Those inflated prices have in fact inspired Cody Utzman, a longtime Greenpoint resident, to open the new Brooklyn Standard Deli at 188 Nassau Avenue, near Jewel Street. Utzman said he’s tired of paying for overpriced organic foodsand wanted to create an alternative. He buys his stock in bulk and repackages it for customers to save on shipping and packaging costs. And places like Khim’s got his ideas flowing.
"Their food is very, very, very expensive," Utzman says. "The thing about Khim’s that’s shocking to me is you’d think it’d be less expensive because it’s so big, but it’s not. The pricing is really, really offensive."
And beyond even that, it’s not what Utzman said he looks for in the neighborhood. Khim’s may be convenient for many residentsand a charming alternative to the grimy chain grocers along the neighborhoods’ perimetersbut it is not a true part of the area.
"A lot of creative young individuals have worked very hard to make lives for themselves and built their businesses on a local level," Utzman says. "But as gentrification happens and the big stores come in and push out the independent clothing and record stores, it’s a matter of whether you chose to support that or not. If you throw your hands up and give up and say, ‘Oh, well, it’s going to happen. All these [luxury] buildings are going to come and these stores are going to take over.’ Well, not really: You can still choose."
To make his point absolutely clear, Utzman adds: "At the end of the day, are you going to take the extra step and support the local guys because that’s what the neighborhood is all about, or are you going to go for the convenience?"
Charlie Khim says he’s aware he sets his prices high. But reconciling prices with quality is the ongoing struggle of any fine grocer, and the Millennium Markets are no different.Although he wants to lower prices, Charlie also claims he doesn’t want to cut service. There are floors to be mopped, aisles to be kept neat. Labor is expensive, after all."
Some people might not like the price," Charlie argues. "But they like that we keep ourselves nice and clean."
According to Charlie, he does what he can through his buying power. He buys for five stores at once, splitting up 100 cases of a product between his five stores. And he goes straight to the wholesalers. "We are trying to give better prices than before, but we are small, and I understand that I have a business, too. And if I lower my margins to bodega store prices, I will be a bodega store, too."
Charlie also claims he doesn’t see other nearby organic stores as competition, launching into a quick monologue to prove his point. "They may look at me, but I don’t check their prices. We are very comfortable that we’re doing it in the right way.We don’t price compare," he says. "We’ve been in business for nine years; we know what it’s like.We can beat them. Right now, there are too many people."
The problem with ignoring the competition, of course, is that the competition is not ignoring you. One direct geographic competitor is Susana Infante, who owns New Deli and Grocery at the corner of Grand Street and Bedford Avenue, and who shares a back wall with Khim’s larger Bedford Avenue location.
Infante’s 14-year-old operation is a classic corner bodega: scuffed, faded linoleum tile floors, dim lighting, plastic barricades around the cashier and that distinctive smell of dust and incense. But the store is well stocked, with popular cereals and crackers, and now with organic juices and a good beer selection.The grill is on until 4 a.m. on weekends, and Infante recently installed computers, printers and Internet access for the neighbors.
When Infante noticed her customers started patronizing Khim’s about six years ago, she ordered organic milk and eggs for her store. The items are popular and sell well, mostly because Infante says she prices them lower than Khim’s. "There were a lot of Spanish people around before, and they didn’t really care [about organic foods]," Infante says in Spanish, her niece acting as translator. "But now there’s more people into it. We don’t have the whole store organicjust the eggs and milkbut we’ve added to the or ganic selection over the last six years.We have lost some customers, but most just go to both now instead."
But that’s where things get tricky. Every time Infante talks with her organic food distributors, they tell her they are only selling to Khim’s now.
Charlie is surprised by such an allegation. "[The distributors] know we buy from them a lot, and [the other stores] sell the same things. I always tell them, ‘Do you sell to next door?’" he says. "I don’t want to kill my business, but certain wholesalers say they’re buying the same merchandise. The buyers say, I don’t want to sell to both."
He laughs and then pauses to think of why the distributors would chose him over others. "I pay them on time? I know if I give them a headache with the money, usually they won’t come back." Plus, he notes, he can buy in bulk. Khim’s also reaches a demographic that’s moving into the neighborhood, and one that’s willing to fork over a little extra cash for vegan cookie dough.
Charlie responds to questions about his role in the gentrification of Williamsburg in the same way he considered the concept of competing with other bodegas: general curiosity and wonderment. He’s a shrewd businessman, but with a calculating heart for the potential customer. He is here to round them up and keep them and serve them; the competition is just a distraction from those goals and his bottom line.
Besides its role of providing an organic refuge for Williamsburg residents, Charlie Khim doesn’t see any message in the Millennium Markets expansion. "A lot of people in Williamsburg want to be ‘green,’ and our market is organic and ‘green.’ Most young people like being green and healthy, so we came to Williamsburg," Charlie explains matter-of-factly. He thinks for minute when questioned about his role catering to the exact people responsible for the overnight demographic shift of the neighborhood. "I never think about that. This is a neighborhood. Everybody knows that people move in and out."
That’s also how Victor Soto feels. A 20year Williamsburg resident who was walking along Bedford past Khim’s one recent sunny morning, Soto says he’s seen changes come to his neighborhood, but he isn’t exactly surprised.
"The same bodegas are still here on the corner, and they’ve been here the longest. The old timers are still hanging out outside. The food is still as good as it was before," Soto says. "Metropolitan Avenue used to be the border of north and south Williamsburg, but it’s becoming not the borderline anymore."
But Soto claims it doesn’t upset him. "It was expected by everybody. We saw it coming. Everything is subject to change, and everybody works together is how I see it."
That’s how Charlie Khim sees it too. The competitive marketplace and shrinking grocery budgets will eventually determine who wins out in the bodega showdown. Perhaps a balance can be reached between these new merchants and the old. Cage-free eggs and pesticide-free apples may make for a healthier diet, but who’s to say there’s no joy in a well-timed Cup Noodles or bag of salty plantain chips.