Monday, February 05, 2007

On the Inadequacy of New York City Grocery Stores*

More often than I care to admit I find myself missing California. Most of the time I remind myself about how much I love the subway and the snow and the silly entertainment offerings that New York City provides and I buck up a bit and decide to tough it out in the big apple for a bit longer. This new optimism lasts until the moment I set foot in a NYC grocery store. Entering a grocery store in NYC is like foraging for grubs in winter in pre-civilization Russia. If you’ve ever thought New Yorkers a bit gruff you need only visit one our local grocery stores to find out why.

In other places in the United States supermarkets are a sign of American capitalist dominance. I once had a visitor from Japan who took at least 2 rolls of film in a California grocery store because everything was so impressively bountiful. Apples staked over your head? Aisle one. 3lbs box of Lucky Charms? Those are on special in the front of the store. 75 varieties of dried prunes? Right this way mama. While such opulence occasionally left me a bit embarrassed at our country’s consumerism I mostly loved supermarkets. I loved the huge aisles fit for monstrous carts. I loved the oak barrels filled with bulk dry goods. I loved the beautiful organization of row upon row of abundance. I often found myself browsing in my local Safeway, amused for hours at their offerings. In California grocery stores not only sell everything from lychees to truffle oil they also usually have an in house Starbucks, pharmacy and bank. The grocery store trauma I suffered upon moving to the big apple almost killed me.

Here in the NYC procuring food is challenging. I’m sure much of this has to do with the general lack of space for grocery stores in NYC (though Whole Foods seems to have very little trouble finding big buildings to sell their wares in, in neighborhoods much fancier than my own (albeit at much inflated prices)). In most cases New York’s cramped quarters seems to lead to ingenious efforts to efficiently utilize space. Not so at Key Food where in addition to cramped aisles they also lack organization or any attempt at smart stocking. Space seems wasted due to pathetic shelving techniques and a general lack of product knowledge (why would you keep yeast in the refrigerator section? Why would you stock organic cereals both in the organic section and the regular section? Why would you keep organic milk in a separate section than regular milk (and why does nonorganic Greek yogurt live in the same section but regular old Dannon is in another refrigerator all together?) Why are tortillas kept in the dairy section?).

I also can’t get enough of the general dinginess that seems to plague grocery stores in these parts. If there is one establishment that NEEDS to scream “I was just taking a bath in a vat of bleach and I’m so clean that my butt cheeks squeak when I walk.” It’s the grocery store (You know, assume grocery stores could talk and walk and had butts… actually I’m pretty sure Key Food has a butt, that’s where they keep the soda.).

Stocking of goods seems rather haphazard at my local Key Food (and lest you think these problems are Key Food specific I assure you that things seem no better at the Trade Fair down the road nor at the C Town that I used to frequent in Park Slope). Certain basic items can usually be counted on – they seem able to keep on top of ordering bread and eggs and milk – but if you’re looking for anything even a bit out of the ordinary good luck. Additionally, grocery stores in New York do not reliably stock toiletries or many cleaning products so if you need a new toothbrush or a bar of soap or some Windex you’re probably stopping at the drug store on the way home (while carrying 50 lbs of groceries).

Things I have (at least on occasion) been unable to find at the grocery store:

  1. Rapid rise yeast
  2. Arborio Rice
  3. Leeks
  4. Toothpaste
  5. Laundry detergent
  6. Hormone free (not organic) milk (aka hormone free milk that costs less than $4.50/half gallon)
  7. Booze

Let’s talk a bit about #7. This is not an occasional problem, it's the law -- grocery stores in New York state are not allowed to sell liquor. Someone please explain how making me go next door to purchase vodka is advancing God’s mission or keeping America safe or doing anything other than annoying me. If anywhere should provide easy access to alcohol it’s NYC – hardly anyone drives, we should install whiskey fountains on the street corners. I can buy beer at the grocery store so it’s not like New York state law is really protecting me from the devil juice. Furthermore what drunk is too lazy to go to another store? Inconvenience can’t keep people away from booze. Addicts will drink bottles of cough syrup if they have to; an extra stop just pisses people off and provides an easy go to target for late night mischief. Oh and don’t forget to buy your mixers at the grocery store – they apparently can’t sell them over at the liquor store. I like to think myself fairly restrained when it comes to alcohol consumption but my heart swoons every time I return to the booze aisle of a California grocery store.

To further inconvenience shoppers grocery stores (AND liquor stores!) in NYC close! You can ride public transportation from midnight until the sun shines but good luck buying peanut butter after 11:00pm. Not since living in Perth Australia (where grocery stores were closed from Friday at 5:00pm until MONDAY MORNING) have I been unable to purchase food at all hours. How is it possible that in the Mule Capitol of the World Safeway stays open 24 hours a day for all of my shopping needs but in America’s biggest city I can’t buy cake mix at 2am? (Yes, this is an actual need. Who doesn’t want cupcakes after a night of drinking?).

I know what you’re all thinking. “Brianna, just use Fresh Direct and shut up already.” There are a few problems with this plan:

  • I will never be organized enough to remember everything I need when creating a Fresh Direct order
  • I live alone; I rarely need enough groceries to justify Fresh Direct
  • Fresh Direct does not allow me to decide willy nilly on a Sunday afternoon that I want to make bread from scratch (or that I want some damn cupcakes at 2am).
  • Fresh Direct also does not sell rapid rise yeast.
  • I like complaining

* This post was originally titled “On the Inadequacy of New York City Supermarkets” because Supermarket is my go to word for grocery store but I have decided that I cannot in good faith continue to refer to the dingy crowded unreliable markets in this city with any term containing the word super.

Third Party Resources

Finding food in New York is harder than it seems, so if you know a starving New Yorker, why not send over breakfast gift baskets? You can get a gift basket filled with very non-New York treats, like California wine gift baskets or some much-coveted cake batter.


Gillian said...

Dude. I BLOGGED ABOUT NY GROCERY STORES TODAY! Is this not further evidence that we are the same person? So weird.

Geoff G. said...


Brianna said...

dude. the one time we went to fairway I wanted to die.

If they would open a few more normal grocery stores maybe the one in red hook wouldn't constantly be breaking fire code.

Geoff G. said...

well, as long as you don't go in the evening or at all during the weekend, it's fine....

themikestand said...

I had a long comment written, but in switching google IDs, I lost it. Boo!

However, from what I can recall, I said something like "we can't buy liquor in our stores either, but we can get to the liquor store without even going outside, so I'm in a similar boat as you".

Also, I think this is fabulously written. Really.

Anonymous said...

California supermarkets miss you too. Move back!!!!

Anonymous said...

numbers 8 and 9:

self-raising flour
egg roll wrappers
(fresh direct used to sell the latter, but they stopped. waaaaanh.)

amy said...

did you check for cake mix at the bodega on the corner? Because you can totally get it at the bodega across the street from me. Along with the peanut butter ;)

Anonymous said...

Umm Hello! Trade Fair?

Gregory A. Butler said...

One word - PATHMARK

They are open 24 hours, each boro has at least 2 of them, and it's as close to suburban style shopping as you are going to find in New York City.

And yes, they have a baking supplies section!

Laura said...

I live on the UWS and don't have any problems with grocery stores. Trader Joe's for cheap packaged goods, Western Beef for cheap produce/meat, and either Jubilee, Gracefully, or Whole Foods for any "foodie" ingredients not found elsewhere (though you can get yeast, arborio rice, leeks, toothpaste, and detergent at the first two places - I wouldn't consider those specialty).

I don't know why you wouldn't want to go to a drugstore for toothpaste and detergent though - MUCH better selection no matter where you are in the country.