Supermarket Spectacular

Forget restaurants, Brooklyn’s grocery scene is exploding.

One windy morning last May, a Civil War warehouse in Red Hook made history, transformed from a broken-down brick building into the borough’s first Fairway. The word supermarket hardly seems sufficient to convey the shopping experience awaiting inside. This 52,000-square-foot Brooklyn beauty, complete with its own power plant, came fully loaded with almost anything a cutting-edge foodie could want.

Like the 74th Street, Harlem and Long Island Fairways—which all draw shoppers from miles away—this was meant to be a showplace, featuring football fields of rarely seen produce and specialty items, a panoply of cheeses, olive oils, granolas, dried fruits, foreign grains, fancy jams and obscure, well, everything. There were sushi and pastry chefs, house-roasted deli meats, a dedicated butcher shop, a fresh-fish counter, a vast second floor kitchen, a wall of specialty beers, a whole wing for organic goods, a vitamin shop, bulk bins and coffees roasted daily in the back of the store.

“The thing that sets us apart from the rest of the world,” co-owner Howard Glickberg proudly told the press as he pointed out a steak-aging chamber last May, “is we do everything ourselves.”

A grocery store like this, no gourmand would deny, is remarkable wherever it is. But perhaps the most important thing this particular branch was selling was proof: When it came to shopping for food, Brooklyn was now as well-stocked as Manhattan.

Like the Harlem store Fairway opened in 1995, says Glickberg—the grandson of Fairway’s founder and one of three owners today—the Red Hook location was a gamble in an up-and-coming area. (And just in case you haven’t been on a recent Saturday morning, it was one that paid off.)

Glickberg was hardly the first grocery owner to take notice of Brooklyn’s growing specialty appetite. Fairway is just the latest—and yes, the biggest, brassiest and braggiest—of a dozen new fancy food retailers to come calling in Kings County since 2001. (See timeline, below.) While the food community buzzes about the borough’s restaurant room—some of this country’s most distinctive and progressive—Brooklyn is quietly experiencing no less than a gourmet retail revolution.

True, a growing interest in locally sourced produce, craft beers or artisanal pickles isn’t limited to Brooklyn or even to big cities, says Frank Vitale, who manages Tristate retail sales for Chefs’ Warehouse. One of the biggest specialty food suppliers in the country, the business tracks down high-quality, top-dollar ingredients—from Irish cheddar to organic Long Island micro-basil—and delivers it to restaurants and food stores for resale.

Nationwide, says Vitale, foods like these have “gone from a boutique industry to it’s-all-over-the-place.” But the ever-expanding scene in Brooklyn is downright astonishing.

“It’s amazing,” he says, his voice rising a pitch in disbelief, “it gives me goose bumps.”

A self-proclaimed “dese” and “dose” breed of Brooklyn guy, Vitale is uniquely positioned to get them. He’s been selling fancy foods to Brooklyn retailers for nearly 20 years.

Vitale grew up in Williamsburg, and says back then the neighborhood “was in ruins.” But these days he oversees deliveries of olive paste, guanciale and Greek honey to the Bedford Cheese Shop—and dozens of other boutique Brooklyn food markets, from the Park Slope Food Co-op (one of his first clients in 1991) to Stinky Bklyn on Smith Street.

Back then, Brooklyn’s specialty food scene consisted of a handful of Italian pork stores, Brooklyn Heights’s Perelandra and Lassen & Hennigs, Park Slope’s International Taste, a now-defunct Seventh Avenue Cheese Shop, and the ever-venerable Sahadi’s and Coluccio’s, still unmatched in their respective specialties and prices, and very worth the trip.

The scene has exploded. Today, says Vitale of places like Fairway, Cobblestone Foods, L’Épicerie, Bedford Cheese, Bierkraft, Stinky Bklyn, Forager’s Market, Marlow & Sons, Grab, and Blue Apron Fine Foods, “I mean, I don’t have to tell you the proliferation.”

In fact, Vitale reports, demand here for fine ingredients has grown such that he delivers to some Brooklyn shops multiple times a week, while in other affluent neighborhoods, like Long Island’s wealthy North Shore, stock lingers. “They call it the Gold Coast, but it’s not the same kind of crowd.”

If everybody shops the way Brooklyn does, he laughs, “I’d be a millionaire.”

Fortunes aside, you’ll hear a similar history from Alan Palmer, another food industry old-timer who has lived, and worked, through Brooklyn’s edible revolution. Along with Ted Matern, Palmer opened Park Slope’s lovingly curated Blue Apron in 2002, after each spent decades as buyers for Dean & Deluca.

“The neighborhood was starting to change,” says Palmer of the adventurous, well-traveled shoppers moving in, “and there was nobody supplying specialty food.”

Taking over an old pet food store off Seventh Avenue, Blue Apron was one of a wave of like-minded food founders—which included Pumpkin’s Organic Market and the beer and cheese lovers at Bierkraft—that kicked off Brooklyn’s gourmet retail boom over the course of a year.

Like Blue Apron, which built a loyal following for charcuterie, chocolate, cheese and other internationally sourced treats—the first generation of specialty markets weren’t big in terms of square feet. Settling into existing storefronts, they stocked well-edited essentials and staked out their specialties, from the snarky cheese descriptions at Bedford Cheese Shop, to the French imports in the Vanderbilt Avenue windows at Fort Greene’s tiny L’Épicerie.

That is until the bright, 4,000-square-foot Union Market—Park Slope’s first full-service specialty grocery that didn’t require membership—opened on the corner of Union Street and Sixth Avenue in spring 2005.

Like many other local shop owners, Union Market’s were Brooklynites who had honed their selling skills in Manhattan. Launched by a trio that included two alumni of Gourmet Garage, the modern, wide-aisled market had been a dream since 1993, when co-owner Martin Nuñez and a colleague first lamented the lack of good food in their neighborhood.

After nearly a decade of research and hunting for the right site, they opened Union Market with very little promotion. “I always thought this would be a perfect place,” says Nuñez, who is currently scouting 4,000 square feet for a second shop in Fort Greene, “and voilà, it just took off so fast.”

His neighbors came through his door in droves, addicted overnight to his handpicked mix of locally roasted coffees (like the Brooklyn morning blend), peppery Chilean olive oils (award-winning Olave), heirloom tomatoes (from New Jersey), organic beef (from South Dakota farms) and artisanal breads (delivered each morning from Long Island City). In fact, says Nuñez, they only begged for more.

“Our clientele was already here,” he says. “They were shopping in Manhattan, at stores like ours.”

Just a year later (about the same time as the Red Hook Fairway) another sleek, spacious new grocery opened in DUMBO: Forager’s Market—named after its mission of sleuthing out the best—was the joint venture of four artists in the isolated neighborhood who, says owner Anna Castellani, “couldn’t find anything to eat.”

Despite the fact that the crew had to learn the business from the bottom up—”I’m a very good shopper,” says Castellani—Forager’s stocks an ever-changing roster of exciting foods: licorice whips, Berber argan oil, honeys made close to home and the wild ramps rarely seen outside a farmers market. Their butcher case holds beef and pork from an old-fashioned operation upstate, cut to size by one of the company’s own co-owners, who often works the counter offering stories about the animals. A sculptor by trade, says Castellani, he turned out to be a surprisingly good butcher.

It’s the little quirks and perks like these—the owners’ involvement and openness to questions, or the promise of rare finds—that make Brooklyn’s food shops stand out, says Jane Walsh, a Park Slope resident and the communications director for Chefs’ Warehouse.

Companies like hers are paying close attention to the borough, she says, thanks to the increasing density of shops and buyers that are “on par with, if not beyond Manhattan.” And they have their own Brooklyn style.

“When you think of Manhattan, you think Dean & Deluca, Fairway, Citarella,” says Walsh, “I can’t think of a small, intimate, fun little store in Manhattan. Brooklyn shops are small, special, and cater to the Brooklyn crowd.” Plus, she adds, “there’s only going to be more.”

When Nuñez and co. opened Union Market, special was just what they wanted to be. We wanted “to go back to our roots,” says Nuñez, to when Gourmet Garage was small enough that he could talk “one-to-one” with customers, explaining recipes for Thanksgiving turkey or how best to grill organic beef.

For Christine Cassano, who opened Pumpkin’s Organic Market in southern Park Slope in 2002, helping her customers learn more about food is precisely the point. Beyond the bulk beans she started out stocking, her cute, creaky-floored little shop now has Pennsylvania produce, New York milk and locally made cheese. And part of her passion, she says, is sharing the social, cultural and culinary benefits those kinds of foods bring.

From Anna Castellani’s perspective, demand is driving supply. “All our vendors,” she says, “tell us Brooklyn customers are more likely to try new things.

From their perch at Chef’s Warehouse, Vitale and Walsh agree. Brooklyn buyers are “more interested,” says Walsh, “they’ll explore, they care about what they eat.”

It’s home cooks with deep passion and pockets, after all, who caught Howard Glickberg’s and Fairway’s attention, urging them to spend $25 million to build near Red Hook’s once lonely piers.

Speaking of that Fairway, we told you it’s the latest supermarket on the scene, but it ain’t the last: Brooklyn’s spectacular supermarket status has only just begun, for as any Brooklyn cook worth her sea salt already knows, next year Glickberg’s mega-market will be joined by the borough’s first Whole Foods, at the intersection of Third Street and Third Avenue. (Plans include a promenade with outdoor dining along the Gowanus Canal.) Get ready for fennel and kohlrabi stacked nearly to the ceiling, veritable heaps of cheeses, nervous-system stoking collections of fair trade chocolates and coffees, a butcher shop boasting sustainably raised meats, and arguably more organic products—from cereals to canned garbanzos to frozen dim sum to Whole Foods’ house brand “365”—than any retailer in the country, not to mention 10,000 square feet of prepared foods, in case you don’t feel like cooking after all.

Ladies and gentlemen, you may start your metabolisms now.

Gourmet Retailers Timeline
(Aka, when you should have been buying stock)

Brooklyn’s thoughtful grocer business has gotten a lot more crowded in recent years. We counted six store openings between 1970 and 2000, but nearly 20 in just the last seven years, not to mention the boro’s first Whole Foods coming next year.

1971
Back to the Land natural foods opens at 142 Seventh Avenue, 718.768.5654.

1973
The Park Slope Food Co-op opens at 782 Union Street, 718.622.0560.

1976
Perelandra natural foods opens at 175 Remsen Street, 718.855.6068.

1980
Eagle Provisions, a Polish supermarket, is bought by employee Szczepan Zawisny, who expands its line of specialty foods.

1985
Sahadi’s, open since 1948, expands beyond Middle Eastern foods and opens a bigger shop at 187 Atlantic Avenue, 718.624.4550.

1994
The Garden, another Polish-owned supermarket, opens in Greenpoint at 921 Manhattan Avenue, 718.389.6448.

2001
Tuller Fine Foods opens at 199 Court Street in Cobble Hill.

Bierkraft, stocked with great beers, cheese, meats and other specialty foods, opens at 191 Fifth Avenue, 718.230.7600.

2002
Pumpkin’s Organic Market opens.

Blue Apron Foods opens at 814 Union Street, 718.230.3180.

Marlow & Sons, an oyster bar and gastropub complete with a specialty grocery in the foyer, opens at 81 Broadway in Williamsburg, 718.384.1441.

L’Épicerie, a tiny French-driven market opens at 270 Vanderbilt Avenue, 718.636.1200.

Fresh Direct begins service to Brooklyn Heights.

2003
The Bedford Cheese Shop opens at 218 Bedford Avenue 888.484.3243.

Karrot, a natural market new to Fort Greene, opens.

2004
The Key Food at 369 Flatbush Avenue, 718.789.3007, remodels, adding gourmet beers, a meat counter and some specialty and organic food.

2005
Sunac supermarket, with organic produce, a wall of soy milks and takeout sushi, opens at 440 Union Avenue, 718.643.0508.

Union Market, another well-stocked supermarket with a focus on cheeses, meats, olives and bread, opens at 754-756 Union Street, 718.230.5152.

2006
Forager’s Market takes root at 56 Adams Street in DUMBO, 718.801.8400, filling a lofty, white-washed, cement-floored space with carefully chosen provisions.

Stinky Bklyn, a cheese and specialty foods shop, opens in Cobble Hill at 261 Smith Street, 718.522.7425.

Fairway opens in a Red Hook Civil War-era warehouse at 480-500 Van Brunt Street, 718.694.6868.

Tuller Premium Food becomes Cobblestone Food, 718.222.9191.

Bedford Cheese Shop expands to 229 Bedford Avenue, 888.484.3242.

2007
Grab takes over the old Blue Apron satellite store at 438 Seventh Avenue, near 15th Street, 718.369.7595

Stinky Bklyn expands.

2008
Whole Foods, complete with a café and Gowanus Canal Promenade, will open at the intersection of Third Avenue and Third Street.

Intrepid shoppers at the new Fairway store in Red Hook.

Alan Palmer with some of Blue Apron’s offerings; Fairway’s cheese counter.

Editor’s note: Eagle Provisions, Pumpkin’s Market and Karrot have closed.

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.