It takes a neighborhood to raise a grocery chain.
At least it does if you’re talking about Union Market, the mini collection of full-service specialty stores that launched in 2005. Springing into life at its eponymous Union Street corner, bisecting 6th Avenue in Park Slope, the independently owned and operated brand has grown steadily but purposefully slowly over the span of 14 years to include five branches—one in Manhattan and the other four in Brooklyn.
And it’s no accident that expansion plans reflect the same deliberative, painstakingly curated approach they take to the products they sell. Because instead of being a catch-all destination in the vein of big-box supermarkets (even those in the real food, healthy lifestyle realm), Union Market was designed to cater directly to their chosen communities.
“The face-to-face, interactive dynamic is a big part of shopping here,” says co-founder Marko Lalic. “But just like [non-Web-based] retail is disappearing, traditional neighborhoods, where people know and actually talk to each other, are disappearing as well.”
“We wanted to create a place where people could gather and communicate,” Lalic continues. “A place where you’re guaranteed to run into your neighbors almost every day.”
Being Brooklyn residents themselves, Lalic and partner Martin Nunez zeroed in on Park Slope as an ideal testing ground for their concept, noting the success of the (at the time) sole similar shop in the area, Back to the Land. And just as the pair gained hands-on experience in every aspect of the grocery business before opening their own (doing everything from mopping floors to stocking produce as previous general managers for Gourmet Garage), they knew that creating the camaraderie they envisioned started squarely with them. Which is why in Union Market’s inaugural years, they came to know every customer by first name and were always on hand to make suggestions and even print out recipes.
“It literally became our home away from home, in that we spent more time there than in our own homes,” Nunez laughs.
That love and loyalty for the market ended up extending not only to their patrons but to their employees as well, many of whom have worked for the company for upward of seven years. In fact, in its existence, Union Market has always prioritized hiring management from within. That’s how buyers like Janice Gomez and Arely Velasquez went from working the cash registers to joining one of the most influential teams in the company: the purchasing department.
Together with purchasing manager and head buyer Lisette Campbell, the team is responsible for one of the primary aspects that sets Union Market apart; its commitment to scrupulous, transparent sourcing. Having significantly less square footage and shelf space than your conventional grocery store means any purveyor that doesn’t meet the store’s vision gets quickly weeded out. There’s a high value placed on quality (still keeping in mind its not always compatible consort, affordability), an eye on seasonality and sustainability and a strong preference for local producers and suppliers. Beef, pork, lamb and poultry are humanely raised, guaranteed antibiotic- and growth-hormone-free and fed only a vegetarian diet. Fresh seafood is sustainably sourced and fully traceable. Area farms and foragers keep the produce aisle stocked with staunchly seasonal fruits and veggies, but relationships developed with a broader network bringing in exotic offerings, too, such as Kiwano melons and cactus pears, chanterelle mushrooms and rambutans.
And exclusive offerings extend far beyond their extensive private label line. Under its private label, Union Market offers many wallet-friendly options, including 100 percent Italian extra-virgin olive oil, locally roasted coffee, one-year aged Vermont cheddar, artisanal Hudson Valley goat cheeses, local New York State cage-free and organic eggs, Jersey tomato sauce, raw and unpasteurized New York State honey, organic Vermont maple syrup, tortilla strips and housemade fresh guacamole. Owing to that emphasis on relationship building, Union Market has frequently served as a launching pad for brands.
They were the first wholesale account for Five Acre Farms, Blue Duck Bakery and Di Paolo Turkey (which supplies sausage year round and turkey for Thanksgiving), and among the first for many others, including NYC-born businesses such as Early Bird Granola, YuPuffs (which crafts Brazilian-style snacks from starchy yucca roots) and Brooklyn Cured.
“Not only can we stay on the cutting edge by emphasizing products and vendors that aren’t otherwise easy to find, we’re able to keep our focus local in all aspects of operations, by supporting local food sources and businesses,” Lalic says. “And in this day and age, there’s less and less of that.“
Granted, non-mass-produced items tend to come at a significantly higher price point. Which has meant they’ve needed to settle in admittedly affluent communities in order to continue to thrive.
“We’re not a high-volume store, and so we need a certain amount of traffic. If we’re to open in a neighborhood with a different demographic—which is something we are actively looking to do—the model needs to operate with less overhead.”
One way they’ve found to expand their reach is to partner with NYCEDC’s FRESH program, which promotes the establishment of grocery stores in underserved communities by granting tax incentives to building developers. And a future Union Market location in Crown Heights has full FRESH approval, having met criteria such as devoting a large part of the store to the sale of fresh produce.
And just as with their very first spot in Park Slope, the team plans to expend plenty of energy on interaction and outreach, making sure the neighborhood store uniquely serves the needs of its community.
“It goes back to our original vision for our stores and the goal of communication and education,” says Lalic. “When you increase access, you can open a conversation about the benefits and necessity of eating quality food.”
Photos courtesy of Union Market.