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Shelter from the Storm

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Opening in an underserved area hit hard by , a new store provides fresh, healthy food — and an object lesson in resilience

It’s a small store, but we carry everything.” That’s Yunes “Joe” Doleh talking, as he ushers through the new Key Food store he and his wife, Amy, own in the South Beach neighborhood of New York’s Staten Island — an area that has seen plenty of challenges of late.

Easy access to fresh, healthy food used to be one of them, but not since the store’s opening last August. (A formal ribbon-cutting ceremony, attended by local officials, took place this past January.)

Despite being a fraction of the size of most Store of the Month locations, the Key Food at 300 Sand Lane maximizes its space to offer a full selection of items to a diverse populace that includes shoppers of Russian, Polish, Hispanic and Italian descent. This leads to some unusual — but always colorful — juxtapositions in the store’s displays.

Plunging In

Just beyond the entrance, the customer is plunged into the produce department, which balances the fruit and vegetable basics with more exotic offerings such as Bright Lights Swiss chard, red bananas and chayote squash, cross-merchandised with baskets of better-for-you snacks like sunflower seeds, raisins and apple chips on displays in the center of the section that feature produce items as well. The department also sells organics under such brands as Earthbound Farm, for which Joe affirms there’s local demand. “We started a little section with organics, and we expanded it,” he notes.

Produce leads to a cheese island packed to bursting with international items, among them Reny Picot Brie and Parmissimo organic Parmigiano Reggiano, rounded out by olive and pasta selections.

Then it’s on to the deli department, nestled in the store’s left-hand corner. Doleh designates the area “the nicest part of the store,” on account of the mouthwatering prepared foods displayed, including chicken with roasted pepper focaccia, fried eggplant, and kale and broccoli salad, all made on-site “in the back.” An end cap features the store’s wildly popular rotisserie chickens — topped with barbecue sauce on the day of PG’s visit — for $5.99 per whole chicken, with half-chickens going for $3 each. As for sliced meats and cheeses, the deli counter offers Boar’s Head and other brands, with catering available.

The bakery department, which takes up several end caps to the right, consists of fresh-baked breads of various types from such companies as Chabaso and Ecce Panis, and a wide range of pastries both familiar (red velvet cake) and less so (whiskey mousse). Irish soda bread was on sale for the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day observance at the time of PG’s visit, with cookies, breadsticks, bagels and Portuguese rolls among the other items offered.

Over at the seafood counter, along the back wall, in addition to filleted and prepared items, whole branzino and whiting were attractively displayed on ice, alongside unshucked raw oysters, on PG’s visit during the Lenten season, when seafood sales are traditionally brisk in the surrounding community. “Everything is nice and fresh,” Doleh points out proudly. “They bring it every day.”

The meat department is next up, selling USDA choice beef, grain-fed pork and Grade A chicken, many in family-pack options, and presided over by its own on-site butcher.

International and Then Some

The center store and dairy departments present a particularly vibrant array of products from around the globe and closer to home. Included among center store’s high gondola shelving is a truly impressive variety of tomato products, featuring such smaller local brands as Home Style Gravy from Michaels of Brooklyn (a New York-area eatery) and San Marzano peeled tomatoes from Bronx-based LaSquisita. The adjacent dry pasta section offers a wealth of imported brands, in addition to gluten-free Hodgson Mill.

For Hispanic customers, center store offerings include a display at the front of the store of Charras brand corn tostadas, while the shelves nearly overflow with such authentic brands as Calmex, Doña Maria, Dolores, La Costena La Moderna, and Nestlé’s Abuelita and La Lechera, as well as more familiar names like Goya, Ortega and Old El Paso.

The Eastern European contingent of products, evident throughout the store in such otherwise hard-to-find items as squash paste, jarred forest mushrooms, Finetti hazelnut spreads, and the intriguingly named “pork and gelatin product,” really comes into its own in the dairy section, running the length of the store’s right wall, where myriad cheeses, butters, sour creams, yogurts and kefirs, many bearing labels with Cyrillic lettering, attest to the category’s importance to shoppers originally from this part of the world.

To source these products, Doleh often needs to look beyond what the Key Food organization provides. “The co-op office really helps … in selecting the items that we need — basic items — and so we carry the basic stuff they think we should carry for each ethnic group,” he says, explaining that for certain harder-to-obtain or specialty products, he turns to local distributors. Shopper requests play an important role in determining product mix. “Every time a customer asks for something, we write it down,” he notes.

Getting in on the Ground Floor

Despite the store’s modest proportions, it boasts some state-of-the-art equipment, and is considering new additions. Take the store’s floor, which, despite its traditional wood look, is actually ceramic. Provided by the store’s designer, Lind Design, the floor is “better because it’s not slippery, and it’s durable and lasts forever,” says Doleh. “It’s a little pricey, but in the end you save money.”

Beyond the floor, Doleh notes that the store “did an energy-saving program for the lighting, and we bought all energy-efficient equipment,” including night shades for the refrigerated display cases. “And the cases that we bought, they’re called narrow cases, they’re made for smaller stores, so they don’t take up much space,” he adds, explaining that the specially made space-saving items are “about a foot shorter in width.”

Although the store currently has only associate-operated checkouts, Doleh, mindful of customers’ convenience, is bringing one in on a trial basis, from vendor NCR. Will the store’s shoppers, many of whom are elderly, appreciate the new technology, or will they prefer an actual person to check out their groceries? “That’s why we’re going to give it a try, see how people react,” Doleh responds. “If it works out, if we see people like to use it, we’ll keep it.”
Speaking of convenience, the store takes phone deliveries, as well as bringing in-store customers’ grocery orders to their homes. A branded Key Food van operates within a 5- to 6-mile radius, notes Doleh.

Populating a Desert

Before the store opened, there weren’t a lot of supermarket options for South Beach residents. The closest stores, according to Doleh, were a Met Food on Hylan Boulevard, a ShopRite in Great Kills and a Top Tomato on Bay Street, all of them some distance away. “The neighborhood really needed a supermarket,” he says, adding that people in the area often resorted to shopping in bodegas — small mom-and-pop convenience stores — “that don’t carry the fresh fruit.”

To remedy that situation, Doleh, who owns four other stores (two in Queens, one in Brooklyn and another in Staten Island), received assistance from the New York City Industrial Development Agency as part of New York City’s “Food Retail Expansion to Support Health” (FRESH) program, as well as the Low Income Investment Fund. “They actually helped us with [everything], from A to Z,” notes Doleh, describing FRESH as an initiative started by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg “to bring healthy foods to neighborhoods that lack them.” (Bloomberg even showed up in person at the store’s groundbreaking ceremony in late 2011.)

The odyssey that ended with the store on Sand Lane began back in 2010, recounts Doleh. “Basically, they look for areas that are in need of fresh food, and they want to help,” he says of the programs. “They give you tax incentives, where you don’t pay sales tax on the equipment that you buy. They give you a loan for construction and to purchase the property. … At that time, we were looking at this location.” After Doleh found out that the site was eligible for assistance, “that motivated me more to do this, because I couldn’t have financed this project through a bank.” The reason for that was the condition of the site, once home to an arcade. “No bank would even look at it, the shape it was in,” confides Doleh.

After a six-month process involving “a lot of paperwork” and background checks, construction was ready to begin, “but then we had a problem with the councilman in the neighborhood, because he said there wasn’t enough parking,” remembers Doleh. “We had 17 parking spots in the parking lot, and he said he didn’t think it was sufficient. He worked with us, along with the mayor’s office, to see how we could get more parking spots, and [we] wound up [adding 16 more] on the side street,” which were deemed enough. The parking problem overcome, the project went forward, he continues, “and we were almost done when Sandy came.”

Struck by Sandy

By “Sandy,” Doleh of course means the monster hurricane (or “superstorm,” as the Eastern press dubbed it, since it was no longer a hurricane by the time it slammed into the coast) that wreaked extensive damage in the region at the end of October 2012.

While much of Staten Island suffered from the storm, the effect of Sandy on South Beach in particular “was devastating,” says Doleh, himself a resident of Staten Island’s Tottenville community, which also incurred heavy damage. “You came in and it looked like something out of a movie. Cars flipped over, stuff floating all over the place.” Massive flooding invaded the neighborhood’s homes and led to the tragic deaths of two young children who were swept from their mother’s arms when the family’s car stalled in the rising water. A total of 24 people died on Staten Island. With not a little understatement, Doleh describes the aftermath of the catastrophic weather event as “a big mess.”

Naturally enough, the disaster had an impact on the store. “We had 4 feet of water in here,” says Doleh. “It was basically done — no equipment, thank God, we were fortunate — but the sheetrock, the floor, the ceiling, we had to start all over — the plumbing even; there was a lot of sand” brought in by the storm. “All that had to be redone,” he notes, adding that the repairs set the project months behind schedule.

Luckily, the programs were there to assist. “They did refer us to other city agencies that helped us, expeditors and people like that, to help with” the rebuilding process, observes Doleh. “They were very good about it,” although the project understandably couldn’t make its original completion deadline on account of Sandy.

‘A Big Focus’

When the store finally opened, Doleh describes the surrounding community’s mood as “really a big excitement.” The Dolehs have striven to keep that community connection alive through such efforts as sponsoring two area Little League baseball teams, donating 50 Thanksgiving turkeys for a local church to distribute to needy families, and providing a fruit assortment and water for a healthy-eating program held at a nearby public school. During PG’s visit, the store signed up to run an ad in another local school’s yearbook. Such altruistic endeavors will “absolutely” continue, according to the couple.

When asked, after his arduous experiences in bringing the Sand Lane store to fruition, whether he would consider opening another store like it, Doleh is unhesitating: “I like the excitement of building stores. I enjoy doing that, so if I get an opportunity, I’m open to it, to open another store.”
His willingness to do it all again, given the chance, is because he feels driven to help underserved areas like South Beach used to be. “That’s a big focus for me,” he explains, “because you help the community, you know you do good, and the need [is there], so it’s definitely a good thing.”