NEW YORK — Homegrown organic vegetables, hot coffee in ceramic mugs, smoked tofu and slow-cooked lamb belly hash.
Such a combo of offerings — including premium ice cream at $15 a pint — is exactly what’s making Foragers City Grocer a success in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. The store’s owners recall the best of the past with the likes of ceramic mugs, rustic decor, and friendly service, but they’re always on the lookout for what’s new, good and interesting.
Opened just six months ago, the 3,700-square-foot store with colorful fresh produce displayed just inside the store’s floor-to-ceiling glass front is an eye-catcher. Whether the produce is sourced from their own farm in Columbia County, N.Y. — a little over two hours away — or from others, most important is its quality, the owners say.
“Our goal is to have the best of everything,” Anna Castellani, one of Foragers’ owners, told SN. “We don’t want to be typical. We look for the best peach, the best ice cream. We have our own butcher, and cooks who make our pastrami, our sauerkraut, among a lot of other things. Much of our charcuterie, too.”
While Foragers’ store-prepared takeout food together with its 1,000-square-foot, 55-seat in-market restaurant accounts for the largest percentage of sales, produce comes in as a close second.
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“Produce is our jewel,” Castellani said. “We’ve been spending more and more time with it. We’re nearly doubling the space, bringing it to 500 square feet.”
She described a new display table that’s on order.
“It’s big and made out of old barn wood. It’ll add to the country feel. We even had [old-look] boxes made. We can fill them with produce and just drop them onto the table.”
She explained the store already has a farmers’ market way of displaying things.
“For instance, we use bins and we put the carrots in them facing up, their tips up, and radishes with their ends up, to make them look different, and pretty.”
Kale and broccoli were top sellers this summer. With top retail prices, too. Okra, usually not high on any popularity scale, was $5.60 a pound.
Strawberry sales were big, too.
“People bought so many strawberries. Right now we have 500 plants in the ground up at our farm, and we’ll plant 500 more, but that won’t be enough for next season. We’ll have to find more.”
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With her thoughts still on fruit, Castellani said she is going to take to the road in the spring in search of “perfect fruit.”
One thing is for sure, she said. The fruit will be direct-delivered from wherever it is, as are all the store’s products, with the exception of a few dry grocery items and condiments.
Getting produce in the store as quickly as possible with no stop at a warehouse is a priority, because freshness is a must, Castellani pointed out. In the case of dairy products, she hits Hudson Valley dairies on her thrice-a-week runs from the family’s upstate farm to the store. Thus, the milk and cream she buys is coming as direct as it can from the processing plant aboard her own truck. Eggs come straight from the family farm’s laying hens.
For all the nostalgic decor and look of country, Foragers nurtures a touch of class that befits its neighborhood.
Customer service is important here, Castellani said, and she hasn’t shied away from hiring expensive experts from the restaurant world to help train her associates — in the market, as well as in the restaurant.
That fits her philosophy of finding the best there is. She knows the investment is worth it.
When she talked about fruit for next year, Castellani said she didn’t care if she had to drive to California to find the best melon, the best peach, the best mango.
“I’ll be looking everywhere. I’m willing to travel the country."
She talked some about the “local” trend, which she thinks is somewhat receding. “What we seek is quality and freshness, and by default, it may be local.”
But the future may bring “local” back and better, she said.
“More young people are getting into food, and growing it right. That’s good, but we’re probably 10 years away from having enough regional, really good stuff.”
Read more: Lowes Food Surpasses Local Produce Goal
Castellani and her husband, Richard Lamb, are self-taught growers. In fact, she gives much credit to Elliot Coleman, whose books she and her husband have read and re-read and used as a guide when they bought their farm. Coleman, a Maine resident, and consultant now, was a pioneer in growing crops organically on small acreage, and on cultivating sustainably.
Castellani and her husband farm just two acres of their 28-acre farm.
“So far, we’ve sustained planting successfully for four years on those two acres.”
Another author, Michael Pollan, had a positive effect on Foragers.
Castellani, her husband and their business partner, Clifford Shikler, also own a Foragers in Brooklyn that they opened a few years ago.
“When we tried to sell grass-fed beef then, nobody wanted it. Then ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ came out, and right away everybody wanted to buy grass-fed beef.” And lots of fresh vegetables.
The New York Times, too, has served Foragers well.
“The Times writes a couple of articles about kale, offers a couple of recipes, and there’s kale everywhere. We sell tons of it.”
Keeping on top of trends has helped sales, but so have size and location. Castellani believes New Yorkers miss earlier times when there were so many small, specialized markets.
“They’re tired of mega stores. They like small. It’s convenient. They’re tired after work. They don’t want to stand in line. They can come in here, in a hurry, and pick up something quick.”
Often that’s a rotisserie chicken at $4.95 a pound. The store sells more than 100 of those a day.
The store itself is a new asset to the community.
“Our landlord had been looking for a retail tenant for quite a while. We looked around the neighborhood and thought it would be a good location,” she added.
She admitted, however, that she was nervous about the unknowns of Manhattan retailing.
“But we’re doing so well after six months, we’re very happy about Chelsea. It took us three years in Brooklyn to turn a profit, but we’ll be there much quicker than that here. Maybe within the year.”
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