NEW YORK — While Western Beef may conjure up images of cattle out on the plain, its latest store is located in an urban food desert.
On Aug. 25, New York state and city officials, with an assist from baseball great Darryl Strawberry, marked the official opening of a new Western Beef store in the East Tremont section of the Bronx here, the first supermarket to open under the city's Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program.
The new store, which has 35,000 square feet of retail space and another 20,000 square feet of storage space on a second floor along with parking space for 75 cars, replaces a fading 25,000-square-foot unit located nearby. Western Beef, based in Ridgewood, N.Y., in the borough of Queens, operates 28 stores in New York, New Jersey and Florida.
The FRESH program, launched in 2009 by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York City Council, is designed to increase access to fresh food in underserved communities — known as food deserts — by incentivizing the establishment and retention of neighborhood grocery stores. Fresh food outlets are considered vital to overcoming the high rate of obesity and diabetes associated with food deserts. New York City has about 750,000 people living in underserved areas, according to The Reinvestment Fund, Philadelphia.
“By teaming up with FRESH and New York City, we were able to offer a bigger store, more variety, more produce items and more items for healthy living,” said Tom Moranzoni, chief financial officer for Western Beef, who attended the grand opening. “We're proud to be the first [FRESH store] to cross the finish line.” The store supports more than 120 jobs, with 80% of employees coming from within four to five blocks of the location.
“This neighborhood for a very long time has been asking for something just like this,” said Joel Rivera, a New York City Council Member, at the grand opening. “You don't combat [obesity and diabetes] with another McDonald's or another Kentucky Fried Chicken. You combat it with fresh fruits and vegetables being sold right here at Western Beef.”
In addition to the Western Beef store, FRESH has approved funding for the construction, renovation or expansion of nine stores run by other retailers, including Food Bazaar, Associated Supermarkets and two independent operators, said Joanna Frank, director of FRESH, adding that some will open this year.
The FRESH program is not the only government-led effort to address food deserts in New York. Last year, a public/private program, the New York Healthy Food & Healthy Communities Fund, announced that it is making $30 million in grants and loans available for food desert projects statewide. Nationally, Wal-Mart Stores, Supervalu, Walgreens and other stores pledged in July to open or expand a combined 1,500 stores in food desert communities as part of the Partnership for a Healthier America program led by First Lady Michelle Obama.
Construction of the new Western Beef store — originally a Pepsi warehouse — was supported by about $5.6 million in real estate and sales tax exemptions, as well as the waiver of a $154,000 mortgage recording tax on a $5.5 million loan, all provided via the FRESH program. FRESH's financial assistance was authorized last year by the New York City Industrial Development Agency (NYCIDA), which is managed by the New York City Economic Development Corp. (NYCEDC). The total cost of the store, originally estimated to be $11.4 million, came to more than $15 million, said Heidi S. Springer, vice president, transaction services for NYCEDC, at the grand opening.
According to Springer, sales tax exemptions were given to the store for equipment expenses. In addition, the real estate value assessment was “frozen at the pre-project level so all of these improvements are not being taxed,” she said. “That can get a project over the hump.”
Without the tax exemptions, “we never would have opened this store,” said Moranzoni, acknowledging the higher costs of building and operating a store in an inner-city environment.
Western Beef, whose slogan is “We know the neighborhood,” is not unfamiliar with operating stores in underserved parts of New York, with about five locations in similar neighborhoods in the Bronx, said Moranzoni. “We feel we can service customers in this type of neighborhood very well, better than most.” The chain is seeking more such opportunities through the FRESH program.
Most of the new store's customers are Hispanic, West Indian or African, said Jim DiFrancisco, the store's co-manager. “They are very smart shoppers — they don't have money to waste,” he said. “If it's not perfect, they won't buy it.”
In its 3,000-square-foot produce department, the store is able to offer more of the ethnic items that appeals to these shoppers, such as calabaza (West Indian pumpkin), yucca, plantain, batata and yautia. Center Store also offers a wide array of ethnic brands, including sodas like Columbiana (Dominican) and Cola Lacaye (Haitian). A 37-degree, 3,500-square-foot walk-in meat cooler — called the Carniceria — houses a vast assortment of meats, including bulk meat that can be sliced to order.
Asked about shoppers' reaction to the new store, DiFrancisco replied in classic New York-style, “Fuggetaboutit! Every day they tell me what a beautiful job they did on the store.” Unlike the previous store, the new location offers a fresh bakery and service deli with Boar's Head meats and cheeses. “And our prices are more than comparable than anybody else,” he said. The local bodegas, which try to make up for the absence of supermarkets, “can't charge the same prices as we can,” he noted.
One shopper at the grand opening, Roslyn Turner, who shopped at the previous store, agreed that it was time for a change. “I like the produce here better and the atmosphere.” Shopper Claudia Harper observed that “the aisles are easier to get through.”
Though the store employs a security guard at the front entrance, DiFrancisco downplayed safety concerns associated with inner-city neighborhoods. “People say you work in the South Bronx, you've got to be crazy,” he said. “But in this store you meet people and their families. They come here to shop — not to argue or fight.” Many of the children brought to the store are bilingual, he added. “I'll ask them to translate for their parents.”