PERTH AMBOY, N.J. — Rows of whole goats hanging in a walk-in meat cooler, and huge pots of sancocho simmering in the deli make this store stand out even in a town that's not very conventional itself.
A part of the Fine Fare chain of supermarkets, Fine Fare/Dolcy Foods, which opened here in December, can already claim a loyal group of customers, according to Steve Hanna, the store's owner.
Perth Amboy's population of just over 50,000 includes several major ethnic groups — Guatemalan, Cuban, Jamaican, South American, other Latin American and African — and Hanna aims to offer familiar foods that can be tough to find in most supermarkets.
“One of the first things we did was put in a walk-in meat cooler, large enough that customers can walk in with their grocery carts and choose packaged meat from a whole, long line of racks, or go they can go right to our butcher at the end of the room for service,” Hanna said.
“Pigs' feet and ears and cows' feet are very popular for making soup. Oxtails and tripe, too, are big sellers,” Hanna said. “There's a big market for goat here. It's Dominicans' preference, and we also have whole pigs and whole cows hanging in the cooler. It's that cooler that differentiates us.”
At 1,200 to 1,500 square feet, the meat cooler is like another department inside the store, Hanna explained. Coming in the back door (there is a back entrance and a front entrance to the 10,000-square-foot store), customers see the glass-sided cooler room first. Then, as they walk out of the cooler, they're surrounded by fresh produce. On both sides of an 18-foot-wide aisle, they'll find the likes of plantains, chello garlic, calabaza squash, dried coconuts and yampi root, chayote, tomatillos, yucca and green coconuts, as well as more conventional fruits and vegetables.
In the deli, the hot menu stands out for its price. Hot lunch and hot dinner, with a bowl of homemade soup included, is always $5.
“We fill a plate up with rice and beans and one of the meats the chef has roasted that day. And there's always soup. Our chef determines the day's menu.”
On weekends, the soup is sancocho. Its aroma wafts through the store, easily drawing customers to the deli.
Sancocho, a mainstay of a number of Spanish and Latin American cuisines, is really more of a stew than a soup since it usually consists of large pieces of meat and vegetables. Different variations of it — depending on the meat and spices used — are revered by different groups from the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Puerto Rico and El Salvador.
Undoubtedly, the store's chef, well known in the community, could make any of them. Most customers take the chef-prepared food home, but seating for 20 people is provided near the hot food service counter.
Hanna, who owns three other supermarkets in New Jersey, said he knew Perth Amboy would provide a good market, and a good investment for him.
“The number of people and the mix [of ethnic groups and income levels] make it a very strong market,” Hanna said. “A good market for everybody.”
Three other supermarkets in town — ShopRite, C-Town Supermarkets and Supremo Food Market — can be considered competition certainly, but Hanna believes there's enough business for everybody.
City officials agree.
In fact, Roxana Troche, the city's coordinator of the Urban Enterprise Zone and business improvement district, told SN that just this past year, the town's other three supermarkets had invested heavily in renovations or expansions — a sign that they're doing well.
Troche, who with other agencies is deeply immersed in community development, said city agencies were happy that Hanna wanted to open a full-service supermarket/specialty store here.
“Our population, at latest census, of over 50,000 can easily support four supermarkets,” Troche said. The demographics show the population to be 80% Latino, but from several different parts of the world.
As soon as the site of a car dealership became available in downtown Perth Amboy, Hanna made arrangements to buy the property.
From the very beginning, Hanna said, city officials were very cooperative. And Troche said that's one of her agency's goals, to ease the way for businesses in the community.
“I was surprised by how easy it was to work with the city,” Hanna said. “From obtaining permits, to various licenses, they just moved quickly and made it easy.
“I had approval from city hall in a week, and every step from there went smoothly. For instance, I mentioned I wanted to build a loading zone and I had the permit in days. I really felt welcome.”
From the time Hanna bought the property until he opened the doors for business, only five months had elapsed, allowing him to launch his business in the midst of the holiday season.
“We had a strong holiday business even though we had just opened, and a good response from the city.”
Standing on the site of a former car dealership, the store can offer a lot of parking, in front and in back.
But many people walk in this town that spans only 4.4 square miles. That's where Hanna gets to show off over-the-top customer service, which he deems essential.
If customers walk to the store, they needn't worry that they're buying so much they can't easily carry it home. An associate will drive them home.
The store also offers home delivery for called-in orders. “Or if some reason, you can't get out, we'll pick you up at your house,” Hanna said.
He told SN he makes sure the community knows about all the services his store offers, and also the variety of foods and their special prices.
“We do a lot of radio advertising, several times a day, and we distribute ad fliers direct to 30,000 homes every week,” Hanna said.
Just this month, Hanna has started a new service he was eager to talk about. He had already designated Wednesday as senior citizen's day, giving seniors a 15% discount on anything they buy, but now they get a free breakfast, too.
“On Wednesdays, we're offering free breakfast for seniors. We'll fix them anything they ask for.”