NEW YORK — With costs high and available real estate low, operating a supermarket in the city has become a daunting proposition.
In some city neighborhoods, a lack of food stores is approaching crisis levels and may require government intervention, some groups have argued.
“The scales are tilted way out of balance for the traditional supermarket. They've been squeezed out by things like drug stores paying higher rents,” said Pat Purcell, a spokesman for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500, a Queens-based grocery store union. “It's a horrible imbalance, and it can be a very big problem.”
While the UFCW fights for jobs, it has found allies in neighborhood groups such as Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), which assembled to call attention to a lack of food stores in the Flatbush and Fort Greene areas ever since an Associated Supermarket closed in 2006 to make way for a luxury apartment complex. Many of the FUREE members are residents of the Ingersall and Whitman public housing projects.
Local 1500 and FUREE earlier this month sponsored a coach bus trip to a local supermarket to call attention to the situation.
Of the more than 11,000 food stores in the city registered with the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets, only 550 are supermarkets, said Purcell. More than 10,000 of them are less than 5,000 square feet, and 800 are drug stores.
According to Burt P. Flickinger III, managing partner of Strategic Resource Group, New York, the city is facing a “historic shortage” of food markets that, ironically, “served as an open invitation for Trader Joe's and other newer competitors.”
Traditional supermarkets have had mixed success in the city, observers said. While Pathmark is recognized as a leader for creating high-volume businesses in places like East Harlem and the Crotona Park area in the Bronx, few other chains have had success. Still fewer possess the development expertise or patience of Pathmark, which experienced extraordinary delays in building sites like Crotona Park, but was rewarded with rare amenities, including parking.
Purcell counted the arrival of King Kullen to Staten Island — part of the chain's deal to buy five A&P/Pathmark stores earlier this year — as a promising sign for more development in the boroughs, but he acknowledged that public programs encouraging food store growth are probably required. Stores could also be more willing to tweak their prototypes to meet the different needs in the city, he added.
“We need to sit down with the mayor and the speaker to look at economic incentives for supermarkets, or ways to streamline the approval process for supermarkets,” he said. “We're looking to see if the [Economic Development Corp.], when they do RFPs [requests for proposals], can specifically target supermarkets in certain areas. Do we start looking at supermarkets on the level of affordable housing, where developers are required to include them as an element in their plans?”
Purcell said the union was also preparing to fight to save a Key Food store on Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx threatened by a developer, calling it a “battleground.”
“Someone has to step up to [developer] Vornado and say, you need to be fair to the community,” he said. “There's a way to make money without forcing supermarkets out so you can bring in another Starbucks or Circuit City.”
While in favor of measures that would streamline the development process and make operating stores more cost-efficient, Nick D'Agostino III, chief executive of D'Agostino's Supermarkets, Larchmont, N.Y., said he and his counterparts are as willing as ever to respond to the market needs for food stores where necessary.
“There's no reluctance to put stores where stores belong,” D'Agostino said. “We're always looking to expand in the boroughs. We just haven't had as much luck as we'd like.”