Trader Joe’s opened a store in our neighborhood and I have mixed feelings. I had hoped for a local branch for more than 20 years, since I first shopped at one in Connecticut. But now I feel conflicted because of what I fear it will do to our local grocers, who have been fantastic neighborhood vendors for decades. (And I wonder why they couldn’t have opened in a needier neighborhood (actual food deserts still exist in NYC) instead of our already over gentrified Upper West Side). Wherever you live, this is a problem for everyone in the face of rapid expansion by chain stores. I do shop at Costco, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s but I also shop, almost daily, at our local Mani Market Place.
There are different reasons to shop different stores. Trader Joe’s has many quality organic items at very reasonable prices, offers paper shopping bags, takes things back if they are bad and has great deals on flowers and orchids. On the other hand, Mani’s, run by two kind, personable and generous brothers, Taki and Taso Mastakouris, sells seasonal produce and plants from nearby farms, stocks all kinds of specialty, organic and hard to find items like Halloumi cheese, locally roasted coffees (at great prices) and imported European butters, has a fresh deli with helpful countermen and in house-made salads and is open early, late and on holidays. If you’ve burned your Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, Mani’s will have a delicious replacement for you from a local farm bakery. If you get to the cashier and realize you’ve forgotten your wallet, Taso will tell you to pay them tomorrow. If you are eyeing the fresh figs but wondering if they are as tasty as they look, Taki will offer you a taste. It is about as perfect a local market as one could imagine.
Although Mani’s has good prices, how will they be able to compete with the kind of volume pricing that Trader Joe’s offers? Well – they already are better priced on many items. At Mani’s, I have seen mangoes for $1 and grapefruit at 3 for $2 as well as fresh bread from Arthur Avenue for $4 per loaf. This week domestic strawberries are 2 boxes for $4, organic strawberries are 2 boxes for $7 and pineapples are 2 for $5. These are prices you can’t beat anywhere. Their fresh produce and the high quality of their deli (including fresh roasted turkey everyday) along with their distinct products (truly delicious olive oil direct from their family in Greece, boxes of tamarind pods, fresh green herbs all year, fresh turmeric and horseradish roots in season) and personal service gives Mani’s an individual profile that makes them stand out among Upper West Side groceries.
There are other neighborhood stores I think will feel challenged but will also survive (if their landlords don’t escalate their rents) because they are distinctive, accommodating and have built a loyal following. Besides Mani, these include Ivan Pharmacy which has competitive prices and offers quality lines (like Mrs. Meyers cleaning products and Playmobil toys) and Columbus Natural Foods, our local health food store which shines for its bulk items, prepared foods (especially delicious soups) and juices, medicinal products and the knowledgable advice of its proprietor, Ann. All three of these stores and their owners are local treasures. I think they will survive and thrive now that Trader Joe’s is open. We will certainly continue to support them, as I hope everyone else in the neighborhood will, too.