Roosevelt Islanders Respond

Rebuttal: We Shopped Gristedes and So Did Our Readers

Updated 36 weeks ago Peter McCarthy
Gristedes "Mega Store"
Gristedes "Mega Store"
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Gristedes's Roosevelt Island "Mega Store" is more controversial than you might expect for a business of its kind. When we published a mostly positive review, we heard about from readers - in full color.

Roosevelt Islanders Who Loathe Gristedes

Raye Schwartz is plugged in to the community. She has passionate opinions she is not reluctant to share.

Schwartz read the article by our editor and publisher David Stone, her reaction was pointed.

In her opinion, the best thing Gristedes could do "...is get the hell off this island and give this community a proper supermarket!"

Ouch!

"Period!" she added with an exclamation point.

John Catsimatidis's Main Street anchor market, years ago, accrued a reputation for shelving outdated, even spoiled and rancid foods, but those misdemeanors seem to have been forgiven. The store is cleaner, and as reported in our report, foods past their sell by dates are rare.

Bravo! Mr. Catsimatidis.

But that doesn't seem to be enough. There remains lingering animosity over Gristedes's grouping our local market into their Manhattan pricing scheme. The result is a community with economic demographics more closely resembling those of Queens  paying what the highest income residents of the Upper East Side pay.

And the resentment may radiate.

"My friends on the upper East Side," Schwartz tells us, "refuse to patronize them, but they have other choices within walking distance."

She speculates that Catsimatidis, "...is probably declaring it a tax loss against the profits and income from his other businesses."

The businessman's wealth accumulation centers oil, not groceries.

A Manhattan Park resident goes a step farther in her critique: "Gristedes is a joke," she writes, but I don't believe she means the kind that generates laughter.

"And here's the thing about their ShopRite products," she continues, objecting to our comments about prices. "They consistently charge you from 20 cents to a dollar more per package than an actual ShopRite."

She added details:

"Also, have you noticed the incredible increasing milk prices, from $1.39 to $1.59 in just two months? At least eggs are down from their high of $7.29. And let us not forget the appalling lack of kosher products. When I first moved here 16 years ago, they had actual kosher-for-Passover frozen foods. You won't ever be seeing that again. 

"Sorry, Gristedes is for when I run out of milk, or if something has gone wrong while I'm in the middle of cooking. (Like you, mostly vegetarian, with some fish. Which I get from the City Fresh Market in Astoria, where the tilapia is half the price and comes from Ecuador, not China.)"

The reference to City Fresh, located on the corner of Broadway and 21st Street, with plenty of free parking, is a subject on which Raye Schwartz expands.

"Now, fortunately, we have City Fresh nearby with a great selection, better prices, and free shuttle service for those who do not drive," she reminds us. "And they take WIC for those who need it as well as give discounts to seniors and city workers."

The Manhattan Park resident, who prefers to be nameless but who has been verified as real, went on to remind me of a practice we once had.

"A couple of times a month, I go back to visit my mom in North Jersey ... and bring the contents of ShopRite, Trader Joe's, Fairway, Stop & Shop, etc. back to the Island. My savings pay for gas, tolls, and more."

For my wife and I, it was farther upstate in New York, and we drove home with trunks full of Wegman's bags. We saved a bundle too.

Before Wrapping Up: The WIC Controversy

Here at the Daily, we covered the controversy over Gristedes's cancellation of the WIC Program since the story first erupted in August, spurred by Helen Chiviras who, along with fellow RIRA member Frank Farance led the charge of protest.

More recently, late to the game as usual, the Main Street WIRE followed our lead with a front page article that mislead in its efforts to get in front of the controversy. And in the same issue, RIRA president Jeffrey Escobar's column mentioned a resolution passed by his group that condemned the cancellation and appealed to Gristedes for a reversal.

But you had to read through a thicket of fawning efforts at getting residents to run for office before reading about it, a daunting task, and it seems Escobar committed a factual error, which does nothing to inspire the kind of activism this cause needs if it has any chance to be effective.

And State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright has sent a stinging letter while RIOC Acting President Susan Rosenthal endorsed "peaceful" protest. (Seawright erred with excess partisanship by sending out an email listing alternative WIC providers, but none outside Manhattan that would be helpful, like City Fresh, for Roosevelt Islanders.)

La la la la la...

None of these actions will have a serious impact on Gristedes. Catsimatidis is a wise financial operator who certainly calculated the political ramifications and their likely ineffectiveness in his decision to bounce WIC.

As for the errors that tend to dilute otherwise good intentions, there was never a protest outside Gristedes as the WIRE reports. Frank Farance, Helen Chiviras and Ellen Polivy spent an hour one Saturday morning educating passersby and collecting signatures on a petition, doing so on the corner across from the farmers market, not at Gristedes.

Escobar's claim, in the same newspaper, that 26 families are affected by the WIC cancellation appears to be a gross exaggeration of the 10 that have been confirmed or the maximum of 3 to 5 WIC checks per week, as reported in the reliable Roosevelt Islander blog.

And, no, Main Street WIRE, Gristedes is not in violation of their ground lease, and even if they were, no one is going to war with them over 10 or even 26 families who have alternatives. Readers of the Daily are already aware of the indifference RIOC has toward ground lease violations with far greater impact.

All of these reports, except here and in the Roosevelt Islander blog, tell a one-sided story making it appear that the ghastly ogre John Catsimatidis just woke up in a bad mood and decided to screw WIC customers. The story is far more complex and involves some bureaucratic bumbling that initiated the crisis.

Of greater potential is the resolution passed by RIRA that condemns Gristedes's actions, but with its usual flair, RIRA seems not to have the wisdom to share the resolution outside its cloistered group.

Sadly, this is no exception. Click the link to find out who your Common Council representative is on their website and you are mysteriously told you need special permission to obtain that information. Excuse me?

When and if RIRA decides to make its resolution public, we will share it with you. It's important for everyone to keep in mind that letters and resolutions, disconnected from positive action, are scarcely worth the paper on which they are printed. They blow away with the next wind.

Picket lines and public boycotts help. If you want action, as the Civil Rights Movement showed us, you need to create discomfort. Taking revenue away via boycotts probably works best.

Raye Schwartz and our neighbor in Manhattan Park vote with their feet. They spend their money elsewhere. Anyone feeling strongly enough that Gristedes must change can follow their lead. But do it publicly. Tell Gristedes why.

If you write to Gristedes to register your disapproval, your postage will be as wasted as Rebecca Seawright's. If you take your business, all of your business, elsewhere and make sure they know it, Gristedes will be counting their receipts.

Losing revenue is a great motivator for change.

Not having seen it, I believe it's unlikely that RIRA's resolution goes that far, which makes it one more exercise in futility for a group that's could do so much more.

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