Locals Seek More Than Bread From Red Apple Supermarket

04/19/2011
DANIEL DOYLE, Community Contributor
The Local - Fort-Greene Blog - NYTimes.com

If there was ever any doubt, the supermarket chain Red Apple Group now knows that the residents of Ingersoll, Farragut, and Whitman housing developments will demand a grocery store that is committed to their communities. Thursday’s forum on a plan for a new 12,000-square-foot Red Apple Supermarket on Myrtle Avenue at Ashland drew over 100 potential patrons to the Ingersoll Community Center. Many had strong ideas about what separates a high-quality establishment from a shoddy one, and they weren’t shy about telling Red Apple executives that they expect a store that they can be proud of — or else.

“If the food is not fresh, if the prices aren’t affordable, I’ll be pulling that shopping cart up and down the hill, and the food can stay right in that store and rot,” remarked William Stevens, an Ingersoll senior, referring to Red Apple’s incoming store.

Local tenants established early in the meeting that their loyalty — and their buying power — must be earned. The wounds were still raw for many in attendance Thursday night who recalled the Red Apple Group knocking down the community’s Associated supermarket five years ago. The decision by John Catsimatidis’s supermarket chain, which owns 40 Gristedes stores throughout the city, left residents with no convenient source of groceries. Plans for the Red Apple supermarket, which is scheduled to open this year, have been in the works for five years.

One woman took umbrage at the news that the new supermarket will be sited in the basement of the Andrea apartment building, which she considered a sign of disrespect.

“You’re not building this for the community, not at all, if you’re putting us down in the basement,” said the resident to representatives of the supermarket chain during the open meeting. “You’re insulting us again.”

The store clearly represents many things to many people, and concerns varied widely. Some residents seek a larger role in the store’s ambience and deals, while others want fresh local produce, food stamp acceptance, Caribbean and Kosher selections, nutritional counseling or clear labels indicating pesticide use.

The stakes are high for Red Apple. The new store could become the neighborhood stand-by for all three public housing projects, as well as patrons from the Andrea and Toren high rises, and other luxury housing. The only nearby competition is the Bravo supermarket, several blocks away — but the mere mention of that store provoked the ire of some locals, who complained about high-priced produce and an unkempt interior.

The 50th Democratic Assembly District leader, Lincoln Restler, helped organize the event, along with Councilwoman Letitia James, the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership, and Families United for Racial and Economic Equality. In breakout groups, the attendees offered recommendations on food quality and selection; seniors and those with mobility issues; local hiring; and affordable goods.

The constant refrain was, “high quality and affordable,” with concerns ranging from big-picture matters such as hiring practices to specific requests for diabetic-friendly foods and bulk-grains. Locals asked for home delivery, a juicer station, music piped through the store, discount days, and wide aisles. A group of senior citizens offered to volunteer on a committee to review theft accusations and make recommendations for appropriate action.

Red Apple’s attorney, Vincent Tabone, estimated that there will be 75 to 100 unionized workers staffing the market, and noted that 70 percent of hires at other Red Apple-owned stores are local. Ms. James said she hopes to see residents of the nearby housing developments fill the newly created jobs, citing the local workforce at Pathmark on Atlantic Avenue as a good precedent. Mr. Tabone said he will accept referrals from Ms. James’ and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries’ offices.

Some in attendance asked that single mothers with children get preference for jobs, that employees receive health benefits, and for upper management positions to be filled by qualified locals.

Edward Jackson, a former K-Mart manager and Fort Greene resident, also urged Red Apple officials to give those with criminal records fair consideration. “You cannot close your eyes to the brothers and sisters coming home from incarceration,” he said, adding that he had found many former prisoners to be among his best workers at K-Mart.

By the end of the evening, residents seemed willing to forgive the delays of the last five years if Red Apple can make good on their pledges to the community. Mr. Restler assured residents that he and other local representatives will be working with Red Apple before the store’s planned late-summer opening, to make sure that the issues raised at the forum are central to the supermarket’s final plan.

Red Apple executives remained attentive throughout, and appeared eager to gain acceptance from the community. That acceptance could make the difference, as community organizer Beatriz Beckford cautioned at the night’s close, “between people shopping in your store and people standing outside your store, protesting.”