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An Essex Street Market Transition: So Long Batista Grocery, Hello Luna Brothers

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Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer with Luis Batista and his family at the Essex Street Market.

There was a celebration at the Essex Street Market Friday evening to wish longtime merchant Luis Batista well and to welcome his successor, Luna Brother Fruit Plaza.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council member Margaret Chin were there for a brief presentation and a party featuring various treats from market vendors. As we reported earlier this month, Batista sold his business to two new operators, Jose Luna and Luis Vargas, after 20 years toiling away on the southern end of the market. The new team took over a few weeks ago.

Friday’s festivities were led by Joshua Nelson, a senior vice president at the city’s Economic Development Corp., which runs the facility. “This market is clearly more than just a place to buy food,” he told guests who had crowded into the center aisle at the Latino grocery. “It is a community hub infused by the energy of the vendors,” who “devote sweat, passion and countless hours” to their businesses. “Senor Luis Batista is a crowning example of this,” said Nelson. “His customers come not only for his products,” but because Batista cultivated a relationship that evolved “over time from proprietor and customer to friends.”

But Nelson added,  “we view the change not as an upheaval but rather a passing of the torch. While the market will never be quite the same without Batista Grocery, Luna Brothers is committed to cultivating the same community ties and relationships that Senor Batista exemplified and, in this way, his legacy will continue to live at the Essex Street Market.” He then underscored the city’s commitment to the historic facility, which has undergone many changes in recent years and is poised for a move and expansion across the street in the next few years.

…We at EDC are doing our part, too, working to ensure that the Essex Street Market remains a beloved resource for the diverse, extraordinary community of the Lower East Side, while also making it a world class destination that draws visitors from all over the world. The city is committed to ensuring a bright future for the Essex Street Market, where our vendors flourish in the years to come and all of our customers, friends continue to see this place as an essential part of the Lower East Side.

Most transitions from one vendor to another are not met with so much fanfare, but it’s a sensitive time at the Essex Street Market.  Final plans are being prepared for a new market, as part of the Essex Crossing development project. While the developers are paying to move the vendors when the new building is ready in a few years, there’s anxiety about the dramatic changes ahead.  Some merchants, as well as loyal customers, worry that the distinctive character of the market will be lost in translation. Also, the city has been battling in court a longtime merchant, Carmen Salvador of Three Brothers Clothing, over the EDC’s decision to force her from the facility.  So Friday evening, the EDC sought to reassure local stakeholders.

Dignitaries in attendance kept their remarks focused on Mr. Batista and the new operators. Gale Brewer, the borough president, said, “I prefer the operator-owner, mom-and-pop stores to any large chain store in the city of New York. We are sitting here today in the kind of community that is the backbone of New York City.”  In selling the business to a team committed to running a community-oriented grocery, said Brewer, “this owner has done the right thing, not for himself, but for the entire of New York City.”

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