Editor’s note: On Friday EV Grieve reported the big news that an upscale Brooklyn market was taking over the ground floor of 240 East Houston, at Essex Street. Our Jennifer Strom went over to Cobble Hill to learn more about the owners’ Lower East Side plans:
Union Market, a small chain of neighborhood grocery stores specializing in local, organic and natural foods, plans to open its first Manhattan store at the corner of Houston and Essex streets this fall.
With stores in Park Slope and Cobble Hill, Union Market’s founders decided to take the big leap across the East River for two reasons, says partner Marko Lalic. They have personal ties to the neighborhood: Co-founder Martin Nunez grew up on the Lower East Side and the third co-founder, Paul Fernandez, is a partner in two prominent local restaurants, Macondo at Allen and Houston, and Rayuela at Allen and Stanton.
Secondly, they see the Lower East Side as having a community ambiance comparable to the Brooklyn neighborhoods where their first three stores have succeeded.
“This particular location is the stomping grounds of two of my partners,” Lalic said in an interview yesterday. “And there’s a very similar feel between here and there.”
The 6,000-square-foot store—which will be the largest in the 6-year-old chain—is situated right on the boundary between the Lower East Side and the East Village. It’s also just two avenue blocks from Whole Foods, the beloved-by-some, reviled-by-others behemoth ten times its size.
While the two stores may overlap significantly in target demographics and product lines, Lalic considers Whole Foods “totally different” from the neighborhood grocery they are modeling.
“It’s a destination place; it’s not a neighborhood store,” he said, jesting about the need for a shuttle to travel from the produce section to the dairy section in Whole Foods. “It’s a corporation, run from corporate headquarters in Texas.”
By contrast, Union Market aims to be a “quick shop”: the place you stop by on your way home from work, where you can find locally made dairy and dry goods, fresh meat and seafood, and an enormous variety of high-end appetizing such as cheese and olives.
A field trip to Cobble Hill this week revealed an organized, bright, tightly packed store stocked with brands that will be familiar to many Lower East Side residents: Pickles from Pickle Guys on Essex Street and Rick’s Picks on Chrystie Street and ice cream made by Seward Park Co-op resident Paul Nasrani’s company, Adirondack Creamery. There are also plenty of Brooklyn-based products, including Blue Marble Ice Cream from a few doors down on Court Street.
“The local component is crucial to understanding the whole concept of Union Market,” Lalic said. “Besides selling local products, we are a local product. And we are constantly trying to stay on top of everything that’s going on in the local food scene.”
The three partners based their business philosophy on promoting “food you should be eating,” Lalic said, in a nod to the teachings of real-food pioneers like Michael Pollan. “We’re all food fans, and we try not to stock anything with ingredients you can’t pronounce.”
In addition to products made in the five boroughs, brands from New York state line the shelves: Ronnybrook Dairy products from Ancramdale, Fee Brothers Bitters from Rochester. Goods from national enviro-friendly companies such as Seventh Generation cleaning supplies are also available.
The three partners are all veterans of the New York City food business. Lalic and Nunez worked together at Gourmet Garage, a Manhattan-based specialty food chain. In addition to his involvement with two high-profile LES restaurants, Fernandez also owns other grocery stores, including one in SoHo. Fernandez has served as the president of the New York chapter of the National Supermarket Association, an advocacy group for independent groceries in the metro area.
Union Market’s LES store, now marked with scaffolding and an “opening fall 2011” banner, is tentatively scheduled to debut in September. The space is undergoing complete renovation, and the new store will employ green-building practices such as energy-efficient lighting and heating systems. About a month before opening, the Union Market team will begin hiring a staff of 50 workers, mostly from the immediate neighborhood, Lalic said.
While the partners are considering additional expansion in Brooklyn, the LES will likely be Union Market’s only Manhattan store, he said.
“We all think of ourselves as New Yorkers,” Lalic says. “But the Lower East Side is very much like Brooklyn in its sense of community.”