FEATURE-Balducci's fans demand grocery retains NY flavor By Gail Appleson
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Shoppers at Manhattan's historic Balducci's, that famous haven of epicurean delights, were recently shocked when a well-heeled customer threw a temper tantrum amid the Honeybell tangelos and Turocco blood oranges.
"Get over here," she screamed at the produce manager who came to her side and listened calmly as she continued to yell: "Nothing is the way it used to be."
Judy, a loyal customer who witnessed the scene, said the shopper's remark is the gist of what has driven many away from the beloved Greenwich Village gourmet grocery landmark. New Yorkers miss the Italian family that had owned the business, which originated in 1916 with a pushcart in Brooklyn.
And being the food snobs that New Yorkers are, they do not take kindly to the fact that the store was bought in 1999 by a gourmet food chain -- and a Washington, D.C. area-based chain at that.
"Who in New York City would want to buy their food from a company in Washington, D.C.? What works in New York is New York," said Clark Wolf, a food and restaurant consultant.
He said the chain, Sutton Place Gourmet, was used to playing to a market "that was lucky to get pate."
"That dog won't hunt (here)," he said.
But Leslie Christon, president of the Bethesda, Md.-based Sutton Place, said she is determined to overcome that bias and woo back customers with attentive service, unusual inventory and the freshest and highest-quality meats, fish and produce.
"Customers are coming back ... It's been kind of a rebirth," she said during a recent visit to the store in Greenwich Village.
The Balducci family, which pioneered the concept of a specialty food market in Manhattan, opened a gourmet grocery in the mid-1940s and later moved the operations to the current downtown location in 1972. But bitter family jealousies and struggles for money and power resulted in lawsuits and the eventual sale of the business.
SECOND STORE OPENED
Sutton Place, which owns upscale grocery stores in the Washington D.C. area, Connecticut and New York, opened a second Balducci's location near Lincoln Center in 2000.
Wolf and other industry experts said Big Apple foodies and celebrities who were once sighted at the Greenwich Village store began to drift away after it was purchased by Sutton Place.
"We really stubbed our toes when we first bought Balducci's," Christon said, describing how Sutton Place tried to run the store like its other locations.
"Customers in New York City are some of the most food-knowledgeable customers in the country. They want exactly what they expect," she said.
Judy, the loyal customer who did not want to be identified, said the new owners did not understand that Balducci's is a local business, a quirky landmark that combines the charms of an authentic Italian market with the hipness of Greenwich Village. She said the chain started trying gimmicks like having staff dress up in Mardi Gras costumes, which New Yorkers found appalling. Meanwhile, the store grew dirty, prices were high and shoppers felt that no one was listening to their complaints.
"It wasn't a family business anymore," Judy said. "It certainly wasn't an Italian family business. So people stopped going there."
Christon said the chain's management began to listen to the complaints and started making changes. In a key move it brought in Eileen Colondris, a tough New York native, as the general manager.
Colondris quickly became a ubiquitous traffic director, who was seen on a recent afternoon simultaneously sending staff to help shoppers and clean a display while she fended off a burly vendor trying to bully her into buying his deli goods.
Christon claims improvements are paying off, for sales at the Greenwich Village store are up over the previous year. The company would not release actual figures, however.
Indeed, New Yorkers who return to the Greenwich Village mainstay after being away for several years will see many of the things they remember. The parsley green awning welcomes shoppers as they are lured inside by the window display of a dessert-lover's fantasy of decadent cakes and pastries.
The Balducci's in Greenwich Village is the smallest of Sutton Place's stores with only 4,972 square feet (460 square metres) of selling space. The store is a virtual treasure chest packed full of the weird and the wonderful.
There are 15 kinds of mushrooms, including one called Hedgettog, 17 kinds of smoked salmon, several hundreds cheeses including 14 varieties of blue cheese, Kobe beef from Japan, super-premium Balsamic vinegar that costs up to $150 for a 3.5 once (100 ml) bottle and baby gold beets.
The prepared take-out food section offers a bounty of both gourmet and comfort dishes including lasagna made from a Balducci family recipe, mustard-encrusted salmon, broccoli rabe, lobster salad and vegetarian paella.
The executive chef, Pete DiCarlo, said that even with all the variety, fried chicken remains one of the most popular items.
Because of the prestige of the Balducci's name, Sutton Place is expanding a line of products such as olive oils, pastas, sauces and spices bearing the venerable store's label and selling them in Sutton Place stores.
This growing line of nonperishable items are also available through a toll-free number for shipment anywhere in the world.
But even with this wide array and the improved service, industry experts said Balducci's faces stiff competition from Asian green grocers located on most Manhattan blocks and other upscale stores like Dean & DeLuca, Gourmet Garage and Whole Foods Market.
"The big question is whether the Balducci's brand can survive in this incredibly competitive city and in this economy when people are pinching pennies," said Louise Kramer, who writes about food and restaurant businesses for Crain's New York Business.
Judy, the loyal shopper, was optimistic about the future of the flagship location.
"I think it's on its way up. There's a learning curve," she said adding that despite the problems she never contemplated shopping anywhere else. "I'm there for the atmosphere. I can get apples anywhere."