Four openings and a funeral


A weekend street scene outside the Westside Market on Broadway just south of 77th Street, which has been its home since 1979. The supermarket's lease with the parent company of the Hotel Belleclaire, its landlord, expires on November 30. Photo: Douglas Feiden
The 38-year-old Westside Market is leaving its cozy if cramped space on Broadway and 77th Street, but the grocer plans to open four new Manhattan stores
BY DOUGLAS FEIDEN

The Westside Market on Broadway off West 77th Street has offered up its roasted turkey dinner with gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and holiday pie on every Thanksgiving since it first set up shop in 1979. That tradition ends this year.

Upper West Siders will have until 10 p.m. on Thursday, November 23 to pick up the repast — and not a minute more. That sentence is sure to horrify the culinary cognoscenti because for 38 years, the family-owned supermarket maintained 24-7 hours.

But now, it is selling off stock, slowly emptying shelves, curtailing hours and winding down operations. A proud fixture on the ground floor of the Hotel Belleclaire since Ed Koch’s first term as mayor, the grocer will close its doors for good on November 30.

That’s the day its lease expires. And since it couldn’t come to terms on a lease-renewal deal with its landlord, Triumph Hotels, which owns the Belleclaire and six other Manhattan hotel properties, the market will be vacating the premises, said Ian Joskowitz, its chief operating officer.

But this is not another tale of a legacy brick-and-mortar business that has succumbed to online competition in an overheated real estate marketplace. On the contrary, despite sky-high rents, slender profit margins and a punishing commercial rent tax, Westside Market, which runs four other groceries in Manhattan, is in a major expansion mode.

Expect to see new stores with the familiar green-and-white awning popping up all over town: “We’re taking a risk,” Joskowitz said. “But we’re betting on Manhattan.”

Details are still sketchy. The local chain isn’t ready to disclose exact locations, though they’ll be announced shortly. Three leases have already been inked. One prospective deal is still being negotiated. And all told, four new outposts will bow in 2018, the grocer says.

“Yes, we’re actually adding new stores!” Joskowitz confirmed. “We have something that’s unique, and thus far, wherever we go, people seem to like it. Obviously, we hope it continues. And we’re betting that it’s going to work. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing this.”

Each store will be owned, managed and operated by the Zoitas family, along with their business partners. And the store’s founder, 72-year-old Greek immigrant Ioannis Zoitas — better known as “Big John,” who first opened shop with his wife Maria in 1977 in an old bodega on Broadway at 110th Street — is still scouting new locations.

This is what is known about the sites so far:

• The next, set for spring of 2018, will be found on the upper part of the Upper East Side, on the flanks of Carnegie Hill. There was a brief debate about calling it “Westside Market East,” Joskowitz said. “But everybody knows us as Westside, so we decided to keep the original name.”

• Within six months, by next summer or fall, a third entrant will move into the heart of Chelsea, not too far north of another Westside that opened in 2004 on Seventh Avenue at 15th Street.

• Meanwhile, sensitive lease negotiations are continuing over a site in a fourth Manhattan neighborhood the company isn’t ready to identify. If the deal comes to fruition, its current inventory of five markets, soon to be four with the loss of the 77th Street location, will jump to eight.

• Finally, the 77th Street site itself could be replaced with another retail space nearby, which would take the tally up to nine.

The senior Zoitas has been looking at vacancies on the west side of Broadway in the high 70s and low 80s, the side with the most foot traffic, and hopes to reopen as close as possible to the existing shop. But there are no firm plans as yet.

The grocer says it never wanted to decamp in the first place: It sought additional adjoining space so it could enlarge its footprint. More than the rent, that proved the sticking point in lease negotiations. Executives said the store is leaving because the landlord couldn’t accommodate its needs.

Triumph didn’t return calls or emails.

The market’s expansion comes amid perilous times in the city’s food corridors. Roughly 100 small-scale, family-owned grocers in Manhattan shuttered between 2005 and 2015, according to data from the Strategic Research Group, a retail consultant.

In a report earlier this month on the health of small businesses, City Council Member Helen Rosenthal noted that at least three Upper West Side supermarkets had closed in recent years — a Gristedes at Broadway and 96th Street, and two Food Emporiums, at Broadway and 90th Street, and Columbus Avenue and 69th Street respectively.

Add to that the impending loss of the Westside Market at Broadway and 77th Street, and that’s four shutdowns in one neighborhood alone.

It’s the tip of the iceberg: In barely two years, grocers have closed on Mulberry Street, West 14th Street, West 23rd Street, Lexington Avenue, Second Avenue, East 86th Street, the list goes on and on.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer calls the closings a “life-or-death crisis for our seniors,” who need and rely upon affordable food shops, and are often unable to walk very far to reach alternative places.

Along with City Council Member Corey Johnson, whose district includes Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and Greenwich Village, Brewer staged a City Hall rally on November 13 to champion a proposed Council bill to exempt supermarkets from the commercial rent tax, which impacts businesses south of 96th Street and has long proved burdensome.

Noting that even the most successful grocers operate with razor-thin profit margins, she said eliminating the CRT, which is basically a tax on rent, would help preserve stores, jobs and access to fresh, healthy and reasonably priced food options.

“The CRT has outlived its purpose — and it is now crushing many of our local businesses,” Brewer said at the rally.

For decades, the Westside Market has held its own against Fairway and Citarella and other local competitors, Joskowitz said. But it has found it tougher to compete with Amazon, Fresh Direct and Instacart, he adds.

Which raises the obvious question: Why, in such a brutal climate for the supermarket business, is the chain in full-expansion mode?

“In a way, it is counter-intuitive to be opening additional stores right now,” Joskowitz acknowledged.

On the other hand, when you consider the void in the food market that store closings create, there is a certain logic, both mathematically and from a business perspective, in doing so, he explains.

“Weaker supermarkets are closing down left and right,” Joskowitz said. “But if 10 of them close, and we open three new ones, the city is still minus seven.”