and the City
Chopper is the only area grocery chain with stores in urban
neighborhoodsbut how long will it keep them there?
Photographs by Shannon DeCelle
see the Delaware Avenue Price Chopper grocery store in Albany
at its unexpected best, you need to be there late at night.
The rough edges of this section of the city soften in the
dark, and the store seems less like a big box of brick and
stucco, and more like a cheerful island of fluorescent light
in the middle of an asphalt lake. It’s a mixed area: Some
of the surrounding streets look lovingly preserved and others
look like their future rests on the survival of one or two
Come morning, both the quiet and the nighttime bakery aroma
of fresh bread in the Price Chopper will be gone. In their
place will be clusters of giggling kids from Hackett Middle
School, elbowing each other through the checkout lines with
as much junk food as their hands can hold. The stream of taxicabs
will start moving through the fire lane out front, picking
up the customers without cars who live too far away to walk
home with a week’s worth of food. The clink and crunch of
bottles going through the deposit machines in the grimy recycling
center adjacent to the main entrance will play like a sound-effect
tap on an endless loop.
The mom-and-pop corner markets that used to be in so many
neighborhoods are mostly gone. In their place is a line of
urban Price Choppers like this one, spreading into Menands,
Watervliet and Cohoes, up into Saratoga Springs and out to
The Delaware Avenue Price Chopper is definitely inner-city
shopping, and it comes in a no-frills package. But for better
or worse, this is Albany’s last best hope for a grocery store
this close to downtown. And in many ways, this store has come
to symbolize the difficulties of keeping urban grocery stores
open in the Capital Region.
For all the love/hate relationship that has existed between
Price Chopper and its urban residential neighbors, stores
like this are sorely missed when they close, as has happened
in the last decade to Price Choppers in Rensselaer, Troy and
Schenectady. A number of Capital Region activists with a vested
interest in urban neighborhoods agree on that. What’s much
harder to reach consensus on is the best way to make these
stores work so that they don’t close in the first place.
Running an urban grocery store can be hellishly difficult.
They are usually too small, in buildings that are 20 or 30
years outdated in equipment and design. They have high rates
of theft; packages of meat walk out the door inside someone’s
parka, and shopping carts constantly get “borrowed.” Urban
groceries deal with rapid employee turnover and more overall
crime, both on the premises and in surrounding blocks, than
their suburban counterparts. Wal-Mart grocery stores, such
as the one that will be included in a planned Wal-Mart superstore
in East Greenbush, snatch away customers seeking rock-bottom
And they have an image problem. The Delaware Avenue Price
Chopper, for example, has long been inelegantly known as “the
Ghetto Chopper,” a nickname that also pops up at other urban
Price Chopper locations.
store has been considered a ghetto store because it does very
well with the food stamps and the liquor sales,” says Charles
Sullivan, a longtime Hudson/Park neighborhood resident whose
Elm Street home is a few steps from the Delaware Avenue store.
(The Golub Corp., which owns Price Chopper, is a privately
held company and declined to release sales figures for any
of its stores.)
of the people in the neighborhood don’t shop there, and that’s
a tragedy,” Sullivan says. “We’ve got people on Elm Street
who will not walk up to Price Chopper to do their grocery
shopping. The store is serving a population that isn’t really
a reflection of the Center Square, Hudson/Park, Mansion neighborhoods,
and I find that sad.”
Translation: A large proportion of the people shopping at
the Delaware Avenue store are low-income Albany residents.
It’s almost certain that Price Chopper knows what proportion,
because those Price Chopper cards do more than give customers
a discount on their groceries. As with similar discount cards
used by most grocery chains, they also tell Golub how many
people from any particular zip code are shopping at which
Mona Golub, 39, the company spokeswoman and daughter of Golub
president and chief executive officer Neil Golub, offers a
carefully measured perspective on the clientele of Price Chopper’s
urban stores. Her comments, replete with industry jargon,
reflect a lifetime in the grocery business. Food that must
be discarded because it didn’t sell, for example, is called
we want the products to reflect the community, so priority
is always given to demographics,” she says. “Each category
within the store has a manager who carefully watches over
what shrinks and what sells. And we watch very carefully what
we throw away.”
inner-city stores, the “demographics” are likely to be heavily
Latino and black, which is why such stores carry three or
four different kinds of greens (collards, beets, dandelions
. . .) and fresh ham hocks and packaged chicken feet. The
availability of these speciality items is another, more positive,
definition of “Ghetto Chopper,” according to some local residents.
Mona Golub proudly touts the fact that 13 of the company’s
30 Capital Region stores are downtown stores, although some
might consider her definition of downtown a stretch. She counts
the Westgate Shopping Center store on Central Avenue in Albany
as a downtown store, and while that store is surrounded by
commercial property and blue-collar scenery, it’s hardly walkable
from the urban heart of Albany. It’s also the store that many
shoppers from Albany’s Center Square and Hudson/Park neighborhoods
flee to rather than patronize the much more convenient Delaware
The Golub Corp.’s Web site lists 106 stores, in Connecticut,
Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Vermont, as well as New York.
The locations range from resort towns (Burlington, Vt., and
Lenox, Lee and Great Barrington, Mass.) to working-class cities
that hit hard times decades ago (Torrington, Waterbury and
Throughout the chain, the stores are a mix of old and new.
The showcase “superstores” have features such as full seafood
departments and specialty bakeries. Golub has also bought
a number of down-and-out grocery stores operated by other
chains, and has converted available buildings such as former
Kmarts to grocery space. These converted stores, often in
urban settings, can rarely match the splashy superstores in
size or inventory. They’re as much as a third the size of
the superstores—less than 30,000 square feet as opposed to
70,000 to 95,000 square feet for new construction.
But the blue-collar atmosphere of many of these sites is also
a good fit with the Golub Corp. itself, which glorifies its
Horatio Alger, all-in-the-family roots. (The first Central
Market, the precursor to Price Chopper, opened in Schenectady
in 1933, and the company proudly touts its local connection.)
The Golub corporate headquarters and main distribution center
are in Rotterdam, and the home of Price Chopper turns out
to be a little like one of its urban stores: functional, not
at all fancy, but definitely designed to get the job done.
The complex has the feeling of a company town, although in
this company town the 21,000 employees own 55 percent of the
stock. Motivational messages and mission statements are posted
along the hallways, the background music playing in the reception
area is periodically interrupted for Price Chopper promotional
announcements, and even the snowplows zipping back and forth
in the parking lot like hyperactive shopping carts bear the
Price Chopper corporate logo. The sense of scrappy hustle
matches the industry image of Price Chopper, says Caren Epstein,
a spokeswoman for the Hannaford grocery chain, based in Portland,
Maine (none of whose 12 Capital Region stores are located
in urban downtowns).
as it’s referred to in the industry, is certainly a serious
competitor in New York, where Hannaford has 34 stores,” Epstein
says. “I never discount the hometown advantage because, as
in this case, dominance is sometimes the result of sheer numbers.”
(Golub operates 68 Price Choppers in New York.)
And in case you could somehow forget who’s bringing you most
of your Capital Region groceries, Price Chopper pops up in
just about every corporate sponsorship that’s available in
and around Albany. Price Chopper produces the city’s Fourth
of July fireworks and has a heavy presence in the rest of
the major annual events: the Tulip Fest, Lights in the Park,
Larkfest, River Fest, First Night, the Freihofer Run for Women
. . . and those are just the big, highly visible shows. There
are numerous smaller sponsorships and corporate do-gooder
gestures, such as Price Chopper’s effort to buy as much locally
grown produce as possible. Price Chopper is affiliated with
what it claims is the only 4-H club in the nation sponsored
by a grocery chain, and buys back the produce that the club
grows from seedlings provided by Golub.
call ourselves a family in business, not a family business,”
Mona Golub says.
Business is business, though, and family sentimentality does
not enter into the picture when Golub sizes up a struggling
store. Stores that struggle too long get closed. The freestanding
Price Chopper near the Rensselaer train station closed 10
years ago, and stores in Troy Plaza on Hoosick Street in Troy
and on Watt Street in Schenectady closed within the last two
years. New, much larger “superstores” in Brunswick and in
Mohawk Commons in Schenectady replaced them, with much larger
inventories and full-scale departments.
A coalition of activist groups in Troy protested the closing
of the Troy Plaza store, and bad feelings in Troy linger to
this day about the closure. Rosa House in Troy, a Catholic
Worker house, was one of the groups in the city that turned
out for a mock funeral for the store the day before it died
in April 2002.
been an organizer for 20 years, and it was one of the best
things I’ve ever done,” says Geralyn McDowell of Rosa House.
“We did it on a Thursday; the store closed on Friday.”
Golub did agree to meet with some of the protestors, but the
group affiliated with Rosa House realized that the store’s
fate had been sealed, and decided not to press for a meeting.
Instead, the Rosa House faction opted for making a point with
its public demonstration.
wanted to put public pressure on them,” McDowell says.
Mona Golub defended the closing of the Troy Plaza store, saying
it was outdated in size and design, and that it was impractical
to undertake major renovations on a building that couldn’t
be made any larger. The new store in Brunswick is 2 miles
east on Hoosick Street. Price Chopper arranged for a special
bus to go from the Troy Plaza location to the new store, but
so few riders used it that it quickly stopped running.
data clearly shows that 90 percent of those Hoosick Street
customers are shopping at our Brunswick store,” Mona Golub
McDowell disputes those assertions, noting that the special
bus ran only once a day, in the morning, and that few people
without a car can manage a week’s worth of groceries on a
bus. A fire had heavily damaged the original Troy Plaza store,
and the Golub Corp. never seemed committed to keeping the
rebuilt version running, she says.
reopened it, but they reopened it with second-class goods
and odd lots,” she says, which made it so difficult to do
decent shopping there that previous customers stopped going.
This, says McDowell, gave Price Chopper justification to close
The size of the 30-year-old Hoosick Street store, not its
customer base, drove the decision to close it, Mona Golub
says. The store does match its inventory to its customer base,
she says, but size restrictions, not demographics, were the
deciding factor at Hoosick Street. In fact, she says, it was
never a wise business decision to reopen it at all after the
fire, but since her father, Neil Golub, had made a promise
to the community, they did so. It was, she admits, at a “superette”
level, “one step up from basic.”
The loss of the store meant more than the loss of what was
at the time downtown Troy’s only grocery store. Price Chopper
retained its lease on the property even after the store closed,
making it difficult for any other store to consider taking
over the site, “and everybody was concerned that all of Troy
Plaza was going to go under without a grocery store,” McDowell
says. A year ago, the Troy City Council nudged things along
by passing a nonbinding resolution urging the Golub Corp.
to relinquish its lease, and soon after, Golub did just that.
Mona Golub says that time was spent negotiating with the landlord
to get out of the lease.
A Midland Foods grocery eventually opened in the Troy Plaza
space. McDowell describes it as basic but serviceable, and
certainly capable of meeting a family’s weekly grocery needs.
were very pleased that they did do the right thing in the
end,” McDowell says.
One of the quirky joys of shopping in the Delaware Avenue
Price Chopper is that it’s a little like venturing into Filene’s
Basement. You never know what you’re going to find, and you
can’t always be sure that you’re going to find what you want
even when you’re looking for it, but the element of surprise
makes an excursion into the store that much more fun.
An exploration of the cheese case on any given day will usually
yield chunks of Wisconsin cheddar, the ubiquitous feta and
crocks of that fluorescent orange processed spread that makes
its way into some very forgettable holiday cheese balls. And
then one day—bingo!—when you’re not even looking, you see
Camembert, brie or Vermont goat cheese, and sometimes two
of the three at once.
Still, exasperated longtime customers of the Delaware Avenue
store tell of finding an unexpected gourmet item that they
love, and then never finding it again in the same place twice,
if at all. You can see organic, salt-free, sprouted-grain
bread and packages of rosemary flat bread one week; you just
can’t count on seeing them a week or two later.
Joseph Cunin, executive director of the Lark Street Business
Improvement District, shops at both the Delaware Avenue and
the Westgate Price Choppers, and follows developments at the
Delaware Avenue store as part of his job and out of personal
interest. The store is the second-largest property in the
BID and pays the second-highest BID fee of any of the member
stores, calculated by applying a special $2.65 assessment
for every $1,000 of assessed value.
Cunin also has a background in commercial property management
and used to manage shopping centers that included various
national chain grocery stores, and he is keenly aware of what
makes grocery stores thrive or die.
talk to people in the neighborhood a lot, and I’m of two minds
on that store,” Cunin says. “I tell people if we don’t shop
there and buy the better-quality stuff they have, you won’t
find goat cheese, if they’re throwing the goat cheese out.
That store, by virtue of where it’s located, is going to serve
a large population of low-income customers. And these customers
are not going to buy the fancy high-end products.”
Delaware Avenue store does cater to an ethnically and racially
mixed clientele, Mona Golub says, but the store has started
stocking some specialty and gourmet items, and plans to continue
have never discussed closing that store, ever,” she says.
“As far as considering winter hours for certain stores that
do minimal business overnight, that is something that we would
consider for stores in that category.”
The occasional advertising fliers that direct residents of
Delaware Avenue to a Price Chopper in suburban Bethlehem are
not an attempt to steer customers away from one store and
toward a more “affluent” store, Golub says. Instead, they
reflect Price Chopper’s effort to match specials offered by
a competitive grocery store in a particular area during a
A longtime Delaware Avenue store employee says that most of
the considerable theft from that store occurs late at night,
which is one reason why Golub did consider reducing the hours
as recently as last year, according to the employee, who asked
not to be identified. Golub has previously denied considering
hours reductions for the store. But the store also has very
brisk alcohol sales, especially at night, and management seems
to have concluded that one situation balances the other, the
The employee, who is sympathetic to the challenges the store
faces, gives Delaware Avenue high marks for trying hard. The
store is remarkably clean, and the company is always casting
about for ways to improve it, the employee says. People who
call the Golub headquarters with customer service complaints
credit the corporation with responding quickly. Golub recently
installed an anti-theft system on shopping carts that locks
their wheels if they go off store property, ensuring that
fewer Price Chopper carts decorate Hudson/Park streets. Security
guards outside the store have worked cooperatively with employees,
and morale has improved, the employee says.
The store’s larger relationship with the neighborhood is still
a work in progress.
The existing Delaware Avenue store was preceded by one of
the Golub Corp.’s old Central Market stores. That Central
Market burned in 1977, and Golub decided to rebuild on the
site. Community organizers—several of whom also had ties to
the founding the Hudson/Park Neighborhood Association—saw
an opportunity to build a better store, and they started to
negotiate with Golub.
The organizers won several small but important victories.
They convinced Golub to move the loading dock from the old
location along Elm Street, where space was tight and tractor-trailers
occasionally bashed the trees. The new loading dock went in
along Myrtle Avenue, at a greater distance from surrounding
Albany resident Gregg Bell was a founding member of the Capitol
Hill Architectural Review Commission, a city-state review
board created when a preservationist spirit swept the city
in the 1970s, and he recalls working with Golub as part of
the review commission to make the replacement building fit
in better in the neighborhood. Together, Golub and the commission
tweaked the design of the façade and the brick wall along
Elm Street. Streamlined pilasters—partial columns attached
to and slightly projecting from the wall—softened the wall’s
appearance and made it less imposing.
doesn’t sound like much, but these are the sort of architectural
details that really make a difference,” Bell says. He credits
Golub with listening, and after some initial tussles, Golub
and the review commission found common ground.
With the building long an established part of the Hudson/Park
landscape, the BID has tried to encourage the store to play
a more active role as a prominent merchant in the Lark Street
corridor. Cunin held a BID board seat open for the Price Chopper
manager, but finally gave it to another member when Price
Chopper failed to fill the seat.
my pitch to them, I’ve always said, ‘You guys are the anchor
to this community,’” Cunin says. “This neighborhood would
have a more difficult time being a viable residential neighborhood
if it did not have a grocery store. I think they do a pretty
damned good job running a store, given what they’re up against.
It’s tough running an urban store.”
truly believe more people would shop there if the store reached
out a little more to the community,” Cunin adds.
Mona Golub says she had been unaware of any dissatisfaction
with the store. Manager Chris Gaston grew up in the Delaware
Avenue neighborhood, she says, “so he’s really quite thrilled
to be there.” (The Golub Corp. would not allow Gaston or any
employee other than Mona Golub to be interviewed.)
would hope that if the response from store management was
not what they wanted, they would call here,” Golub says.
These are good times for urban grocery stores. Corporations
have realized that there is money to be made if a grocery
store can be the center of a revitalization effort. The Initiative
for a Competitive Inner City, a Harvard nonprofit think tank
for inner-city economic development, studied four small-to-large
inner-city grocery stores in Boston, St. Louis, New Haven,
Conn., and Newark, N.J., and released the results of that
study a year ago.
in America have begun to recognize the enormous untapped potential
of inner-city markets,” ICIC summarized. “They are responding
to the numerous reports that have identified inner cities
as the last large domestic frontier for retail, characterized
by high concentrations of income and limited competition.”
To succeed, the study noted, inner-city grocery stores need
to be flexible, they need to build strong community relationships
and they need to realize that independents and chains can
Those injunctions could be describing all that faces the urban
Price Choppers. Mona Golub offers the practical observation
that the company is ahead in one key area: It knows its strengths
and sticks to them.
do believe that we know how to do food, so we’ve made the
quality and variety of perishables as ways to differentiate
ourselves,” she says.
Right now, Price Chopper is a fixture in the region, and certainly
a fixture in certain neighborhoods. For Albany residents,
the challenge is to make sure that Price Chopper is still
a fixture in certain neighborhoods 10 years from now.
of who is going there, it is serving a major purpose,” Charles
Sullivan, the longtime Hudson/Park resident, says of his neighborhood
Price Chopper on Delaware Avenue. “For it to be dead, or converted
into housing, would be a big loss.”