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Food and the City
Price Chopper is the only area grocery chain with stores in urban neighborhoods—but how long will it keep them there?

By Darryl McGrath
Photographs by Shannon DeCelle

To 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 key businesses.

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 Schenectady.

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 prices.

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.

“This 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.)

“Many 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 store.

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 “shrink.”

“Obviously, 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.”

At 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 Avenue store.

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 Bristol, Conn.).

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).

“Chopper, 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.

“We 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.

“I’ve 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.

“We 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.

“Our data clearly shows that 90 percent of those Hoosick Street customers are shopping at our Brunswick store,” Mona Golub says.

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.

“They 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 store.

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.

“We 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.

“I 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.”

The 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 doing so.

“We 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 particular week.

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 employee says.

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 homes.

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.

“It 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.

“In 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.”

“I 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.)

“I 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.

“Retailers 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 co-exist.

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.

“We 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.

“Regardless 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.”

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