Why NYC grocery stores that cater to the rich are struggling amid coronavirus

The coronavirus has created a weird divide among the Big Apple’s grocery stores — and the supermarkets that cater to the rich have been caught on the wrong side.

Initial waves of citywide binge-shopping in mid-March spurred social media posts of wiped-out shelves and empty freezer bins at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. But since then, grocers across the New York metro area say business at many locations has fallen off dramatically. And it’s not just because shoppers have hunkered down with their outsize stacks of frozen steaks and TV dinners.

In rich neighborhoods like the Upper East Side and Upper West Side, supermarkets now stand mostly empty after initially getting cleaned out by their panic-stricken clientele. That’s because the well-heeled locals have since hightailed it out of town to wait out the pandemic in roomier digs in the Hamptons or the Berkshires, grocers say.

Meanwhile, grocers in poorer sections of the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan say they are also slow, but for a different reason: Many of their customers have lost their jobs and are only shopping for groceries after they receive their SNAP benefits and unemployment checks, according to industry executives.

The bright spot? Middle-income areas, where folks are still stocking up as they work from home, and donning protective masks to line up outside supermarkets on a regular basis. Indeed, business is so brisk at these middle-market locations that hard-to-get supplies like Clorox wipes and toilet paper are being diverted from rich and poor neighborhoods alike to keep them stocked, executives say.

“It’s a tale of three cities,” Avi Kaner, owner of the Morton Williams grocery chain, told The Post. He also confirmed that “three weeks ago, all of our stores were equally inundated with customers and all 16 were emptying out of merchandise very quickly.”

Morton Williams recently began using vans to haul merchandise — particularly paper products, produce and kosher foods for Passover — out of its store at the corner of Madison Avenue and East 87th Street, which shares a block with a slew of swanky fashion boutiques, as well as its Third Avenue stores at East 62nd and East 72nd Streets. There, business on average is up or down about 5 percent from a year ago, Kaner said.

The vans are bringing products to its stores in less-affluent neighborhoods nearby: at West End Avenue and 60th Street, for example, or at First Avenue and East 72nd Street, where the grocer’s sales are up 30 percent from a year ago.

In wealthier neighborhoods, it’s mostly older New Yorkers who have remained in their apartments, according to Kaner. Those customers have helped prop up the stores partly because they are buying more than they had previously, he said.

“The few people who have stayed behind don’t have the option of dining in restaurants, so they are eating three meals a day at home,” Kaner noted.

Even the Whole Foods on Third Avenue and 88th Street shut down its butcher department over the weekend, where customers could order specific cuts or types of meat from a store associate.

“Even though the line to get into that store is huge all day long, it’s still not as many customers as before, and the nearby Fairway is crowded, but not packed like before,” restaurateur Andrew Schnipper, who lives on Park Avenue and East 87th Street, told The Post.

“When I walk my dog at night, there is nothing but darkness when I look up at the buildings,” Schnipper said, adding that his own building is half-full.

Billionaire grocer John Catsimatidis, who owns the Gristedes and D’Agostino chains, confirmed that in his own residential building overlooking Central Park, just a few of his neighbors have remained in the city.

“We are shifting our people from our stores where business has slowed down to the busier stores,” Catsimatidis told The Post.

The picture couldn’t be more different in the Bronx, according to John Estevez, who owns 10 Foodtown locations across the New York metro area.

“A lot of my customers in the Bronx have lost their jobs or are on food stamps,” Estevez told The Post.

His two stores in the borough, at 1489 West Avenue in Parkchester and at 3100 Third Avenue, experienced an initial wave of panic buying in March, but now the stores’ sales volume is flat from what it had been a year ago.

“Those customers spent their [government subsidies] during the rush last month and now they have to wait for their next benefit check,” Estevez said.

Similarly, the C Town, Bravo and Associated supermarkets, largely located in ethnic neighborhoods in the outer boroughs, are bracing for spending at their stores to drop in April, said Nelson Eusebio, who handles government relations for the National Supermarket Association, which represents 500 independent supermarkets in New York and along the East Coast.

“We are expecting a big drop in volume from customers who have lost their jobs,” Eusebio said.

Meanwhile, Estevez’s Foodtown in Cross River, NY, near the tony suburb of Katonah in Westchester County, is swarming with city residents who usually come up for the weekends but have decided to ride out the pandemic in their second homes.

“Normally we’d see an increase on the weekend, but it hasn’t let up now,” Estevez said.

Some grocers who have lost customers to Amazon are hoping for a silver lining when the pandemic ebbs. Before the virus, annual sales at Estevez’s 10 Foodtowns had been trending down by about 5 percent.

“I’m hoping that consumers realize who was on the front lines of this,” Estevez said, “and start to shop with us again.”

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