Urban/Suburban Splendor

It isn’t the fresh bagels and the ten kinds of smoked salmon and the dozen varieties of olive oil. What has always separated food shopping in New York City from everywhere else in the country is space. There isn’t nearly enough of it in Manhattan to make the experience of buying food there bear even the slightest resemblance to anyplace else. Whether you are in a uniquely New York institution like Zabar’s, a run-of-the-mill chain supermarket, or a neighborhood Korean market, the common thread has always been cramped narrow aisles, often made more impassible by stacks of cartons on the floor, men wheeling fully loaded dollies, and intemperate shoppers crashing their carts into one another.

Navigating the original Fairway, on Broadway, has always felt a bit like bumper cars in an amusement park, while jostling for position at Zabar’s is like a street fair. Yet these places are more alike than different. At their best, they have an amiable chaos; at their worst, they’re the Lexington Avenue subway at rush hour. Food shoppers in New York no more expect to have enough room to walk around than studio apartment dwellers in Manhattan expect to be able to throw a square dance.

This state of affairs has been changing subtly—the uptown Fairway, a warehouse at the edge of Harlem, combines suburban size with urban grittiness in an enticing way, and the rapidly growing Citarella chain has proven that it is possible to run a high-end food operation in Manhattan that is both clean and spatially coherent. But no food emporium in New York so far is anything like the extravagant Whole Foods store (designed by Craig Grund for the Hatch Partnership) that opened in February in the underground concourse of the new Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle.

At 59,000 square feet, it is three, four, five times as big as many Manhattan food stores—and it’s glittering. You reach it by descending an escalator in the central atrium of this enormous twin-towered complex that pretends to be urban but seems to have Stamford or Short Hills in its very DNA. Initially there is something off-putting about descending to subterranean levels to acquire sustenance—the very stuff that makes us think of light, health, and the outdoors. But when you see the huge banks of flowers at the bottom of the escalator and piles of oranges, pineapples, and grapefruits—more elegant than anything Fairway or Zabar’s could conjure up, and organic too—you begin to see the place differently.

There is a huge café and plenty of prepared foods, so that the feeling is something of a cross between a food court (alas, in all this expanse and cleanliness, a hint of the mall is never altogether absent) and a high-end supermarket. An enormous area is set aside for vitamin supplements and specialized organic health-care products. There is also a wine shop. It’s technically a separate operation (behind a glass wall), but it still allows the sale of wine to be more closely integrated with food than anywhere else in the city, where antiquated liquor laws make it all but impossible to engage in the reasonable act of selling food and wine together. The entire place has a polished concrete floor, walls of softly colored tile, and lots of accents in light-toned wood, all to make it seem “natural,” or at least a contrast to other stores in New York, where the typical supermarket has the subtlety of design and the lighting level of a factory. Even Citarella—whose aesthetic consists of high-tech stainless-steel shelving, gray granite floors, and white walls—is not as eager to please. Whole Foods wants to dazzle you and be cuddly at the same time. If that combination is not the sort of aspiration that encourages the most ambitious design, it certainly fulfills a more modest goal. It is easy to spend time here.

Whole Foods’s layout breaks from another staple of the American supermarket. The standard supermarket is a series of parallel aisles, lined with shelves in units that merchants call “gondolas,” because they are long and narrow and appear to be floating in a sea of space. The gondolas are lined up, row after row. Normally you make your way through them by starting down the first aisle, back toward the front through the second aisle, doubling back again and again until you have made your way through the store.

Stew Leonard—the Connecticut entrepreneur who created Stew Leonard’s, perhaps the most significant rethinking of the American supermarket of the last generation—ignored that paradigm and created an alternative layout of one long, wide, snaking aisle that made its way through the entire store. In his three megastores—the original in Norwalk, a second in Danbury, and a third in Yonkers, New York—there are narrow escape hatches for people in a hurry, but by and large you walk the entire store. But it’s entertaining, full of twists and turns, lively displays, and a reasonable number of surprises, the wide aisles allowing people to progress at different speeds.

Both Fairway and Zabar’s have a jerry-built mix of food stations and sections with conventional parallel aisles. Since both stores grew like crazy their layouts are a reminder of their ad hoc development. Citarella, however, is laid out in a conscious strategy. In its stores you’re directed along a single path, like a smaller, more sophisticated version of Stew Leonard’s. When you get to the end, you join a single line that feeds multiple cashiers.

Whole Foods, which is based in Austin, Texas, combines all the models. Most unprepared foods are to the left of the arrival area at the bottom of the escalator, with the fresh-produce area in a huge series of displays, arrayed in clusters more than aisles. The packaged goods are set in a kind of island of parallel aisles, distinct from the ones in traditional supermarkets not only by the quality of the items displayed but also by a gentle bowing curve on the front of some portions of the gondola. Huge meat and fish counters line the sides of the floor. After making your way through this area, you pass through the prepared-foods section. There is a bakery off in the corner. Then you make your way around again, back into a snaking line that leads to a series of checkout registers.

It is comfortable, relatively easy, and only slightly confusing (confusing enough to encourage surprise more than frustration). I am still having a bit of trouble getting accustomed to the notion of a food market in Manhattan that has room to display foods grandly. The pleasures of it are obvious (although Whole Foods does represent another example of New York becoming more like other places). Then again, this is hardly a middle-American supermarket transported into Manhattan. It actually represents food culture coming full circle—since it was one-of-a-kind places like Zabar’s that did so much to create the current American food culture. Whole Foods is a hybrid—the first food market to marry New York’s elitism to the rest of the country’s modern expansiveness.

Categories: Arts + Culture, Livable Cities

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