If you thought that the new Whole Foods in Gowanus wouldn’t have much impact upon the myriad long-standing mom-and-pop businesses of Carroll Gardens, think again. Brooklyn’s first Whole Foods is aggressively courting residents of the adjacent Brooklyn neighborhood — known for its small, family-run specialty food stores — with an aggressive ad campaign at the Carroll Street subway station.
It’s sad to think about, but Whole Foods almost certainly means the demise of some of these businesses, many of whom were some of the only stores selling certain fare in all of South Brooklyn until Whole Foods came around. As if it weren’t clear enough in the abstract, it all came into perfect focus when I ventured down to Whole Foods to take advantage of a $20 coupon they’d dropped in my mailbox, my first official shopping sojourn at the new store.
Nearly every single item I bought was one that I would’ve previously purchased up on Court or Smith Streets. Ball of fresh mozzarella: Caputo’s. Italian cookies: Monteleone Bakery. Loaf of bread: the other Caputo’s. Pork tenderloin: Esposito’s. A pound of coffee beans: D’Amico. Newer neighborhood businesses aren’t immune either: the magnificent cheese counter at Whole Foods must be cutting into Stinky Brooklyn’s business, and their impressive fish spread will surely impact Carroll Gardens Fish Market.
Gowanus businesses will be affected as well. Whole Foods’ well-stocked salad bar, ramen stand, pizza store and bevy of lunch options are going to eviscerate the business of places like Ivy Garden, Cotta Bene and Carroll Gardens Deli & Grocery. Ditto for that early-morning carton of milk when you realize you haven’t got any for your coffee, or that last minute package of pasta on the way home from work. Whole Foods is a convenient stop-in, it’s alluring, and it has great stuff.
Now, it stands to reason that not everyone is going to flock to Whole Foods and completely abandon their neighborhood businesses. The specialty stores will still probably do well with the older set, and anyone who lives west of Court Street. But even if Whole Foods cuts into just a portion of these establishments’ bottom lines that could be the difference between life and death. It already seems like once a year I see a piece in The New York Times or elsewhere warning that times are tough for businesses like G. Esposito & Sons Jersey Pork Store, and it’s only going to get worse. The younger generation of Gowanus and Carroll Gardens residents (say: under 30) that’s coming in from suburban America where big box retailers are king prefers to get their shopping done all in one place at a big store whose name they recognize (a new neighbor recently told me they were “scared” to go into G. Esposito). If they’re not already put off by the idea of having to stop in multiple places to do their shopping — and talk to actual human beings while they’re doing it — they may just end up getting everything at Whole Foods on account of laziness. Not that I can blame them; it is awfully convenient.
And what kills me is that the quality of the products at Whole Foods is so high. If it were a crappy supermarket chain it’d be a lot easier to hate them. Pretty much any supermarket is better than Met Foods, C Town, Key Food, or wherever you’re currently shopping. And Whole Foods has clearly gone above and beyond to make as many items in their store as locally sourced as possible, often to a comedic degree. For what it’s worth, Whole Foods is very expensive, and for that reason I think the aforementioned supermarkets will probably be OK, even if the smaller specialty stores will not.
Still, I feel bad shopping at Whole Foods precisely because they’re so much more than just a supermarket. Some of the Carroll Gardens stores have been operating for decades, and they’re family-run businesses that rely on them for income. What will the proprietors do when they’re forced to close? Something else, I suppose. NYC can be a cruel mistress, ever-changing.