A New Market Tries Hard to Blend In

Union Market Lower East SideKathryn Kattalia As the Brooklyn-based Union Market prepares to make its Manhattan debut in the East Village this fall, it’s trying to be seen as just another grocery store – despite such features as an oyster bar and an assortment of nearly 300 domestic and imported cheeses.

With its wide array of fresh olives, a sprawling oyster bar and assortment of nearly 300 domestic and imported cheeses that accompany an equally diverse selection of dried meats and charcuterie, Union Market doesn’t exactly seem like your typical neighborhood grocery store.

And yet, as the Brooklyn-based mini chain prepares to make its Manhattan debut in the East Village this fall, that’s exactly what it wants to become.

“You can stop on your way home and get everything that you need,” said Marko Lalic, one of the store’s co-owners.

It’s been more than a month since scaffolding first went up at 240 East Houston near Avenue A, announcing the arrival of the new store which plans to take over the first floor of a building currently housing another small market, Houston Deli and Grocery. Spanning 6,000 square feet and offering a range of all-natural produce, Mr. Lalic said Union Market will provide customers with the intimate shopping experience often associated with local grocers.

But in a neighborhood brimming with corner bodegas and small markets, some area grocers fear the new store is another example of outside competition swooping in on small businesses already struggling with high rents in a slow economy.

“It’s going to affect business here,” said Sensen Thitar, 37, an assistant manager at St. Mark’s Market, a grocery store located on St. Marks Place between Second and Third Avenues. “We already have a lot of competition. The economy here is not very busy right now.”

Cobble HillKathryn Kattalia The produce section at the Union Market in Cobble Hill.

Ms. Thitar said her business, a staple in the East Village for seven years, also prides itself on selling hard-to-find, gourmet products. She said it has steadily lost customers to Whole Foods Market since the mammoth organic food store opened on Houston in 2007. With its high visibility along Houston Street, Union Market will only draw away more people, she said.

“It depends on their prices, but if it is similar, people will probably go there instead,” Ms. Thitar said, referring to Union Market.

Mr. Lalic said he and his business partners Martin Nunez and Paul Fernando decided to make their move to the Lower East Side after being lured in by the neighborhood’s low-key, community feel. The trio started their food venture six years ago, opening their first store on Union Street in Park Slope in 2005 and quickly expanded their enterprise to include two more locations in Brooklyn.

The new store will be Union Market’s biggest location yet, with renovations scheduled to begin later this spring. But while one store prepares to move in, another must first move out.

It’s hard to miss the sign drawn up on red poster board advertising half-off all items inside Houston Deli and Grocery, the tiny market currently occupying 240 East Houston. Inside, the shelves lining the three cramped aisles look empty and picked over as the store prepares to close for good later this spring.

“Business is slow, rents are high,” said Seikh Khan, 45, who works as a store cashier. “For us, it’s not affordable.”

Mr. Khan said he learned that the store was going out of business after seeing Union Market’s signs first go up. He said Houston Deli and Grocery has been around for more than five years and sees regular faces come in on a daily basis. It has had to compete with other grocery stores and supermarkets, including the larger chain store Key Foods located four blocks over on East Fourth Street and Avenue A.

“Our customers are mostly from the area,” he said. “Some of them are upset. They tell us they’re sad we are going out of business.”

MilkKathryn Kattalia The new market is expected to open this fall.

Some East Village residents said they prefer the smaller grocery stores and bodegas dotting the neighborhood, where they often know storeowners by name. Bara Swain, a playwright in her 50’s who has lived in the East Village since 1981, said she often spreads out her shopping to hit up multiple stores on her way home from work. Each one usually has something different to offer her, she said.

“I know the store people by their first names,” Ms. Swain said. “In the morning, at this one store I stop by at, I call the guy ‘A’ and he calls me ‘B.’ It’s nice. The joke is, Key Foods is another half skip and a jump, but you do weird things for weird reasons.”

Hilary Schnitz, 24, a waitress and student who lives on East Sixth Street between Avenues B and C, said she often hits up the smaller stores because they are more accommodating to her budget.

“They don’t have as much selection, but they have they usually have the same kind of gourmet stuff,” she said. “I love Whole Foods. If I was a millionaire I’d shop their everyday. But I’m not.”

Mr. Lalic said that while Union Market may be more expensive than other places, it will still cater to the community’s needs, bringing jobs along with quality food to the neighborhood. Mr. Lalic said the store hopes to hire 50 employees from the immediate area — a process that will begin later in the summer.

In the meantime, other small business owners said they don’t have time to worry about the arrival of yet another grocery store but must instead focus on meeting the needs of the customers they do have. Hakeem Algahim, 25, manager of Kamaran Deli and Grocery on East Fifth Street and Avenue A, said he isn’t worried about outside intruders. A staple in the neighborhood for almost 30 years, the market has a loyal flock of devoted shoppers, he said.

“These are my customers,” Mr. Algahim said. “They’re the same guys that come in every day. I know for a fact no one is going to hurt us. We’re just keeping the love with our customers.”