Generally speaking, the poorer a neighborhood is, the more its residents want sin products or the sugary, salty factory muck that gets sold at delis as snack food. At around six, the population of our neighborhood undergoes a radical change. During the day, downtown Brooklyn belongs to people who, when they come to the store, request loosies and “50-cent beer” (malt liquor), who buy “cakes” (Twinkies, Ho Hos, etc.), and who generally ensure that the New York Post is the first paper we run out of.
At night, tastes change as those who work in Manhattan come home. The deli turns from a snack shop into a grocery store. Items with ORGANIC on the label begin to come off the shelves, imported beer out of the refrigerator. Whole-grain bread, fresh vegetables, low-fat ice cream, the Times. This is when the store makes money (through higher profit margins and bigger individual sales). In spite of our tight quarters, we’ve tried to straddle the divide between providing for the cakes customers and the parvenus. Nevertheless, some products have had to go. After we stopped selling certain malt liquors (including Colt 45, which bellmarks 40-ounce bottles at 99 cents, leaving a profit of 11 cents), I thought there was going to be an uprising. Some of the longtime residents said it was the final straw: Brooklyn had become unlivable.
Still, by 8:30, the yuppies are at home and there’s a rush on the lottery machine before the state turns off the system. With cigarettes so expensive and smoking in rapid decline, the lottery has moved into second place, behind alcohol, as the most painful addiction to watch from the supply end. Lottery players barge into the store bug-eyed and twitchy, brandishing scraps of crumpled paper. Our store has a rule: Lottery players get served after other customers, because the lottery machine has an abominable profit margin—6 cents on the dollar—and moreover because lottery players never buy food. Some lottery customers don’t actually mind being forced to wait. They need time to find a number to play, and you can see their eyes scanning the walls, the sandwich board, the receipts piled next to the register. Of course, the state doesn’t just regulate the lottery; it is the lottery. And you can’t argue that by running the lottery it is keeping the Mafia out. Half the delis in Brooklyn have illegal numbers games; those that do barely keep it hidden, and if you know where to look, you can find the results in the sports sections of the tabloids each day.
Today, Kay And I are making a supply run. Her toughness will come in handy at Jetro Cash & Carry, the deli mother ship, this one on the fringes of Sunset Park, in a postindustrial wasteland of chop shops and skanky strip clubs. Kay visits about once a week and spends about a thousand dollars each time. Jetro is one of the deli world’s dirty secrets, a blemish on the image of corner stores as quaint little redoubts of independence. Owned by Metro AG, a German food-services behemoth, the company runs a worldwide chain of grocery warehouses that in New York completely dominate the sale of products to delis. It has six metropolitan-area warehouses. If Jetro went out of business tomorrow, deli shelves all over the city would be empty within a week.
The sign in the parking lot says NOT OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. Jetro guards its privacy rather jealously. Photography isn’t permitted inside the warehouses, and no sales figures are given out. Once you’ve been there, it’s a little hard to understand all the secretiveness. The interior looks like any old retail warehouse. Small, nimble cranes dart by with yellow sirens twirling. A man on a hi-lo descends from the rafters holding a crate of ramen noodles. Leaking air fresheners combine with the scent of a dropped jar of horseradish. We walk through canyons of dog food and crevasses of kitty litter, and end up next to a mountain of paper towels.
Kay is the only woman in sight. The work is grueling—just try slinging around cases of Chunky soup and 40-pound bags of sugar—as well as dangerous. Jetro does not have shopping carts, but rather heavy-duty hand trolleys called “U-boats” that weigh a ton and don’t exactly stop on a dime. Last month, a U-boat ran over Kay’s foot, and her toe turned purple as an eggplant. That afternoon, she went right to sleep and didn’t get up for work the next day. When my wife and I come home to find Kay face-down on the living-room couch, as we often do, the same words tend to escape our mouths: “Jetro day.”
But the main reason Jetro is unavoidable is that most delis have storage problems—they don’t have enough inventory space. The owners of Jetro know this, hence their motto: “Just think of Jetro as your stockroom.” Which would be okay if being your own deliveryman and Jetro’s prices weren’t so brutal. In most businesses, cutting out the middleman yields a significant cost reduction. At Jetro, a bottle of ketchup goes for $2.10, a bottle of Windex for $2.58, a box of Wheat Thins for $2.48, and a box of Oreos for $2.66. If I don’t mark them up by 60 percent, I can’t pay my rent, which explains why New Yorkers cannot buy more than one item at a deli without seeing most of a $10 bill disappear.
We leave Jetro a grand poorer than we came in. When you spend a thousand dollars on food, especially at putatively wholesale prices, the results shouldn’t fit in the trunk of a Honda sedan. But at Jetro they do, easily.
In the end, getting out of the deli business will be a relief. The essence of small business is risk—chronic, gnawing, implacable risk. Most of us think of shopkeepers as meek, but there’s another side as well: the individualist fiercely hung up on buying his own ticket, no matter what the personal cost, and willing to crash and burn as a result. Now, in what we assume to be our final months as owners, though we’re still not making any money, the sense of crisis has settled into something relaxed and easy—the deli idyll of those who have been inside the business only as customers.