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In the escalating battle between FreshDirect, Fairway, and Whole Foods, who will be the first to get squashed?


Jason Ackerman and Joe Fedele, the co-founders of FreshDirect, which operates a vast wearhouse and distribution center in Long Island City.  

Howie Glickberg insists that he was misquoted. Sure. Every reporter knows the routine: The subject of a story says something mildly controversial, is embarrassed when the words appear in print, then blames the messenger. Glickberg, a co-owner of the legendary Fairway Market, is disputing the media’s rendering of his past statements about Joe Fedele, a former partner. Fedele’s bitter exit from Fairway led to the launch, twenty months ago, of FreshDirect, the online grocery store that’s fighting Fairway for customers. “What’s that orange newspaper?” Glickberg asks. “Last summer they quoted me saying, ‘I’ll only be happy if he dies.’ No! That’s not what I said! I was misquoted!”

Here it comes: the denial. The profession of deep admiration for a worthy adversary. Or maybe the rationalization that Glickberg meant the line as a joke and the reporter had no sense of humor. “What I really said,” Glickberg says, “is that when Joe Fedele dies, I’ll be the first in line to piss on his grave. And there will be a long line of people behind me.”

Oh. Always happy to set the record straight.

Fedele, for his part, is taking the high road. Sort of. “If I had respect for him, it would sting. But I don’t,” he says. “You can’t get deterred by stupidity. And everything that guy has said is a rap of shit.”

Two fierce rivals go after the same turf. Tempers flare. Names are called; sometimes even bad language is heard. On Wall Street, in politics, at the ballpark, it’s no big deal. In New York’s grocery industry, though, where the heat is usually limited to the habaneros and the high-end purveyors consider themselves members of a small, sophisticated club, the raw hatred between the owners of Fairway and FreshDirect is unusual. “In our business, everyone’s fairly friendly,” says Andy Arons, a co-owner of Gourmet Garage. “And we’ve all been at it for a while. Now you have this blood feud. They loathe each other. It’s hilarious.”

But Arons and his colleagues, the owners of small, independent fresh-food stores, watch the dispute with anxiety as well as amusement. Because while there’s a substantial amount of purely personal contempt between Glickberg and Fedele, the tension between Fairway and FreshDirect is really a by-product of the revolution in the way the city shops for food. For years, dowdy places like Sloan’s and Associated failed to keep pace with the clean, bright supermarkets sprouting up outside the city; now they’re finally being forced to modernize. Nobody’s complaining about that. Bill Buford, the New Yorker writer who is completing a book about working as an apprentice in Mario Batali’s kitchen, buys his beef at the Florence Meat Market, his quail from BoBo Poultry in Chinatown, and his whole pigs from the Violet Hill Farms vendor in the Union Square Greenmarket. “The virtue of being in a city like New York is that it’s a market city, and you can get the best of anything,” Buford says. “The supermarkets here are constrained by space and by the unspoken understanding that the only people who go there are losers.”

FRESHDIRECT ON ITSELF: “We make money doing this. Period. The end.”

Yet now many of the city’s distinctive grocers and speciality shops are newly vulnerable. Whole Foods, the Austin, Texas–based supermarket chain, opened its first New York store three years ago in Chelsea. That, however, was merely a bovine-growth-hormone-free toe in the water compared with what the company unveiled in February, in the lower level of the Time Warner Center: a 58,000-square-foot megamarket dispensing artisanal breads, wild Alaskan salmon, organic sirloin, and countless varieties of olive oil—not to mention a save-the-Earth-through-enlightened-eating philosophy. Whole Foods began as a hippie experiment, but over 25 years it has grown into a steely giant. One of its top managers at the Columbus Circle store—in company jargon, Rob Twyman’s title is an “associate store team leader”—goes on at length about how Whole Foods “isn’t just a grocery store that’s here to reap the profits. We’re giving back to the community.” Unless, of course, that community also happens to sell organic chicory, goat’s-milk yogurt, and cruelty-free cosmetics. “Our core values dictate that we must satisfy and delight our customers,” Twyman says. “If it puts people out of business to do that, sorry. But we’re doing what’s in our heart as a company.”

For Fairway, there’s a particular irony to the Whole Foods invasion: About six years ago, Fairway’s owners discussed selling out to the Texas retailer. Now Fairway is staring at a smart, spacious new competitor in its backyard. And when Glickberg walks out the front door of the original Fairway store at 74th and Broadway, he can’t help but see FreshDirect trucks chugging past, making deliveries.

The modern history of food shopping in the city can be divided into three rough epochs, with many of the players overlapping. The Local Chain Period (ca. 1960–1975) was dominated by Key Food, Pioneer, Red Apple, Sloan’s, and Gristede’s. The size was around 4,000 square feet; the décor was heavy on linoleum, large refrigerator cases, and fluorescent lighting. D’Agostino and Food Emporium, in the late seventies, offered a more upscale alternative, but the real revolution began in the early eighties. The Korean Market Era (ca. 1981–1992) brought fresh produce to virtually every corner, particularly in borderline neighborhoods, 24 hours a day. This emergence coincided with the growth, in more yuppified precincts, of the gourmet stores (Dean & DeLuca, Petak’s, Gourmet Garage, Balducci’s, Grace’s Marketplace) and the solidification of the gourmand’s row of upper Broadway—Zabar’s, Citarella, and Fairway.

As tastes grew increasingly sophisticated through the nineties, and the vegetarian and organic ethos spread, the city’s mainstream stores lagged. But after prolonged stagnation, the city’s supermarket sector is suddenly hyperactive. The recession lowered commercial real-estate prices slightly. Chains like Gap, Target, and Borders chipped away at the long-standing suburban-retailer fear of New York. So we’ve entered the Age of the High-End Supermarket Chain. “There’s a vacuum,” says Dave Lannon, president of Whole Foods’ North Atlantic region. “The regular supermarkets in New York are pretty crappy. And the gourmet sector is dead. Balducci’s is gone. There’s the legends, like Zabar’s, which still has great prices for cheese, and Citarella does a great job. But there’s not a lot of growth there. With our store and Fairway now, why would you overpay for the same product in a small gourmet store?”

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