Full circle for the A&P; A personal shopping saga

Photo by Elissa Stein The Sixth Ave. Food Emporium on the morning of Fri., April 26.

Photo by Elissa Stein
The Sixth Ave. Food Emporium on the morning of Fri., April 26.

BY CAROL GREITZER  |  R.I.P. Food Emporium — Sixth Ave. at 12th St. (a.k.a. the A&P). For those who don’t know, both chains — A&P and Food Emporium — are owned by the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. The A&P — once the leading food chain in the country — came first; the Food Emporium stores were created much later and were an attempt to be more upscale. Or maybe that was an excuse for higher prices. The Village location started life as an A&P, only to be upgraded many years later to a Food Emporium. But habit dies slowly, and in my family it was always referred to as the A&P.

My first encounter with an A&P came when I was a little girl, long before supermarkets existed. In those days it was just a grocery store. This one was on 198th St. in the north Bronx. We didn’t go there often because it was pricier than the other groceries on the block, but I can still invoke the lovely smell of the coffee beans being ground right on the spot. No canned Maxwell House or Chase & Sanborn for us! Little could I guess back then that one day I’d be writing about the coffee and other A&P products for the ad agency that had the A&P account, and where I was a copywriter. But more about that later.

Years later, when I moved to Abingdon Square, there were no supermarkets in the West Village. At the intersection of W. Fourth and W. 12th Sts. there were three small food stores — a Peter Reeves grocery, another grocery and on the third corner, what was then called a “vegetable store.” But imagine my surprise to discover, in a time when large A&P supermarkets dotted the countryside, a relic of the past in the form of a little, old-fashioned A&P grocery on the east side of Hudson St., I believe between Jane and Horatio. To this day I recall with delight the sign on the front door informing customers: “Closed for lunch 1 to 2,” or maybe it was “12 to 1.” I’m not certain of the exact time, but I know for a fact that quaint custom did exist.

There was one other interesting food option for those willing to lug their packages to the West Village from Village Square (as the intersection of Greenwich and Sixth Aves. and Eighth St. was known). It was the old original Balducci’s — then just a vegetable store — on Greenwich Ave. (We hadn’t learned to use the term “produce” then.) There were no shopping carts, no plastic bags. You’d find a little ledge somewhere and collect your items there. One of the sales staff would come over, grab a brown paper bag and tote up your purchases, without identifying them. You’d see a row of penciled figures 89, 39, 22, 65, 47, 38, etc. for a total of $3.00 — maybe.

Happily, this store had food not found elsewhere. One day I picked up an unfamiliar bunch of greens and asked Mr. Balducci what it was. “Arugola,” he told me. “It’s like an Italian watercress.” He also introduced me to Cranshaw melon. It was delicious, worth the cumbersome 5-pound tote to Abingdon Square.

But back to the A&P. When the company opened the supermarket at 12th and Sixth, sometime in the late ’50s, the little, old-fashioned store on Hudson St. was closed, and soon the other corner stores followed suit, to be replaced by trendy restaurants. And other supermarkets moved into the far West Village. Somewhat later, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company saw fit to open a Food Emporium on 13th St. and Sixth Ave., making things very convenient for us. By then I had moved to 12th St. near Sixth.

Food shopping in New York City is not like shopping in other parts of the country. About 10 years ago we were visiting in California and happened to mention that we didn’t own a car, but rented when necessary.

“But how do you do your marketing?” asked one incredulous listener.

“Well,” I responded triumphantly, “within a block or two we have two supermarkets, and a couple of blocks further we have two gourmet food stores [Jefferson Market and Balducci’s]. So a few times a week on the way home from work we pick up any needed items.” She just couldn’t envision that kind of lifestyle.

Despite its preeminence in the field, there was a certain stodginess and marketing timidity about the company that might have predicted its ultimate decline. For example, the ad agency I worked for that had the A&P account also represented a large number of other food clients. For that reason, we had a test kitchen presided over by a professional dietician. So when A&P decided to launch its own brand of frozen foods, said dietician and I collaborated on the package copy. In flagrant opposition to the standard practice, at the time, of cooking vegetables to mushiness, our directions opted for short cooking times. The A&P brass (to a man) was horrified. When we gave these men a taste test of al dente green beans and peas, they acknowledged that the food tasted good…but no, they didn’t want to deviate from the longer preparation times that Bird’s Eye and Snow Crop frozen brands advocated. The only compensation was that they let me feature herbs and spices as serving suggestions.

Nevertheless, I will always be grateful to the A&P for something having absolutely nothing to do with food. The A&P taught my daughter how to read! Yes, it’s true. As a preschooler, she knew the alphabet and could even pick out the letters on the typewriter. We were driving past a commercial strip and she was calling out letters she saw on store signs. At one point she routinely sang out “A&P,” then, more excitedly, “A&P!” I could practically see the light bulb go off as she recognized A&P as a word. When we got home she rushed to the bathroom to pick up the big container of Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder.

“Baby,” she pointed proudly. From then on there was no stopping her.

So, for many reasons — notably the convenience — I will miss this store. But as I write this the company has yet to announce future employment plans for the employees, many of whom have worked there for years and are now middle-aged. I hope they will be provided for.

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