Volume 76, Number 17 | September 13 - 19, 2006


Western Beef goes north, but two blocks can be a lot

By Michele Herman

I went on a walking tour this morning, not of Federal-era architecture or Rockefeller Center, but of a place at once more mundane and more integral to my family’s life: the new Western Beef store on W. 16th St. between Ninth and 10th Aves., which will replace the W. 14th St. store any week now. I wanted to see for myself whether the new space — smaller and less centrally located — stands a chance of surviving.

Because Western Beef is the only reasonably priced place to buy groceries in the far West Village and has always struck me as a decent local concern, I’m crossing all my fingers. When rumors began circulating last spring that the store was closing, I embarked on a frantic phone campaign with our local electeds, begging them to help Western Beef stay in the neighborhood. In the end, the news wasn’t dire but neither was it great. The Queens-based company, which runs 21 Western Beef stores around the city, took a big buyout deal from the developer that owns the 14th St. property and in exchange is moving to one of the developer’s buildings two blocks away.

Western Beef’s new quarters on the north side of 16th St. is in the ground floor of a low-rise stucco-facaded building that used to be a garage and then a series of nightclubs. It’s close to 10th Ave.’s celebrity-chef one-upmanship row, home of Morimoto, Del Posto and Craftsteak. But the swankiness has yet to spread to dark, dull 16th St., which is taken up mostly with the Fulton Houses complex and parking strip and the loading docks for Chelsea Market. The corner of 14th and Ninth was a major melting pot of a location, but it’s hard to picture any foot traffic at all here on 16th St. Worse, the space is about a third smaller than the old store, which was mighty cramped already.

When I arrived at the new store, dubious but willing to be won over, the construction was in that almost-finished phase where it appears to be barely started. The cash registers and shelves, still covered in heavy plastic, were in place, and workers were carefully stocking the coffee shelf. My tour guide was the personable, straightforward Richard Fraschilla, Western Beef’s director of operations. As he led me through, I stared and squinted at the petite space, trying to picture it doing a full supermarket job. I imagined it in full Western Beef throttle, with firefighters stocking up on meat, Z-100 blaring, the nice produce guy slitting open cartons of fresh lettuce, little kids whining, long lines at the checkout. While we talked, I also listened for signs of conviction from Fraschilla that Western Beef was in this for the long haul.

I saw and heard some good news. Unlike the 14th St. store, which Western Beef took over from an older Meat Market business and never fully renovated, in this space they were able to start from scratch. Once the construction dust is gone, the space will be clean, with an all-white meat/dairy room and white tiles with a row of the signature blue and orange in a checkerboard pattern across the back wall. The aisles are a welcome 10 inches to a full foot wider than those in the 14th St. store but, on the downside, this meant sacrificing one aisle. There will be five registers, same as at the old store, but with an additional “courtesy” register with health and beauty products in front. The layout is simpler and more straightforward. The shopping carts are new. There will be an on-site bakery with a limited selection of Italian bread, rolls and cakes.

Fraschilla told me that laying out a store is usually a straightforward thing. But this time he’s rethought it five times, trying to make the available rectangle as efficient and usable as possible, and he will continue to tweak it once the store opens. I asked how they’ll accomplish the impossible task of offering the same variety in a smaller space.

“There will be as much variety but fewer sizes,” he said. “We’re moving from three to two sizes of products.”

The one impressive part of the space is the part that doesn’t show: the basement. The company dug down an additional 7 feet to create it.

“We had to put another foundation under the existing one,” Fraschilla told me, “and do little sections at a time.” The 14th St. store had a truly awful dungeon of a basement. But this one is roomy and bright, with space for lockers, a separate electrical room, a deli kitchen, bakery, a room for cutting and packing meat and even an employee lunchroom.

I looked him in the eye and asked if he thinks they can make a go.

“I’m confident we can make it work,” he replied. “Those who didn’t shop at Western Beef may come back. The aisles are bigger, it’s better looking, the value is there.” He said the company would even consider opening a second store nearby, if a space comes along. But the odds are not promising. The 14th St. space, he says, is now leasing for $150 to $200 a square foot. The average supermarket pays $10 to $25.

“Supermarkets work on high volume with low profit,” he explained. “Even busy stores may not be making money. The electricity bills killed all businesses this year, but you can’t explain that to the customer.”

Moving from macro to micro, I quizzed Fraschilla on some of my family’s pressing concerns. Will there be a bottle-recycling machine and will it accept glass (unlike the old one), I asked. They’ll take back all the bottles, though maybe just by hand, he answered. Why did you stop selling Corn Chex? He’ll look into it. Why did the price of olive oil suddenly double? Apparently, the U.S. has cracked down on suppliers from outside the U.S. who were putting 100 percent olive oil labels on products that had up to 20 percent non-olive oil content. How and when does the store add new products?

“We try to listen to the customers,” he said. “We do research with a common-sense approach.”

What if Fairway comes to the neighborhood?

“I don’t want to say we’ve never been put out of business,” he said. “But we can handle competition. We’re a company that makes do.”

My last question: Are you going to institute one of those horrible rewards cards programs, the kind where you have to carry another stupid card and spend lots of money and keep track of your points to get a so-called reward?

“We’ve had a hard time figuring out how to give the customer extra value with a club card, so we haven’t done it,” he said.

The jury’s still out on the new space, but it’s hard to fault the spirit behind it.

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