When I lived in New Haven for a month after my freshman year, I decided I would live as an adult. That meant no Yale housing, and no meal plan. Despite my covert attempts to cadge pizza from the Morse dining hall during lunch (“I’m just here with some of my classmates”), when I got home, I had to cook for myself.
I was presented with the insoluble problem that faces many Yalies roughing it in the off-campus universe: Where do I buy my groceries? Although this was before shopping at Gourmet Heaven became an ethical dilemma, I still didn’t think a late-night convenience store suited my alimentary needs. So I opted for a different market that I had heard people talking about: Elm City Market.
Elm City Market was unexpectedly hippie-dippie, with a bougie streak to boot: rows of raw milk from regional dairies; dispensers full of raw pecans and roasted pecans, walnuts, oatmeal, muesli and grains with other, obscurer names. You had to pay a pretty penny — I once bought a small bag of mini-biscotti for over five dollars — which is why I was surprised to learn that the market’s model was cooperative.
According to this model, anyone is welcome to become a member after applying and paying a $200 fee. Applicants with demonstrated financial need may also be “eligible to have part of [their] ownership paid by the Membership Fund,” according to the membership application. Perks of membership include discounts, deals, and a small stake in the company. Since its opening in 2011, over 2,200 people have joined Elm City Market as members, which is itself a member of the National Cooperative Grocers’ Association.
This democratic approach hasn’t stopped students like Emma Soneson ’16 from identifying the store with upscale organic markets. Soneson, who lives off campus, says: “[Elm City Market] is kind of like a mini-Whole Foods, which is good in the sense that it has a lot of organic and fresh produce, but it also comes with similar prices … It’s not really feasible on a student budget.” Several other off-campus students I interviewed shared these sentiments; only two of the dozen students and New Haven residents I spoke with said they shopped primarily or exclusively at Elm City Market.
Maybe it’s this shortage of consistent customers; maybe it’s the pricey offerings; whatever the reasons, Elm City Market is facing liquidation in the upcoming weeks. The market is looking to switch to an employee-owned model after the cooperative dissolves. Between its uncertain financial future and Gourmet Heaven’s projected closure in 2015, markets are becoming scarce in downtown New Haven.
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When I went to Elm City Market this week, it had the signs of a healthy market. Shoppers were milling around — some for the first time, others who had been members from the beginning. Some of the employees said they had just started working there.
Then I noticed some things I hadn’t noticed when I shopped there in the summer of 2013. At least half of the dispensers full of grains, nuts and other dry goods were empty. An entire Dasani refrigerator was being used to preserve three corsages. The rotisserie chicken heating station was empty — either a sign of popularity or neglect, I wasn’t sure.
Cordalie Benoit, a Wooster Square resident, is quick to point out other structural flaws of the market: a check-out line that spills into the store’s busier areas; unpriced or double-priced items; understocked staples like bread. So I’m surprised to learn that she’s a member — #359, in fact — and that she has no regrets about joining. Even though she needs to supplement her purchases with trips to other neighborhood markets like Stop and Shop, she considers it a “privilege” to have the market in her community.
She and five other shoppers cited the mismatch between the market’s prices and its demographic as Elm City Market’s biggest problem. The store sells expensive organic, local and slow food in a poor neighborhood. Ana Keusch ’16 puts it matter-of-factly: “I think the only reason I haven’t gone to [Elm City Market] is I heard it was overpriced.” Keusch opts instead to go by car to Stop and Shop.
Shari Hoffman, an occasional shopper at Elm City Market and New Haven native, used to do the same thing. She previously had access to a car, which allowed her to go to Stop and Shop and other markets more within her price range. Recently, however, she hasn’t had access to a personal vehicle and depends on New Haven’s public transit. She says she has now resorted to Elm City Market more out of necessity than desire.
“I’m buying certain things that I really can’t afford,” Hoffman says, “because they’re convenient.” For a person like her, dependent on disability benefits and without reliable access to private transportation, Elm City Market becomes the only viable option.
The viability is self-evident: the store is near a heavily frequented bus stop on Chapel Street, and the even busier central zone along the New Haven Green. Other than Edge of the Woods and Stop and Shop, there aren’t many comparable alternatives within walking distance downtown.
In spite of these advantages, Elm City Market has failed to resolve its persistent financial struggles. The co-op defaulted on its $3.6 million loan from Webster Bank in May. Benoit chalks up the market’s financial woes to an identity crisis: “They’re trying to be everything to everybody, and that’s always a recipe for failure.” Hoffman agrees: “They don’t know who they want to be.” She adds, “We can’t afford to shop in a store like this, so I don’t think it’s appropriate that they plop themselves in an area where most people can’t even touch the products because of the prices.”
The precise future of the market’s structure remains unclear. In an email sent Aug. 23, the Board of Elm City Market notified its members that imminent liquidation (“friendly foreclosure”) was a strong possibility, but that there was an alternative of “restructuring” debt. The National Cooperative Grocers Association would “loan [Elm City Market] an additional $700,000, and a group of member-owners and others [would] put up an additional $300,000.” This $1 million in capital would be used to pay off the market’s immediate creditors. Then, once it got back on its feet, it would have to pay off the NCGA and the secondary creditors.
But this alternative was not compelling to the immediate creditors, Webster Bank and Multi-Employer Pension Trust (the landlord), who ultimately had control over the market’s future. The plan recommended by the Board depended on the optimistic notion that, after another loan and some assistance from the NCGA, the market would go from being in the red to in the black, despite years of financial insolvency.
The market’s creditors opted instead for a plan of their own devising, which involved the United States Department of Agriculture. The Elm City Market Board of member-owners was given no advance notice of the plan, which they said had “deeply disappointed” them. In short, the market and its assets will be liquidated under what’s colloquially known as a “friendly foreclosure.” The money recouped from liquidation will be deducted from the $3.6 million loss and apportioned to the creditors; 80 percent of the remaining loss will be paid off by the United States Department of Agriculture at taxpayers’ expense.
According to the Board’s email, under this plan “the market will then be sold, debt-free and without members, to a private investor, a nonprofit foundation that plans to continue operating it as a grocery store to preserve jobs.” Once this plan was finalized, the Board issued another statement Sept. 11 bemoaning the move: “Member-owners, other investors and creditors,” read the email, “all will lose.” American taxpayers will also lose by this plan, in which whatever of the $3.6 million isn’t recovered will be paid for by the USDA, a federally funded (and therefore tax-dependent) department.
Jennifer Lerch of the USDA explains that this is no extraordinary occurrence. Lerch, director of business and cooperative programs for Southern New England with World Development (the branch of the USDA that deals with loan guarantees for new businesses and cooperatives) says, “Nothing that’s being done now is unique. It’s all being done in conformity to U.S. standards for a government guarantee.”
In spite of the Board’s dissatisfaction with the course of action taken, parties on all sides have expressed a shared desire to keep the market open. Nedra Rutherford, a Bridgeport commuter-shopper unaware of the new developments, says she plans on becoming a member in the future. None of the members I spoke to expressed regret at having joined. They all point to the value the market brings to a community that is sorely lacking in supermarkets.
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When I was 16, our neighborhood market, Hows, announced that it was closing. Part of me knew the market was simply not doing enough to attract and keep customers. Its prices were middle-range, its produce mediocre, its selection limited. Part of me felt a sick sense of justice knowing that an overpriced establishment wouldn’t be making a sucker out of me anymore. But then I thought of the people who were losing their jobs. I thought of the enchilada sauce we could only get at Hows. I remembered the time we found out Michael Jackson had died and all of us in the checkout lane looked at each other and said, “Can you believe it?” And although I’m not native to downtown New Haven or partial to Elm City Market, I know exactly what Caroline Sydney ’16 (a columnist for the News) means when she says, “It’s nice when you’re going through checkout and you see your professor’s face on the wall, and there’s this maybe real, maybe not real sense of community. “
Sydney, who lives off campus and generally cooks for herself, prepares farro niçoise while I talk to her — in layman’s terms, a grain-based salad. Although it’s a simple dish, the ingredients have come from all over. The lemons Sydney bought in bulk from Elm City Market; the farro online from nuts.com; the tomatoes from a local farm called Waldenfield; the eggs from the New Haven Farmers’ Market; the canned tuna from New York.
Rumors have been circulating that Whole Foods has its sights set on New Haven, with plans to move into the construction site on Howe and Chapel Street, next to Miya’s Sushi. Work on the over 6,000-square foot construction site is underway, but the status of the future building is unclear, and it is unknown whether Whole Foods will build there. A sign posted in front of the site has the following suggestive, tantalizing tag line: “Preserving New Haven’s past for a sustainable future.” The job-listing aggregator Simply Hired includes multiple entries under “Whole Foods Market, New Haven” on its website, including cashier, cashier assistant and meat production team member, all of them posted within the past nine days.
But Public Relations and Public Affairs Officer for Whole Foods in the Northeast region Michael Sinatra denies any immediate plans for Whole Foods to enter the area. “While we are a growing company and are consistently looking at additional opportunities throughout the country,” Sinatra said over email, “there are no plans to open up a store in New Haven at this time.”
Although she says a nearby Whole Foods would prove convenient, Sydney concedes that it may not be the best thing for New Haven. “I have mixed feelings, [as] with all the upscale chains that are coming to New Haven,” she says. “For me, personally, yeah a Whole Foods would be great.”
She pauses. “Is it what New Haven needs? I don’t know.”