John Zoitas is founder and advisor to Westside Market NYC, which today operates in four Manhattan neighborhoods: Broadway and 110th Street, Broadway and 97th Street, Broadway and 77th and in Chelsea at 7th Avenue and 14th Street. In New Jersey it operates Maywood’s Marketplace in Maywood.The Chelsea store opened in 2004, largely as an effort to retain employees while the flagship 110th Street location was closed for several years as an apartment tower was built on top of it. “Our strength is our employees,” George Zoitas says. “That was the main value we didn’t want to lose.” The newest store occupies a former Duane Reade drugstore. It closed when that chain was bought out by Walgreens, which operates a namesake store on the next corner. Zoitas did a complete remodel of the space, even installing new drains and plumbing in his basement space for the 15-story prewar building. “We’re staying here for the long-haul and I didn’t want to have to tear everything up should a leak develop in a year or two,” he says. Produce as art The real beauty can be found at street level. The stark plate glass windows—hallmarks of Duane Reade—have been replaced with mountains of produce merchandised outside under an awning. On a recent visit, oranges, clementines, grapes, blackberries, tomatoes, romaine lettuce, apples, avocados and cantaloupes were among the items merchandised on the sidewalk.
“Produce is my dad’s forte,” Zoitas says. “Those displays draw people in and it is something that he takes pride in. We maintain the outside displays and keep them as full as possible. It is very intensive because they have to be rotated every day. Every single display has to come down each day, each item is inspected and then it goes back up,” he says.Inside it is a similar story. Entering the store, the produce department’s two narrow aisles branch off to the right, run parallel to the front wall, make a sharp left and then run about 50 feet back. Lemons and limes are stacked in display sets four feet high, and ears of yellow corn are merchandised next to displays of red bell peppers, followed by yellow peppers, green peppers and oranges. It is all arranged by design. “My dad’s main concern is the display, to make it look appealing,” Zoitas says. “He takes pride in determining what goes where. It is like art to him.” The display is truly amazing. The only thing that might be able to rival it is Westside Market’s selection of prepared foods. The decentralized buying philosophy that sets the store’s grocery selection apart from the competition also carries over to this department. “We have on-premise kitchens in each store,” says Zoitas. At Broadway/97th it is a spotless state-of-the-art place occupying most of the basement. “What separates us from the masses is that we refuse to centralize our kitchen, even though you could only imagine the savings if we did,” he says. A benefit is that if the counter runs out of a dish, say garlic mashed potatoes, one call downstairs and a fresh batch can be brought up in minutes. “I don’t care what anybody says, when food travels—inside, outside, in vans, on trays—it loses something. When it starts becoming very mass-produced it loses that experimentation and creativity that I try to inspire in all of my chefs and kitchen staff. I try to have them make it fun,” says Zoitas. While each store can tinker with its recipes, all of them were originally created by George’s mother, Maria, and are merchandised behind “Maria’s Homemade” signs. “My mom has been getting involved in the business a lot more in terms of doing interviews, formulating recipes, picking the ingredients and doing more on the Internet,” Zoitas says, adding that she has tailored recipes for different seasons and even different soups to be sold in each individual store. “That gave a nice jolt to the business from a prepared foods aspect. It creates awareness that this is not just some slop put together but real homemade food,” Zoitas says. Boy is it ever! Sure, every prepared foods case has lasagna. But only Westside Market has cheese lasagna, vegetable lasagna, meat lasagna, chicken lasagna, eggplant chicken lasagna, spinach lasagna, eggplant and spinach lasagna, and moussaka, a Greek version of lasagna made with layered eggplant, zucchini, seasoned ground beef and a béchamel sauce instead of pasta. Each lasagna square is artfully arranged on long platters surrounded by a mixed greens garnish. There is also a huge assortment of meat, chicken and seafood entrées. “We notice that in the City it is very hard to cook fish because the apartments are so small and people don’t like the fish smell,” Zoitas says. “So we do very well with prepared foods as far as fish is concerned.” The entrées are accompanied by rows of fresh vegetables, such as roasted cauliflower with baby carrots, string beans with almonds and cranberries, mashed potatoes with garlic, roasted Brussels sprouts and arugula salad with sliced mango. A service hot food counter makes sandwiches from Kobe brisket, pastrami and corned beef, and also offers rotisserie chickens, chicken pot pie, lobster pot pie, fried yellow plantains, honey Dijon salmon, Caribbean jerk chicken, beef oxtail and homemade shepherds pie. The adjacent service salad bar contains plastic bowls of pre-measured greens with a huge array of fresh toppings including sliced black olives, blackberries, stuffed grape leaves, grapes, sliced apples, sliced strawberries, raisins, blueberries and Mandarin oranges. But the real variety is with the dizzying array of dressings offered—more than 30 kinds—including unique offerings, like Mango Pineapple Vinaigrette and Hot Thai Peanut. What a spread! For those not wanting to wait in line, Westside Market has a grab-and-go aisle, not a case like in most stores, but an entire aisle, both sides of which are lined with chilled appetizers, entrees, salads, soups, dips and spreads. “I am very pro grab-and-go. I know you’ve been working all day, are tired and don’t want to wait online, so I have created an option to just grab it and go,” Zoitas says. There are literally dozens of kinds of spreads: eggplant and garlic, artichoke and red pepper, pesto chick pea, sweet picante pepper, cherry cottage cheese, pesto cottage cheese and Spanish chimichurri to name a few. That is not including the hummus. Westside Market 97th Street typically stocks more than a dozen varieties, including pine nut, carrot, spinach and artichoke and sweet green pea. Yet, the hummus selection cannot rival the array of chicken salad stocked everyday. There are at least 16 kinds, including Maria’s Famous, cranergy, pico de galo, Waldorf grilled, cranberry apricot, balsamic vinegar and marvelous mango chicken salads. Westside Market is also known in the neighborhood for its cheeses, which are sold pre-sliced in various random weights. “Our cheese selection is pretty unique unto itself,” Zoitas says. “We test out a lot of new cheeses. We’re always on top of it.” There is a service seafood counter around the bend; meats are self-service, although a butcher is on the premises. “You simply pick up the phone and call the butcher downstairs,” Zoitas says. “It is like that in all of our locations because of the room. He’ll come upstairs and assist you.” The ovens for the in-store bakery are also in the basement. Many items are baked in-house, supplemented by breads brought in from a baker’s dozen of local and artisan suppliers. “We have a small cake section,” Zoitas admits. “I’d rather focus on items that are unique and move faster every day, but we can always order anything you want.” The same holds true in the grocery aisles. Aisles are spic-and-span clean, a rarity for Manhattan; narrow, typical for Manhattan; and stocked as high as possible. “Everyday each store starts off spotless and loaded to the gills with fresh and great merchandise,” Joskowitz says. “It is literally up to the rafters because as you know Manhattan real estate is very expensive. We go as high as we can, as wide as we can and fill the store with as much merchandise as we possibly can. But it is all set up so that shopping is convenient for our customers.” This also goes for the checkout process. The 11 registers are arranged in two parallel lines flanking the exit, so that there is only one line. Cashiers call shoppers when they are ready to service the next customer. “This is the first time we have done this,” Zoitas says. “It is taking a while to get used to because it is one massive line. People are intimidated by that, but then they realize how fast it moves.” The unusual layout was concocted to reduce space. “By doing it that way we saved half the square footage. It normally takes about 800 square feet for 10 checkout counters. We got it down to 450,” Zoitas says. That left some 400 more square feet for Westside Market NYC to fill with mouthwatering perishables, produce and groceries. It was not a problem for them to fill it. Come fly with me Prepared foods are literally taking off from the Westside Market NYC. As a test, the company’s Maywood’s Marketplace branch in Maywood, N.J., is catering the first class cabin of Lufthansa German Airlines. If all goes well it has the potential to develop into a long-term foodservice contract, says George Zoitas, Westside Market NYC CEO. According to Zoitas, the test came about after the operating manager at Maywood’s Marketplace was blindly approached by Lufthansa officials about doing some catering. “The good thing about Lufthansa is that they are accepting everything in bulk, so they are the ones separating the portions, which is very cost effective for me as far as labor is concerned,” Zoitas says. At 18,000 square feet, Maywood’s Marketplace is by far Westside Market’s largest branch and has the kitchen space to do commercial catering. “We are focusing on catering there because at that location the parking is very limited, and they do such a terrific job with prepared foods,” Zoitas says. “We just renovated the kitchen last year to add about 4,000 square feet and a whole prep area. Everything is brand new. We are putting a lot of emphasis there.”