Discover more from CAFÉ ANNE
Meet New York's Most Charming Food Shop!
Plus! A Good Sign!! Help Frankie X. Meet His Mystery Lady!!!
Welcome to Issue #57 of CAFÉ ANNE!
Last week, Substack added a new feature to the newsletter platform. Now I can view a breakdown of where subscribers live. That means I can hunt you down at home!
No, it just means I have a rough idea of where CAFÉ ANNE’s 5,300 readers reside. And get this! While this blog is mainly about New York City, just 36% of you live in New York. Another 33% live elsewhere in the U.S, and the rest of you live in 114 countries around the world.
This got me wondering. Why do so many people outside New York like to read about the city? It’s not just a CAFÉ ANNE thing. People all over read The New Yorker and The New York Times and New York Magazine. The Los Angeles Times and Rhode Island Monthly, not so much!
My thinking is that people love to read about NYC because it’s The Greatest City in the World. Duh! But I know I’m biased, so I posed this question to a few friends over the weekend. They had some interesting suggestions:
—New York City is huge, and lots of people grow up here and leave, and even more people move here and then give up and leave. So there’s zillions of ex-New Yorkers all over the world who love to read about the city, if only to remind themselves why they left.
-Along similar lines, many folks have been here on vacation. In 2019—the peak before Covid—we got 66 million visitors. That’s ten times the population of Saturn. And people are more likely to read about a place they’ve seen in person.
-The city is a global hub for just about everything, and that makes it of interest to folks who are interested in those things. I got interested in Tibet, for instance, after I got interested in Buddhism. Along similar lines, you might want to learn more about New York City if you happen to be interested in finance, or art, or architecture, or rats. Discuss!
In other news, please help me research my next feature story by participating in the following one-question survey:
If you’d like to explain your choice of phone (and what it says about you), please respond in the comments section or send me a note: email@example.com.
Finally, I am very excited about this week’s issue. It includes the very first CAFÉ ANNE CUPID, in which I try to broker a NYC love connection. The feature, meanwhile, is on Horseradish Market, the city’s most charming food shop. Please enjoy.
A GOOD SIGN
Reader Aharon in Brooklyn, by far our most generative stringer, recently sent a photo of a sign for Evercrisp apples he spotted outside Rossman Fruit & Vegetable, a produce market in Sunset Park:
It’s probably hard to make out if you’re reading this on your phone, but the fine print in red magic marker reads, “IS A SICKENINGLY SWEET COLOSSUS OF SWEET, JUICY AND FIRM.”
Aharon’s only comment: “Marketing!”
CAFE ANNE CUPID
Help Frankie Meet His Mystery Lady!
I recently heard from reader Frank D. in Ohio, one of more irregular CAFÉ ANNE regulars. He had a special request. His son, 29-year-old Frankie, who works as second shift manager at a power plant in Columbus, met a great girl at a bar during a recent trip to NYC. But now she is lost!
“They talked and danced and she walked him back to his buddie's apartment. Of course he asked her about going to her apartment but she demurred, saying she doesn't do that. Which impressed him greatly and he lied and said he'd never asked any girl that before...cough, cough, cough!
His phone was out of charge so he couldn't ask for her number so he asked to use her phone to call his phone, but he must have dialed the wrong number because it didn't show up.”
Frank asked me to help his son Frankie track the young lady down.
“He thinks this girl may be the one,” he wrote. “I'm sending you photos that may help. PLEASE BE A MATCHMAKER!!! Thank you so much!”
I needed more details about the lady, of course. This request produced another long email from Frank:
“Frankie said the girl had black hair and looked exotic; possibly Indian or Middle Eastern or North Africa or Spanish or Mexican or Italian?
I hope she's a U.N. diplomat's daughter! According to the girl, she lives alone in NYC.
Frankie WANTS to relocate to NYC, but he lied and told the girl that he has lived there for a month...liquor combined with remnants of the adolescent male lizard-brain!
I have no right to talk because of all the lies I told to girls! He comes by it honestly. BUT, Frankie is a very GOOD Guy...he is moral, compassionate and empathetic...”
First I needed to speak directly with Frankie to make sure he was alright with his dad’s scheme, including publishing his photos in this newsletter. I rang him just before the holidays.
“I appreciate you going back-and-forth with my crazy-ass dad,” he said, and confirmed he was on board. He thinks this lady might be “the one”—never mind the fact that he can’t remember her name.
“She was just gorgeous, and the way she came out of nowhere, too,” he said. “I was standing at this table and the next thing, her friend was pushing her over to me and I said ‘Holy shit how is this happening? This is awesome!’”
“Once I charged my phone up, I saw no call had gone through, I couldn’t believe I had messed up!” he added. “I’m so depressed about this. She was something! Really good-looking, but also really nice, just a good person.”
I promised Frankie I’d do what I could.
My first idea was to post on Craigslist NYC Missed Connections. The forum was very popular back in the 1990s when people posted hoping to connect with a fellow New Yorker with whom they’d exchanged glances or a fleeting conversation on the street.
I was delighted to find the forum still going strong. Among recent subject lines:
“We locked eyes on the Q60 bus today at 60th street and 2nd Ave”
“We shared a table in Dunkin’ Donuts yesterday”
“Really nice woman in a wheel chair”
I channeled my inner Cyrano De Bergerac and posted a query on Frankie’s behalf:
Met you at Vig Bar December 3 (Nolita/Bowery)
You: female, 20s, black hair, petite, kind and classy!
We talked and danced, you walked with me back to my buddy's apartment. My phone was out of charge so I used yours to call mine. I must have dialed the wrong number because after I charged my phone the call never showed up!
Would love to connect again!
I got two responses. One was from a hooker in Dallas. I forwarded her note to Frank.
“Hahaha!!! My new daughter-in-law!!” he replied. “It's nice to know she's a working girl!!!”
But a second response, which just arrived this past Friday, looks promising. She attached a photo that matched Frankie’s description. “Do I look familiar?” she wrote.
I replied to let her know I’d posted on Frankie’s behalf and would forward her note to him. I then sent her email to Frank, who promised to share it with his son ASAP: “I’m on it like white on rice!!!”
I’ll keep you all posted! Meanwhile, please let me know if you have any leads…
Meet New York’s Most Charming Food Shop!
I recently received the most delightful email from reader Christopher in Brooklyn, requesting an investigation:
About six months ago, a new "grocery store" opened near me on Broadway Street in Brooklyn, which looks like something out of the Sims! It hardly has any groceries and all the shelves are handmade from plywood with only a few boxes or cans of fish on each shelf.
The owner is very friendly and very very talkative, and is always popping up when you're trying to buy your groceries. Twice, he told my friend that Lion chocolate bars made his beard grow. There is a very long plank of plywood (supposedly a bench?) for customers to sit on while waiting in his short lines at the register. He also re-bottles his own cleaning detergents for sale.
Oh, and everything in the store is labeled with a sticker with the store's name—Horseradish—which made me think the store only sold horseradish when I first visited.
I'm curious about the backstory but am worried that if I ask the owner about it myself, I'll never be able to buy goji berries without an extended conversation again! Is this a job for Café Anne?
Yes, Christopher, this is very much a job for CAFÉ ANNE. Thank you for writing!
Before heading over, I found the store’s website. It is called Horseradish Market and is located on a busy but rather rough retail strip in Bushwick with lots of vacant storefronts and the elevated J train rumbling overhead. When I emailed to request an interview, Co-owner Ranen Minsky wrote right back and agreed to meet me at the shop. “Ooper duper, keloomper vroomper!” he added.
The market occupies a small storefront between the Daily Dose Pharmacy and a dance studio. Its sign, hand-painted on plywood, reads, “WE SELL GROCERIES.”
Inside, I found the store far better stocked than the Soviet-era situation described in Christopher’s email. But I didn’t have much time to survey the shelves. Mr. Minsky, dressed in jeans and a hoodie, gave me a huge greeting and proceeded to give me the grand tour, starting with the candy display at the register.
“We have an incredible chocolate bar. This is chocolate that I am proud to say we smuggled into America!” he said. “From Belgium. I was born here, but I grew up in Belgium, so I have a connection with the country. You won’t find them elsewhere, let alone at a price like this!”
We approached the produce section. The prices were low for New York City: beets cost 39¢ a pound; avocados, 79¢ each. “It’s not just the price,” he enthused. “They are perfectly ripe.”
A cooler was stocked all kinds of drinks and prepared foods, including LaCroix seltzer for 69¢. “La Fermiere is the caviar of yogurt,” said Mr.Minsky. “but we have a special—just 99 cents for the chestnut flavored.”
He nearly lost his mind surveying the bread selection. “This is an incredible rye bread. Feel how heavy it is! It’s local-baked in Staten Island. You can cut thin slices and TOAST THEM. Put salt and butter on top, and it’s just heavenly.”
“You’re very excited about your products,” I observed.
“You know what? Some people say, ‘You’re a good salesman.’ I’m actually not,” he said. “I actually am excited. We carefully select all the products we carry because they really do represent good value.”
“And these are unusually large purple potatoes,” he continued, moving on. “If you say ‘purple potatoes’ many times, maybe something magical will happen!”
Beyond the produce section, the store is laid out, as Mr. Minsky explained, “From sunrise to sunset.” It starts with breakfast items, then lunch ingredients, followed by dinner and dessert.
We stopped at the granola display. The cereal is one of many products that Mr. Minsky buys in bulk to get a lower price, and repackages in recyclable containers stamped with his store logo—a little horse with a radish in its mouth.
The horse, by the way, is named Horace.
“He has an ochre-colored body, which is unusual for horses,” said Mr. Minsky. “It’s because he ate too much of our chili-lime mango. Which is delicious, but that’s what can happen.”
The store also sells foods like olives and greek yogurt, and cleaning products such as castile soap, in returnable jars and bottles—another cost saving measure. You can buy a $3.49 bottle of cleaning vinegar, for example, and return the bottle for $2 rebate, reducing the price to $1.49.
Herbs and spices, meanwhile, are sold in sample sizes starting at 39¢ so you can try a new seasoning with little risk.
The tour ended at a shelf corner stocked with treats. “Here, you’re kind of in a snack wonderland,” said Mr. Minsky. “The feeling of being surrounded! You’re just overwhelmed with wonderful choices.”
“One of my favorite snacks,” he continued, “is the Lion bar.”
This was the candy bar the reader had mentioned! Would Mr. Minsky tell me about how the treat made his beard grow? I didn’t wait long.
“After we started carrying the bar in the store,” he said, “I started growing a beard. My own little mane! It’s a European candy bar. It’s terrific.”
“And it makes your beard grow,” I said.
“In my case,” he said. “I don’t wish it for everyone.”
When Mr. Minsky rented the space, a former toy store, it was what folks in commercial real estate call a “white box.” Totally bare. To save money, Mr. Minsky and his business partner built the shelving themselves from plywood and two-by-fours, installed track lighting and coated the concrete floor. He commissioned art from several artists, including his mother. The POS system consists of an iPad, a scale, and a scanner—all housed in plywood.
Upon checking out, he encourages shoppers to carry their groceries home in used cardboard boxes. “It’s environmentally friendly, cost efficient, and forces people to hug their groceries before they eat them,” said Mr. Minsky.
I chatted with one of the regulars, William Martin, who owns Rebel Rouser, a record store down the street. Mr. Martin said he loves the store’s idiosyncratic selection and friendly vibe. “But the one thing I tell people is almost everything that they have in the shop is almost half the price of the Food Emporium by my apartment,” he said. “They have such good prices. That is the main thing.”
Mr. Minsky needed to train a new cashier, so I took a little walk around the neighborhood and reflected on what I’d seen so far.
In truth, a lot of what Horseradish offers is old news. Food markets have employed the bulk strategy since time began, and several Brooklyn shops started offering products in returnable containers before the pandemic. Even the highly curated, “whimsical” mix of highbrow (quail eggs!) and lowbrow (frozen Snickers bars!) is nothing new.
The twist here is the low prices. I remember writing about a “package-free” grocery store, also in Bushwick, when it opened back in 2018, and marveling at the prices—$9.49 a pound for dried macaroni, $4.99 a pound for brown rice. When I asked the owner how regular folks were supposed to afford those prices, she got all touchy and offended, as if my question was somehow unseemly.
By the time I returned to Horseradish Market to resume my chat with Mr. Minsky, I was ready to rant.
“I’ve seen people sell bulk items and package-free items before. But the prices are always bonkers. Why is that?” I demanded. “It makes me so mad! In order to ‘do good,’ you have to pay $20 a pound for almonds!”
“Yes!'“ he said. “So what the other stores are doing is highly commendable. But too often, these environmentally-friendly stores are also somewhat bougie stores. We want to create this elegant space, but not bougie in any way whatsoever. And our prices are low…”
But I wasn’t done. “All these stores say they are offering an ‘ethical alternative,”” I interrupted, “but who can afford it? Nobody!”
“Yes,” he agreed again. “It’s not genuinely sustainable. Such a tiny percentage of people can even afford it. We want to shatter this paradigm. Totally! We think there is a middle way.”
Mr. Minsky, 34, studied philosophy and economics in London before working at an asset management firm as an analyst, researching agribusiness and retail. He worked on a coffee plantation and then a farm in Peru. He moved to New York with the express intention of opening his little dream grocery store. To get an insider’s view, he worked as cashier and stock person at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. He even joined the the notoriously pious Park Slope Food Coop, which requires members to volunteer in the store.
“It was really fun, learning all about this new world, meeting new people,” he said of these hourly-wage gigs. “But more than anything, it’s brutally hard work. Very tiresome.”
Along the way, he had the good fortune to wind up with a roommate, David Baird, a software developer who became his business partner. Mr. Baird built a program that can sift through the weekly price lists from the city’s many food distributors to find the best deals—streamlining a task that most small markets attempt by hand.
“Other people just crudely compare price books, but it’s impossible to do this for every item, across all distributors, so we have an automated way of doing it,” said Mr. Minsky.
He also contents himself with a modest markup from wholesale prices—just 10-15% on produce, for instance—compared to the 50-100% markup standard at many supermarkets.
The store is not yet profitable, he says. “But we have a long-term vision. We believe if we sell things of value at a really great price, eventually customers really will appreciate it. And they’re going to keep coming back. And soon enough we can buy bigger volumes at lower prices. So we can maintain our low prices but earn a bit more of a profit to allow us to be financially successful as well.”
Like most small business owners, Mr. Minsky works super hard. He’s in the store from 8:30 am to 10:30 pm six days a week. He commutes from South Slope, splitting the journey between the subway and running for exercise.
As we talked, he bounced up every few minutes to offer customers a tour of the store and a flower from a bouquet on the counter. With 39 ratings so far, his store has a five-star average on Google; reviewers cite the friendly owner as often as they mention the low prices.
“The word ‘customer service,’ it does not at all capture how we should relate to customers,” he said, when I brought this up. “We treat them like normal people. It’s a lot of fun, I just joke around with them, I’m just happy being here.”
“When you’re working in this position, you’re in unique position where you’re encountering many more people than you otherwise would in any other job,” he added. “It’s an opportunity to work on yourself and share positive feelings with others.”
When I asked if he had advice for those starting a business, Mr. Minsky was uncharacteristically quiet.
“The truth is, I don’t have anything very true to say,” he said finally. “I hope in two years time, I have something really beautiful to say. It’s just in my own experience, I am unbelievably grateful that I did decide to create a business of my own. It’s just unbelievable how different it can be. It’s possible to feel very excited and fulfilled by your work. It’s a real thing! That’s all I can say.”
My last question: “Will you open a Horseradish Market in Brooklyn Heights where I live, please?”
The short answer: No. He is still learning from this store. And there are probably many neighborhoods—so-called “food deserts” like Bushwick—that need this sort of market more than Brooklyn Heights.
And even if he did, Mr. Minsky said would probably not call it Horseradish Market. He would retain the main elements—low prices, automated ordering, reusable jars, bulk foods—but Brooklyn Heights should have a very different store than Bushwick.
“This approach to replicating the store, redoing it all over the world, it feels a bit inhumane,” he said. “That concept of growing a business may work in the short run, but in the long run it becomes sterile and soulless. Not such a positive thing. It’s almost nightmarish!”
“What if you had franchises where people could do their own weird thing, but you could supply the back end,” I said. “I could open the Dogradish Market in Brooklyn Heights!”
“Whoa!” He said. “Maybe. Maybe!”
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“Don’t let your life define you.”
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