I Opened A Grocery Store
this is long and there's no recipe at the end, enjoy!!!
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Last September I opened a tiny grocery store in upstate New York. It’s called First Bloom. The town it’s in (Bloomville) is small, though the county (Delaware County) is medium—the lovely communities of Bovina, Delhi, Andes, Stamford are all a part of it, if those ring a bell. The building was home to a very good, very popular, very beloved pizza restaurant called Table on Ten. When people ask where the store is, usually all I have to say is “it’s in the old Table on Ten space” and people of a certain age familiar with upstate (weekends or otherwise) go “ahhhhhhhh, yes.”
It seems that everything has to have a concept these days and so here is mine: You need groceries to make dinner (or any meal, really) and so we supply them. That’s it. Classic grocery store stuff. We started by only carrying items that could be stored at room temperature, and then we expanded by offering local meats as well as various broths and sauces in our freezer. In December, we got a small refrigerator and now carry some dairy and other items that I consider essential to a “pantry,” but still need refrigeration (good butter, parmesan cheese, kimchi, some very expensive anchovies, etc.). I decided what we’d carry based on what I think is important to have in your home to be able to effortlessly make food that tastes good. We don’t have that many condiments because that’s not really how I like to cook, though we do carry lots of snacks because I love snacking. There’s also coffee and tea (hot and iced, 365), and as of last November, very delicious, mostly New York made beers, (dry) ciders and (not-too-sweet) meads.
While I cringe at the word, I guess you could say it’s “curated,” though only because it’s pretty small. There isn’t a ton of space to carry ingredients I think are superfluous or, worse, things that might be popular but maybe don’t taste that good (to me, anyway). Yes, this is my curated grocery store and I’m drunk with power.
Anyway, as mentioned, we carry mainly shelf-stable ingredients. Basics. Staples. Must-haves. For each ingredient, there is mostly one (1) option. Sometimes there are two (2) options– same ingredient, but two different styles or levels of quality at two different price points. I like the high-low approach, because sometimes I decide I want the $3 tin of anchovies because I know I’m just dumping it into some pasta sauce, and sometimes I want the $12 tin, because I know I’m going to eat them one by one, with nothing else but a nice little glass of wine. I think most people enjoy having a choice of whether or not to splurge on something, while knowing even the “cheapest” option is still going to be great.
Sometimes I ignore my own rules and carry several varieties of the same ingredient—six types of mustard, five kinds of sardines and at least nine different heirloom beans. These ingredients are important to me and yes, I am impressing upon you this importance. We carry one brand of peanut butter—the best one—but do carry both crunchy and smooth. There are at least eight different shapes of pasta because like a sandwich cut into triangles or rectangles, the long, spirally noodles do taste different than the short fat rings of paccheri.
There’s also a produce table in the middle of the room, because if you try hard enough, lots of produce can be stored-at-room-temperature produce. Right now in the dead of winter there isn’t much, but part of the appeal of being in Delaware County for me has always been what’s grown and farmed out here. The meat and dairy is all supremely good, but the produce. Oh, baby. The produce. There’s a great organization called 607 CSA (area code!) that helps connect small farms and growers with buyers. I’m grateful for them and all the other farms in the area who show up every Wednesday to the local farmers market where we get a lot of our produce. Right now, in the doldrums, we also get other deliveries for things like citrus from small farms in California, because it’s February and we deserve it.
If you’re very “into food,” you’ll likely recognize many of the things we sell, but I hope that we’ll surprise you with a few things you don’t. It’s tough to find unique things that aren’t available simply everywhere, but god, do I try. Very few of the brands or farms or makers we carry in the shop have an Instagram presence, some are very old or very local and barely have a website. If you can buy something anywhere, then you can do that, but I think it's nice to carry things that you can only find in a few places. We don’t currently ship anything, though we did just curate a First Bloom care package for a customer who wanted to send a valentine to his best girl, because we love our customers and we believe in romance.
The store is warm (figuratively. Literally, it’s more ambient cellar-temp), designed to feel like shopping in one giant pantry (thank you to Danielle Epstein, formerly of Home Studios for the thoughtful and beautiful design). The paper bags are stamped with our logo, drawn by Maggie Boyd (with font handiwork by Sydnee Mejia), which matches the tile mosaic on the wall that she did– the first thing you see when you walk in. It’s a flower and a root and also an “f” and a “b” and well, I’m simply in love with it. There are candles (ones we burn, and many for sale) because even a grocery store needs ambiance, and at least once a day, at least one Phoebe Bridgers song comes on. We sell other non-food items, too, like a few choice ceramics from near and far, good body oils and my favorite tinted lip balm.
I’m not there all the time, but that’s okay because Dylan is. Dylan runs the store and I could not have done any of this (open or continue to run the place) without her. She’s the only employee who can hand-write each sign for the produce and label for the chicken broth because I am the other employee and my handwriting isn’t as nice. She’s an actual artist though, and her watercolors for the signs she paints (which can be found all around the store) should be sold at auction. We (the store and everyone who shops there) are so lucky to have her and we know it.
I didn’t even announce the opening of the store until we opened—I declined the few press requests I received and didn’t really talk about it publicly. I can’t totally explain it, but I felt (feel?) protective of this little store like it was a person. It had to actually become something before I could say what it was. I wanted to let it cultivate an actual personality, authentically grow an identity without the at-large scrutiny or outside pressure from people who didn’t even shop there to nail it out the gate (something we’re all expected to do in any endeavor).
And even still, it’s growing and changing all the time. We moved the check out table to the other side of the room the day after we opened. Our shelves ebb and flow with new exciting items and things nobody buys (I’ll never stop stocking the shelves with Cheez-It’s though I’m pretty sure I’m their only customer). We’re putting in a few (very small) tables for people to enjoy coffee inside, and eventually, a glass or two of cider for special events. We’re learning a lot about how people buy groceries and what ingredients excite (nothing is more thrilling than convincing someone to buy cod liver, though shockingly popular even without the encouragement). We have regulars who come in for their daily coffee, some who buy all the broth before we’ve had a chance to label it and some who come in just to say hi and grab a box of TimTams, which we are tragically currently out of (supply chain). We love them all and are so grateful they keep us in business.
On the days I’m at the shop, I barely look at my phone. Dylan and I “joke” that when I come in she lets me play store with her—she’s doing most of the daily work, and I get to come in when my schedule allows and do some pleasant unboxing and rearranging of the shelves because it brings me boundless happiness. I also spend a lot more time in the kitchen—I make our broth and marmalade, big batches of granola and sometimes cake to sell by the slice. Tomato sauce when there were tomatoes. Hot chocolate that we sold during the holidays—very chocolate-y, not too sweet, made with “local milk” (good phrase), a little salt, and topped with unsweetened whipped cream that I whipped by hand (not efficient, but enjoyable).
I’m grateful to this store for many reasons, but most of all, it’s reminded me that I am a cook. When I was 19 years-old, I left college to work at a restaurant because I had fallen in love with the idea that I could spend the rest of my life cooking, if someone paid me to do it. I don’t know why I knew this was my path or how I knew it, but I knew it. Aside from the creative outlet it gave me, cooking, being active in the kitchen, gave me an obvious place to channel my anxiety. It calmed my nervous system. Cooking, being active in the kitchen, also meant I was useful. And if I could be useful, I could be loved.
I don’t know how we went from “we sell local meats,” to that last sentence (Janice, if you’re reading this, let’s put a pin in that for Monday), but to get us back on track, I guess if I’m distilling it all down to one thing, it’s that cooking, for me, is to love and be loved. It’s self-care, it’s caring for others. In a funny silly little way, opening this little grocery store to sell people beautiful ingredients I find delicious and useful is my ultimate love letter, a full circle moment, my highest calling, my greatest purpose.
So, if you find yourself in the area, come visit. Buy the garlic, get the large sherry vinegar, delight in our tinned fish section, pick up a yogurt (there are two types, both made around here, both outrageously good– one thick and creamy one thin and milky) and if you’re lucky, a bag of barely sweetened golden granola, because it really is spectacular.