The Subtle Gatekeeping of 'Good' Suburban Supermarkets

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The Subtle Gatekeeping of 'Good' Suburban Supermarkets

High atop a hill in Yonkers, New York, across from a Costco and above a Home Depot rests the greatest grocery store that anyone has ever shopped at, Stew Leonard’s. Stew Leonard’s is more than a place to buy food; it is a top to bottom experience. Everything in the store is designed to elicit joy and encourage spending. The employees are friendly as if they’ve known you all their life and you’re visiting them at their farmers’ market stall. The food selection is vast, but not overwhelming. Even with so much to choose from, there is no wrong decision. Most of the groceries are Stew Leonard’s internal brand and are displayed to the buyer like museum artifacts, lit from above by lighting racks while the rest of the store is dim. The bread aisle smells like an artisanal bakery as Stew Leonard’s bakers roll out dough and dip apple cider doughnuts in hot oil to be sold the same day. The vegetables glisten from their hourly misting. It’s perfectly organized in such a fashion that customers can only travel in one direction, like IKEA but pleasant. No zigzagging through aisles to find what you’re looking for, instead, you calmly roll through the Stew Leonard’s maze, tasting samples, enjoying the tunes of a singing chicken in a store that looks like a farm, and allowing the groceries to find you. It is what all supermarkets should strive to be—if what supermarkets should be is out of reach to middle-class consumers.

Everything in the store is designed to elicit joy and encourage spending

For years I would see the market from the passenger seat of my mom’s car, as we turned into Costco. I’d wonder what it was like in that shining grocery store on a hill. We never went in. Stew Leonard’s and other upscale stores like it were in a special category of markets, the ones reserved for white people who purchased organic produce and farm-raised animals for their dinner table. We drove from the Bronx to buy bulk snacks from the closest Costco and didn’t have the time or the budget to peruse the aisles of a Stew Leonard’s. Even now, as a grocery-buying adult, the siren song of Stew Leonard’s still calls to me, but my budget muffles my ears.

Supermarkets have long been obvious signifiers of wealth in a neighborhood, a gap that has grown as the growth of the health and wellness industry has increasingly sorted the affluent by what they’re able to eat. As the middle class has been able to acquire more traditional signs of status—luxury cars, designer clothing, ranch-style homes—the truly wealthy turned to “inconspicuous consumption,” money spent on quiet luxuries that nonetheless signify status and prestige. As economic researcher Elizabeth Currid-Halkett explained to the BBC in 2017, this spending shift was caused by a number of things— “the mass-production economy of the 20th century, the outsourcing of production to China” and rising demands from the “middle-class consumer market” for affordable luxury—and happened slowly over a period of years.

To maintain their image of wealth, the rich began spending on expensive but immaterial things, like education and health, while still maintaining some focus on “less expensive but equally pronounced signaling – from reading The Economist to buying pasture-raised eggs,” Halkett wrote.

Stew Leonard’s and other upscale stores like it were in a special category of markets, reserved for white people who purchased organic produce and farm-raised animals for their dinner table

But to buy pasture-raised eggs, you must first venture to the “good” supermarkets found in most affluent neighborhoods across the country. Every area has its own Stew Leonard’s, a beloved local chain that has a curated, luxurious feel to it. Texas has HEB, the national chain beloved for its prepared queso and tamales; Arizona has Sprouts Famers Market, a supermarket that makes shoppers feel a connection to farmers by stocking a vast array of organic products; just about everywhere has a Whole Foods, which despite its high price tags, is the frugal watered-down version of Stew Leonard’s.

But in 2004, when I was still in grade school, the implications of food meant nothing to me. I didn’t give a second thought to the oversized off-brand bags of cereal my grandmother would buy from the C-Town closest to her apartment. Nor did it occur to me until my mid-2os that eating meat from a can was something to be ashamed of. After all, my grandmother’s canned corned beef with platano maduro was the best thing you could put on a plate. I didn’t notice that the C-Town was run down, dimly lit, covered in sticky dingy tiles, and often the sight of a screaming match between a cashier and customer, neither of whom spoke English. This slight volatility seemed normal.

Supermarkets came into my realm of concern when I moved into off-campus housing my third year of college. Suddenly I had a share of the food purchases, along with my three roommates. We mainly shopped at Walmart and on occasion the local supermarket, Price Chopper, which did not chop any prices as far as I could tell. This small responsibility of buying food for a household was a thrill but also came with a degree of culture shock. In my house, dinner was meat and a carbohydrate, sofrito was a necessary ingredient, and you always made enough to have leftovers for lunch the next day. But I was living with women who composed their meals out of vegetables and a pinch of salt and didn’t see the value in eating food that had been sitting in the fridge overnight.

My mother and grandmother operated on the shopping tactic of buy as much as you can afford when you can afford it. If that meant buying two pounds of ground beef when you had no intention of cooking ground beef, you did it because next week there might not be money to buy meat at all. My roommates only wanted to buy what they planned to eat that week. A single pack of chicken cutlet, ingredients for buffalo wing dip, a small bag of white rice with which to make steamed rice, and Hawaiian sausage. I ate pizza rolls on sausage night.

As the only person of color in the house, my flavor palette and diet were completely different from these women. My desire for half a dozen cans of gandules and bulk meat was consistently met with scorn: “Are you even eating that this week?” We eventually broke off into shopping factions; I began to deeply appreciate the like-minded shoppers I had encountered in Western Beef, my home grocery store.

Eventually, I moved into my own apartment back in the Bronx and was met with the classic issue of living in a borough that contains small pockets of food deserts; there were no good grocery stores within walking distance. I had all the decision power to buy whatever groceries I wanted in whatever quantity I saw fit and yet I was being kneecapped by my choice of housing location. The familiar dream of shopping at Stew Leonard’s stirred within me once more.

Driving up to Stew Leonard’s on a Saturday in a rented Zipcar for the first time felt as exciting as the first time I was allowed to go to a concert on my own. Every person in that parking lot was white. I didn’t come across another person of color until I was a few aisles into the store and a woman offered me a sample of kale apple salad with some Stew Leonard’s dressing on top. I purchased the kale and the dressing immediately after. I ignored the caucasity of the store entirely and wound my way down aisles advertising farm raised everything.

The shtick of Stew Leonard’s is that it originated as a dairy farm owned and operated by a guy named Stew. The Stew Leonard’s website proudly boasts the store, and the family’s history dating back to the 1920s with Charles Leonard who started Clover Farms Dairy in Connecticut. In 1969 the eponymous Stew Leonard turned Clover Farms into a 17,000 square foot store where “children could watch milk being bottled while mothers did their shopping in a farmer’s market atmosphere.” The expansion was overseen by Stew’s son, Stew junior, and eventually, the Leonard family grew their business to seven stores, all of which are on the east coast.

The Leonard family has maintained the vision of their patriarch, and while you cannot go to Yonkers and see a cow get milked the store does stay true to the farm theme. There are animatronic cows in the dairy aisle, a singing crab in the seafood section, and clucking chickens in the poultry area. There are also samples everywhere: good samples, not just pigs in a blanket, but soups, seafood salads, crab cakes, and steak bites. One stroll through the full length of Stew Leonard’s was a full three-course meal in miniature. I assumed that this is what it felt like to be a Real Housewife of Yonkers.

It was a far cry from the Western Beef I was accustomed to. Western Beef is a perfectly fine supermarket, well lit with the traditional aisle set-up you find in any major supermarket. It felt fancy to me because the one I shopped at with my mother had a huge meat section that was essentially its own big freezer room as opposed to just an elongated freezer aisle that wrapped the entire store. Western Beef didn’t do samples and the only thing you could taste in advance were the two or three grapes you tore out of the bag while shopping. There isn’t much selection as far as organic free-range-coddled-by-a-human eggs and grass-fed-brushed-a-hundred-times-a-night beef, but they had everything a person could need in a reasonable layout and gratuitous two-for-one specials on Goya products.

Shopping at Stew Leonard’s wasn’t just a visual and gastronomic treat, it felt like I had stepped into some special level of adulthood. It felt like an achievement. There I was in a beautiful supermarket in Yonkers and because of my white-passing features and my wallet I had access to a kind of food my grandmother had never been able to cook in her own home, like a cut of filet mignon or fresh salmon. It was surreal to infiltrate that space for the few months I spent renting cars or hitching rides and going all the way to Yonkers to shop with the moms buying snack platters for their children’s sports teams.

But the thing about being an infiltrator is that it’s not sustainable. Stew Leonard’s caters to the almost rich who can afford to be choosey about what they put in their cart. This is obvious by where the various stores are located: Norwalk and Danbury Connecticut; Yonkers and East Meadow, New York; and Paramus, New Jersey. According to the suburbs of Paramus and East Meadow have an overall grade of “A” based on their public school system, low crime rates, commute, jobs, and other metrics, which determine a good neighborhood. Danbury and Norwalk are both strong Bs, grades that are only brought down by the higher cost of living.

Driving from the Bronx to Yonkers in a rented car was all fun and games until the landlord raised the rent and my budget was thrown into flux. Suddenly it was goodbye suburban grocery oasis and hello again Key Food or Western Beef on the days I was lucky enough to get a ride from a relative. Now, living in New Jersey, I don’t venture to Paramus to rekindle the romance between me and Stew because I know that behind all of the shiny packaging and singing chickens, there are some places urbanites just don’t fit in.

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