Last week, a Bloomberg Intelligence report concluded that Whole Foods was now one of the city’s best budget grocery options—news that hardened New Yorkers might greet with a horrified howl. Not George Zoitas.
The affable scion of the Westside Market grocery store dynasty merely emits a derisive snort. “The Post!” he says, referring to a paper that ran the story under the headline “Whole Foods has city’s 2nd-lowest grocery prices: study”—“They forgot to add us to the statistics, otherwise they might not have gotten such a sweetheart story.”
George has been working in the family business since he was a kid, and it’d be fair to say that the grocery industry is in his bones. At 12, he was a delivery boy for Westside’s 110th Street location, and he helped out at the new Chelsea store while he was still in college.
Now 31, he’s speaking with me in the cavernous, work-in-progress interior of Westside’s newest (sixth) location, at 12th street and Third Avenue, it’s the first on the East Side and the third that George has personally shepherded into existence.
Set to open on or around October 1, the East Village store is fairly cozy with Trader Joe’s Union Square, and wedged between two branches of that paragon of economy, Whole Foods. Zoitas doesn’t seem concerned. “I feel like our margins beat everybody on the block,” he says. “We have the bourgie-ness. Our build-outs are extensive, and clean. We don’t cut any corners and our price point is great.”
Besides, he says, Westside has historically thrived on competition with Citarella, Zabar’s, Fairway, and Gristedes. “My dad would tell me stories about him and Fairway—when it wasn’t public, it was just a family shop back then—the way they used to compete. They used to go and see the prices on bananas, then lower theirs by five cents. The good old days!”
One of the things that sets Westside apart, he says, is “the strongest prepared food in Manhattan.” He’d be churlish if he said otherwise—the grocery’s executive chef is, after all, his mother. Almost everything is made in-house by Mrs. Zoitas herself or according to her recipes. “My mom, if you look at her Facebook, she posts like 30 million recipes a day,” says George. (Research suggests this is correct, although it was all Greek to me.)
Thus the spacious industrial kitchen in the new location’s basement, which has an entire annex for “the juicing department” (“They just juice all day in here,” says George, helpfully).
Obviously, times have changed since the 110th St location was taken over by Ioannis Zoitas in 1977. “My dad was all about canned goods and rice and beans. Kraft or whatever,” says George. “There was one type of milk, one type of eggs, one type of yogurt. Now there’s 40 milks, there’s 150 yogurts. People are becoming more conscious of what they’re putting in their bodies.” Along with the fresh juice emporium (which will greet customers as soon as they step through the door), the East Village store also has a pair of pizza ovens tucked into the prepared foods section.
Each Westside Market has its own buyer who buys directly from as many as 300 vendors — and they don’t hesitate to be adventurous. Vita Coco and Justin’s are just a couple of the brands that got early exposure in the store. “We’ll send a check out for $60 to some guy that has Costa Rican coffee,” chortles George. “No one else is gonna bother.”
Speaking of coffee, there’ll be a grab-and-go station, and eventually WiFi for those who want to sit and stay a while.
As we wander through the sprawling basement area—all shiny metal and serious-looking pressure gauges—George introduces us to the generator room, calling the mass of pipes and gauges “the most energy efficient piece of equipment out there.” He clearly thinks about eco-friendliness and energy-efficiency quite a lot, although he admits that “we’re still not sure what to do about the bag thing.” If you spend a certain amount, though, he’ll give you the cloth bag for free.
“We’ll see what happens,” he says. “We’re big enough to make an impact. With six stores, it’s worth talking about.”
Before that sixth store can open, George will have to contend with a “Rubick’s cube” of stocking dilemmas, among other things. “It’s crazy,” he admits. “I love it, though, because after you open, it’s like—I guess, I’ve never given birth—but it’s like you’ve created a child. It’s an amazing feeling.”