The music playing from the speakers at Fairway on 74th and Broadway was a little too on the nose on Wednesday morning. Conflicting news reports said that iconic Upper West Side grocery might be closing along with the rest of the tristate area’s 13 Fairway stores. “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King and Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” did nothing to set an upbeat tone.
The New York Post reported on Tuesday night that Fairway had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and would close its stores. But by Wednesday, Fairway was refuting the story, saying it was in talks to keep some stores running. Shoprite was said to be considering buying and resuscitating the struggling chain.
On Wednesday customers moved through the aisles of the Upper West Side store, some seemingly oblivious to the possibly impending doom while other stocked up on coffee and bagels to pull from their freezers in the coming months. The shelves were fully stocked, the lox cases full of bright pink salmon in at least eight varieties, the sacks of coffee beans overflowing and aromatic.
Phyllis, an Upper West Sider for 40 years, and Laura, who’s lived in the neighborhood for almost 20 years, were distraught over the news.
“Maybe some hedge fund will swoop in,” said Laura, who shops for just about everything at Fairway (and gets the rest from a kosher store in Brooklyn).
“According to the local paper, Shoprite has shown interest,” Phyllis said.
“It would never be the same,” said Laura.
“Of course not,” Phyllis agreed.
Seeing me talking to customers, the manager swooped in and insisted the store would remain open as he tried to shoo me out the door. Instead of walking out, I turned into the yogurt aisle hoping he wouldn’t notice.
“Miss!” he called after me, preparing to escort me towards the door.
“Can’t I buy some scones?” I asked, gesturing towards the bakery counter.
He hesitated, apparently unsure if preventing me from accosting another customer was worth what I’d end up buying in scones ($10, it turned out). “Of course,” he said and walked away, though he would keep a watchful eye on me as I wound my way through the aisles.
Different customers had their theories as to why the store was closing. Some wondered if Trader Joe’s, a few blocks south, had provided too much competition. Others blamed rising rents. Some wondered if the chain, which at one point had planned to open some 300 new stores, had expanded too quickly. In 2016, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy but was able to bounce back.
Whatever the reasons, several customers told The Jewish Week that the store was irreplaceable.
Beatrice Farnsworth, a retired history professor who lives on the Upper West Side, said she shops for most things at Trader Joe’s but comes to Fairway for whatever Trader Joe’s doesn’t have — most importantly, great bagels. She noted the difference in the experience of shopping in the two stores. “The staff at Fairway looks sad and mildly depressed and they are not friendly,” she said, likening the experience of shopping at Trader Joe’s to “a party.”
But asked what she would do without Fairway, Farnsworth was at a loss. “I really don’t know, I don’t know what I would do,” she said. “Zabar’s is a long walk. I do go to Zabar’s for rye bread but that would be a problem. I would not like to see them close.”
“They make the best chicken salad in New York, both regular chicken salad and chicken salad with cranberries,” said Alan, 78, who has lived on the Upper West Side on and off for 20 years and buys it at Fairway once a week.
Standing outside the store on West 74th street, he said he sometimes buys his chicken salad at Shoprite when he’s upstate. I asked him if he knew that Shoprite had expressed interest in buying some Fairway stores. He was intrigued.
“It’s a little more mayonnaise-y,” he said of Shoprite’s chicken salad. “But it’s alright.”