Once upon a time cities, even small ones, were dotted with corner grocery stores that catered to the neighborhoods immediately around them.
With the advent of the automobile these corner stores went away, especially in smaller cities in the provinces. What we are apparently left with in 2011 in Ithaca is several large chains with stores the size of airplane hangars and parking lots the size of small entirely paved countries. Look a little harder, though, and you will find eight independent grocery stores in the greater Ithaca area. Only two of them, however, are in what could be called walkable neighborhoods and they are both owned by the GreenStar Cooperative.
There are three Asian groceries in greater Ithaca: the Win Li Supermarket, the Green Castle, and the Ithaca Tofu Food Market. Although there is much overlap in their inventories, they have different emphases, sometimes based on ethnicity and sometimes on personality. All are accessible by public transportation, but are most easily gotten to by car.
Three other small locally-owned grocery stores are of the natural or whole foods variety. GreenStar owns both the Cooperative Market on Fulton Street and the Oasis in the Dewitt Mall, making them the only places downtown residents can realistically get to on foot.
Ludgate Farms is just over the Ithaca town line in Dryden on Hanshaw Road, where the neighborhood is locked in a protracted battle as to whether to put in a sidewalk and make the store more accessible by foot.
Finally, the esoteric treasure at the end of this list is AJ’s Delights, a specialty grocery in the Triphammer Mall with food imported from eastern Europe, the Russian republics, central Asia and the Middle East.
Unlike Wegman’s, Tops, and the P&C, all of these are locally-owned. They generally employ only four to six people, often family members, although GreenStar provides jobs for around 150, making them one of the top 30 employers in the county.
In addition to this political dimension, shopping in these stores also takes you back to a time when food shopping was not some sort of engineered customer experience. Corporate supermarkets have worked very hard to convince people that they should have an enormous variety of goods to choose from even though most of folks buy the same narrow selection of stuff week after week.
The Win Li Supermarket
374 Elmira Road (Rt. 13)
Hours: 11 a.m. - 9 p.m. every day
Owner Jade Li is nearly always at the register, often keeping one eye on the television where a lecturer holds forth on subjects mysterious to the non-Mandarin speaking. When questioned as to how long the market had been open, Li and a co-worker conferred briefly, shrugged, and agreed, “More than 10 years.”
As in all Asian markets in this area you are greeted at the door by the sight of piled bags of rice, which quickly gives way to four aisles of canned, bagged and jarred goods that are organized logically and grouped in a way that allows the non-adept to figure out what is what if the label happens to be entirely in Chinese.
There is a large assortment of teas, snacks and candy, canned fruits (toddy palm, jack fruit) and other prepared foods, as well as most of the ingredients that you encountered in your new Asian cookbook that likely weren’t in your spice rack, like star anise seed powder.
In one corner you will find several shelves of cultural items like red light bulbs and packets of “Hell Bank Notes,” along with Chinese porcelain plates, bowls and spoons and sturdy looking cookware.
The second room of the store is given over to fresh produce and whatever frozen food did not fit into the wall of coolers in the first room. Here you will find vegetables like burdock roots and unfamiliar varieties of radish and cabbage. Many of these are labeled only with Chinese characters, so it best if you know what you are looking for.
The Win Li also carries whole fish kept on ice and fresh cuts of meat. Some of the packaged meats and fishes include “Chinese style” bacon and dried mussels.
Two reviewers of the Win Li at Yelp.com were semi-impressed that such a store existed in the proverbial middle of nowhere. Both said that many of the items were also available at Wegman’s, but admitted that some were not.
Green Castle Korean Market
2255 North Triphammer Road (Triphammer Mall)
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m. - 9 p.m.; Sunday, 12:30 a.m. - 7 p.m.
The Green Castle has been open since 2008 and is run by the Kim family. It carries much of the same food as the Win Li, but with, of course, a heavier Korean emphasis. The market is a narrow, deep space with cultural items at the rear. The pottery is stoneware rather than porcelain, and there is less emphasis on supplying the customer with cookware.
This market does not carry a lot of fresh produce, nor does it sell fresh meat or fish, but the selection of prepared foods is impressive, all of it made in-house. The merchandise on the shelves is a mixture of foods packaged in Asia with those from the US, and quite a few of the canned fish products are from Canada.
Harryett Kim said that the store offers free delivery for orders of $50 or more. Her mother and grandmother prepare traditional Korean side dishes, collectively called “banchan,” and the well-known fermented dish, kim chee. The banchan are finely cut salads of seafood or vegetables, held together with sauces, and flecked with spices. Kim said that it is mostly college students who ask for the delivery service, largely because they don’t want to carry the food home on the bus. Most of the Green Castle’s customers are regulars. “Once people start coming in here,” Kim said, “They just keep coming back.”
Ithaca Tofu Food Market
23 Cinema Drive (Bishops Small Mall)
This market has been open for over 30 years and when you walk in here it definitely feels like it has been here that long. The place is labyrinthine and is suffused with the powerful and not unpleasant odor of food. The organization of the place is cryptic; there are at least three different locations for diverse collections of sauces. Coolers and freezers line most of the walls, and there are some smaller free-standing ones too. Inside these freezers you will find frozen fish of every description and in one cooler there were cuts of meat that looked to have been wrapped in house.
The aisles are jammed with all kinds of merchandise, including the biggest assortment of canned fish to be found at any of these Asian markets. There are also seemed to be more specifically Thai condiments and sauces here than elsewhere.
Unlike the cookware at Green Castle or Win Li, Ithaca Tofu had piles of very inexpensive woks, pans, utensils and the like. Similarly, instead of porcelain or stoneware, they sell low-priced plastic bowls and spoons with bright Chinese patterns on them.
Their fresh produce was all bound tightly in plastic wrap, but right by the door you will find a rack of seeds so that you can grow your own Asian vegetables.
GreenStar Cooperative Market
701 West Buffalo Street
Hours: 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day
215 North Cayuga Street (Oasis)
Hours: Mon-Sat 8 a.m.-8 p.m., Sundays 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
The GreenStar on Buffalo Street is pretty nearly a whole foods supermarket. It has a delicatessen, a large produce section in which nearly everything is organic, a bakery that produces conventional and gluten-free products, a large bulk food section that includes bins of everything from candy to grains, oils, and dried beans.
The dairy coolers cover most of the rear wall and include a broad selection of yogurts, cheeses, milk, and eggs. Tofu is shelved with the dairy products for good measure. In one aisle (it doesn’t need refrigeration) you will find several brands of soy and hemp (!) milk.
In addition to food products, the store has an aisle of cleaning and paper products from Seventh Generation, and a large section for supplements, soaps, body treatments, and other “lifestyle” products.
The cooperative has existed since 1971 and been at its present location since 1992. The membership voted to acquire the Oasis market in 2004. Memberships are $10 annually. Members receive a 2-percent discount (7.5 percent if over the age of 65 or if differently-abled), 10 percent off on the 10th of each month, and eligibility to take part in GreenStar’s member labor program for additional discounts. Members who take part in the labor program can receive an additional 15.5-percent off for superworkers who work two hours per week for a designated shift, an additional 8-percent discount for memberworkers who work two hours per month). Workers are asked to make a six-month commitment.
Members also vote to help shape GreenStar’s co-op policies. For example, it was the membership (which numbers more than 7,500) that decided to have the store carry meat and beer.
The Oasis market is a much smaller version of Greenstar with some fresh produce and a few bulk items. The emphasis here is on serving the health-minded consumer who wants lunch or to supplement their lunch, although one could conceivably do all their shopping here.
1552 Hanshaw Road
Hours: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day
While GreenStar is the downtown whole foods grocer, Ludgate Farms caters to the northern suburbs. The store is right over the Ithaca town line in Dryden and has a decidedly rural feel, with a gravel floor throughout, display cases made of wooden crates, antique coolers, and a translucent roof that floods the place with natural light.
Even more than GreenStar, Ludgate’s emphasis is on locally-grown produce and products, although they also have non-local merchandise. Vegetables are clearly labeled either conventionally grown or organic.
The tone of the goods varies from down-home vernacular (Buttercup cheese from Central Square, N.Y.) through high-hippie (R.W. Knudsen juices) to outright gourmet (Cabernet Franc verjuice). Compared to the Asian stores and even GreenStar, there is hardly anything that could be called junk food in here. Even the chips look good for you.
Although mostly given over to food, you can also find some cleaning and paper products, gift items, and vegetarian pet foods on the shelves at Ludgate.
Two generations of Ludgates ran the store for 37 years. In January 2011 ownership was transferred to David and Katie Quinn-Jacobs and their family, but the feeling of the business is essentially unchanged.
2255 North Triphammer Road (Triphammer Mall)
Hours: Tuesday – Friday 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.; Sunday 12 – 5 p.m.
Right next door to the Green Castle you will find a specialty store that feels like a delicatessen in New York City. The deli counter is on your right as you enter, and the display holds more different kinds of salami (Alif, bende, ehmer, piller, Venetia, and smokehouse) than you ever knew existed.
The proprietor Mike Abramyan is generous with samples because he knows that familiarly named products like bologna will be different if you buy them from him. His bologna is not pink and rubbery, but instead the color of nicely cooked pork and has a rich, meaty taste. Throughout the store there are familiar products like mayonnaise and dumplings (“ravioli”) that Abramyan assures you will taste different because they are Russian. (It is implicit here that “different” is his polite way of saying “better.”)
Many of the items in the store are likely found nowhere else in Ithaca (and few places in upstate New York). “Semga” is Russian for steelhead trout, i.e. ocean-run trout. Abramyan’s smoked semga is more delicate than smoked salmon and nearly melts in your mouth. AJ’s stocks a variety of caviars, including red caviar. You will also find smoked sprats, a tiny herring-like fish, from Latvia.
Many of the juices on the shelves are made from fruits not usually used in the U.S., like currant and loganberry. Pomegranate juice is not unheard of over here, but it isn’t usually bottled in Azerbaijan. Next to the juices are the mineral waters. A brand from Georgia (the republic not the state) is available in numbered bottles. Abramyan said that they were for unsettled stomachs; the more unsettled your stomach, the lower the number you should drink.
A cooler in the back of the store is filled with flavored kefirs and a Russian butter substitute made from kefir that has no fat and no cholesterol in it. The cheeses in the cooler with the meats are from Lithuania, Russia, Poland and Greece.
AJ’s Delights was closed for almost two years while Abramyan was out of the country. He reopened a few months ago and is still restocking the store. He drives down to New York City each Monday make his regular rounds at the wholesalers. He said that he makes a conscious effort to bring back products that you will not find elsewhere in Ithaca.