New York is a city of neighborhoods. Covid has made this even more obvious. All the parts of town that are empty and hollow right now? Like Times Square? Not neighborhoods. Real neighborhoods don’t go from 1 million people per square inch to echoing, abandoned Death Star in 24 hours flat. Real neighborhoods have people and local stores, even during a global pandemic.
Local stores tell you what neighborhood you’re in, and New Yorkers are loyal to their neighborhood stores. They define where you are. You KNOW you’re not going to find Russ and Daughters in Soho. You’re not going to see a sign for “AMERICAN breakfast! Real! All day!” on Madison Avenue, like you do in front of Punto De Sabor up in the Bronx. (Hint – if you go into Punto De Sabor, do NOT order the American Breakfast. Just get the buffet like a normal person.)
We love and miss our stores, and our restaurants. The good news is that they’re coming back. Streets have been blocked to traffic so that safe-distance open-air dining can be accommodated, and New Yorkers are responding enthusiastically. Our governor, Cuomo, who thank God has a firm grip on the reins of government, is pissed off about that. Not about the al fresco dining itself, but because some restaurants are, well, pushing the limits a bit. What?! I hear you scream. In NEW YORK CITY?
Yes. We New Yorkers enjoy sailing even closer to the wind than those flag-draped, gun-toting non-masked peoples of the heartland. The difference is, we’re not suicidal. Still, we enjoy a good party more than anyone else on the planet. Except New Orleans. And Rio. Oh yeah, Trinidad. Most of Africa, from what I hear. Sorry, getting side-tracked. Must be the 105 degree heat index and the lack of human contact apart from being in the bosom of my loving family.
Anyway, Cuomo was pissed because some of the social-distancing, outdoor dining streets in New York have subtly shifted into elbow-to-elbow I-m-wearing-a-mask-but-only-on-my-chin, give-me-another-boiler-maker-Charley outdoor bars. Cuomo, by the way, is the type of politician who is shocked, shocked! when he hears about political favors in exchange for campaign finance. Even still, he continues to get New York City’s vote of confidence, kind of like that strict Dad your friend had who wouldn’t let her sleep overnight on a rock in Central Park. When you were 15, it seemed really unfair – but in retrospect, you agree that Dad made a good call.
Not every neighborhood store has reopened. The Fairway is closing forever. The Fairway was one of those iconic New York markets. During its glory years, the Fairway did everything right. Shopping at the Fairway on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving was like trying to shop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, 1999. You were wedged between five strangers for the duration.
The Fairway was a family business, and for years there was only one Fairway, on Broadway and 74th Street. The Fairway had everything you needed in that time and place (West Side of New York City between 1933 and last month). It had a huge range of very good fresh fruits and veggies. At the Fairway, if anything looked limp or unappetizing, the staff threw it out. In other stores, they sprayed it with ice water and put it in front, betting that a nearsighted, harried shopper would buy it at retail. The Fairway had shelves of local specialties – Silver Palate sauces and Sarabeth marmalade. Raspberry vinegar. Fresh meats on ice, and a really decent fish counter that thrived despite being right next door to Citarella. It had an amazing selection of cheeses and even though Zabar’s had more and better smoked fish, did you really want to walk those extra 10 blocks uptown when you could just get a quarter pound of decent Nova right here?
The Fairway had a bold logo and its own tagline, in quotes. This was before Americans forgot what “punctuation” was, and “everything” started getting “put” in “quotes”. No. This was to tell you that those words between quotation marks? Those are the words you are actually going to be saying to your friends. “Have you tried the Fairway yet? No? But dahling! It’s like no other market!”
The Fairway deli counter, like all New York deli counters, fed you while you waited. Customers lined up like cats in front of the cream factory. When your number was called, whatever you ordered to be sliced up would also be passed over to you for sampling. In fact, you could ask for a taste of anything before you bought it. I knew people who pretty much had lunch once a week for free at the Fairway.
Fairway staff was legendary. You could ask the staff anything. “Should I get the Brie or the Cheddar?” “Are you eating it or grilling it?”
“How about the Brie or the St. Albans?” “How much do you like the way ammonia tastes?” They were quick witted, and the labels showed it. You went to the Fairway as much to get a laugh as to buy huge green Spanish olives and crackers made out of birdseed.
In 1995, they expanded to Harlem and there was joy. Harlem Fairway had a cold room. Everyone who worked on 125 Street back in the day, including Bill Clinton, would go shopping just to see the cold room. There was a wall rack of Fairway coats right before you went in. Those were for the tropical flowers who can’t stand being at 32 degrees for whole minutes at a time. The cold room was genius. You don’t reach into a fridge for fish, milk, beer, soda, butter, yoghurt – no, you walked right into what was essentially a small and extremely chilly supermarket inside a larger one at room temperature. You were wearing your Fairway coat, browsing shelves of beer and stacks of homemade soups. They even kept some of the cookware in there, fer cryin out loud!
And then, something happened. The family who created and ran the Fairway sold it to a private equity firm, the Sterling Partners, in 2007.
And the Sterling Partners proceed to kill the Fairway. First off, they expanded. The original flagship decided it was also a café and a steakhouse. Fairways sprang up all over the ‘burbs where they never shoulda. They “took it public”, which means now you have lots of shareholders and lots of debt. What the hell did the Fairway need shareholders and debt for? Oh right – because the whole point of private equity is not to GROW the business but to SELL the business. That’s called an “exit strategy”. And Sterling did sell the business, in 2016, to Blackstone.
The rest was inevitable. Fairway has now bit the dust. I hope the original family made a lot of money when they sold it to Sterling. The rest of us will have to live with our memories, gazing fondly at that jar of blood-orange marmalade we bought 15 years ago for a recipe we’ll never make again. Personally, I’m keeping my eye on the Garden Gourmet up in the Bronx – it has the earmarks of a Fairway in waiting. Needs some tweaks, though. Only time will tell.