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Gourmet Grocer William Poll Celebrates 90 Years Feeding the UES

By Amy Zimmer | October 20, 2011 8:03am
Two generations of Polls: Stanley, 72, with his mother, Christine, 93, who still comes to the shop six days a week.
Two generations of Polls: Stanley, 72, with his mother, Christine, 93, who still comes to the shop six days a week.
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DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

UPPER EAST SIDE — Underneath a sign taped on William Poll’s window, announcing the 90th anniversary of the Lexington Avenue gourmet shop, was another one saying, “Congratulations Mrs. Poll.”

Longtime customers, from rock stars and royalty to neighborhood families, know Christine Poll.

Even though she no longer runs the store or creates the recipes for the shop’s famous dips, sauces or other culinary delights as she did for decades, the 93-year-old doyenne still comes in six days a week, sitting for hours at a table where she plays cards or does the crossword.

“She wants to come in seven days a week, but I tell her, “We’re closed on Sunday,’” her son Stanley Poll, 72, said. Stanley operates the shop with his younger brother, James.

“I’m here every day,” Christine Poll said. “This is my business.”

Stanley welcomes her presence. “It keeps her alert and spry,” he said.

William Poll was opened in 1921 by Stanley's uncle, Angelo. The shop hopped around the Upper East Side at different venues on Lexington Avenue over the years, before settling into its current home at 1501 Lexington Ave., near East 75th Street, in 1958.

Stanley's father, William, took over the business in the 1930s and helped transform it from a corner grocer to a gourmand’s haven, for those who want home cooked food without having to actually cook it.

“He did very well,” Stanley said of William. “He had a desire to succeed and he had a tremendous rapport with people. It was exceptional. The customer base we have now extends all over the country and to Europe.”

But it was Stanley’s mother, who had studied with James Beard — and according to family lore once corrected the famous chef on a recipe — who was the mastermind behind the food. She started making frozen dinners in the 1950s, Stanley said.

It’s important to have “a good quality meal,” Christine said, as she commanded her post at the front of the store.

Her ethos of healthy cooking, using no preservatives, very little salt and no frying is still practiced. While Christine’s recipes still form the shop’s backbone, Stanley continually tinkers with the menu. He plans to soon unveil prepared steaks.

Beef bourguignon and beef Wellington were once popular frozen meals at the shop, but palates change over time along with the economy, Stanley said. Coq-au-vin, chicken pot pie and shepherds pie are popular right now.

“It’s a challenge because you’re trying to keep up. Actually, you’re trying to keep ahead,” Stanley said.

While William Poll still sells high-end gingerbread houses at Christmas that cost $700 to $900, “the economic climate has changed considerably,” Stanley noted.

“People are concerned with value. It’s no longer the flair; they want the food,” he said.

James Cooke, 36, who stopped in on a recent afternoon to buy a salad, said his father has been a loyal customer for 40 years.

Cooke no longer lives around the corner as he once did, but the Downtown resident still comes to the neighborhood for his barber and for Poll’s food.

“What’s not to like? The dips are great,” he said, “and the winter catering is off the hook.”

Stanley is proud that William Poll is still very much a family business. He works six days a week, from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., he said, because “when you have absentee management, you have absentee business.”

He added:  “We cater to clients, giving them the best in quality and service.

"If we don’t have it, just ask for it … within reason."

“Food is comfort,” he continued. “It brings out the best in people. And not to knock other gifts, but you give somebody food, you’re touching an emotional part of them.”