By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Dave Rowan passes five grocery stores just to reach Best Yet Supermarket at Frederick Douglass Boulevard between West 118th and 119th streets.
One chain is too expensive but most of them are simply not up to par, said Rowan, who lives on Riverside Drive.
"The meat is fresh here and the color of the vegetables is fresh. The stuff at the other markets looks like scraps," said Rowan. "We shouldn't be forced to eat sub-par food but it's hard to eat healthy when we are surrounded by Popeye's and White Castle."
Since its opening a year ago, the store has solicited a similiar response from customers, said advertising and marketing director Jonathan Sender.
"This community has welcomed us with open arms," said Sender. "The guests at this location are hooked on fresh foods. The driving force at this store is definitely the fish and fresh fruits and vegetables."
Central Harlem was one of several neighborhoods identified in a Department of City Planning study as an area in need of more full service grocery stores and supermarkets. Three million New Yorkers live in a neighborhood with a need for more supermarkets and grocery stores.
The lack of available supermarkets causes residents to spend their food dollars in discount and convenience stores that do not carry fresh food. The study also found that census tracts with grocery stores had lower obesity rates and that grocery stores help attract other vendors while providing jobs.
The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone gave the store, the Long-Island chain's flagship location in New York City, a $1 million loan for start-up and build out costs. Best Yet Supermarket launched in 1994 and has 10 stores on Long Island and one in Queens.
To celebrate its first year anniversary, the store handed out free coffee to customers. With three levels, including a cafe which offers free wi-fi, and hot foods, the store tries to cater to singles who don't like to cook, as well as to families.
"This store is at the top of everyone's list. We are always looking for ways to change and improve it," said Sender.
One example is a recently-opened craft beer section and more cooking demonstrations.
Seafood manager Don "Kermit" Kirman, 57, said he spends a lot of time talking to customers about how to prepare different types of fish. He gave Rowan tips on how to prepare Shark (cook them like pork chops) and advised one woman to try the Swai over the Tilapia.
"A lot of customers talk about how they like the prices," said Kirman, a retired police officer.
"I come here strictly for the fresh fish," said 84-year-old Margaret O'Neil.
Precious Adu, 27, a nurse's assistant studying to be an RN, said she likes to study in the cafe but also finds herself spending grocery money at the store.
"I live near 110th Street and there is a supermarket near me but I come all the way down here to shop because the food is fresher," said Adu.
Rowan, who picked up some Russian crab legs that Kirman introduced him to, along with crabcakes and Swai filets, said a really good supermarket "validates the community" in some ways.
"It doesn't make sense that we had tons of liquor stores and Chinese take-out restaurants but no place to eat healthier. This is better food for the community," Rowan said. "We deserve this."