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Hidden Hell's Kitchen Produce Shop Offers Bargains Without Lines

By Mathew Katz | August 24, 2011 6:43am
Tomatoes and blueberries at Stiles Farmers Market are significantly cheaper than at its competitors.
Tomatoes and blueberries at Stiles Farmers Market are significantly cheaper than at its competitors.
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DNAinfo/Mathew Katz

HELL'S KITCHEN — A package of cherry tomatoes costs $1.50. Red grapes go for $1 a pound. A package of fresh blueberries is just $3.

Those prices, among the lowest in the city, also come without long lines — or a door.

Thrifty produce shoppers rave about the cheap fruits and veggies at Stiles Farmers Market, located under a tarp-covered wooden shack at 352 W. 52nd St.

Its fresh goods tend to be more affordable than so-called destination grocery stores like the Fairway Market, which attracts legions of bargain-hungry mobs from all over the city and recently opened its third Manhattan branch on the Upper East Side

Red grapes at the Upper West Side Fairway, for example, are more than double the price of those at Stiles. The store's cherry tomatoes cost $2.50, and its blueberries were going for $3.99.

"The prices are great," said Amy Bahrt, 60, who stopped into Stiles on her way to the Upper West Side. "It's really good produce, and the service is great."

That service comes from Steve Stile, 53, a large, smiling man with a thick New Jersey accent.

Stile inherited the market from his father, who founded it 30 years ago. The family owns another location on Ninth Avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets, as well as three shops in Florida.

"Sell cheap, sell a lot," Stile said, repeating his mantra. "Sell too expensive, don't sell nothing."

Stile gets his produce from around the globe — whatever's cheapest, but also what's high quality.

"If it's warm this time of year I'll go local," he said, "Otherwise, I'll go all over the world to get what's cheap."

Even though he brags about beating Fairway's prices, Stile says he's not surprised his market doesn't bring in giant crowds like more well-known grocery stores.

"It's a little hidden," he said. "We like it that way."

But setting up shop in a shack has its drawbacks.

Hot weather without air conditioning can wilt some veggies, and in the 1990s the Department of Buildings tried to shut Stiles down for not having a legal building in the narrow 25-by-100-foot lot.

The city eventually let the market stay, though the debacle did force Stile to consider adding a roof and doors to his shack. Ultimately, that idea didn't gain traction.

"It's a barn. That's how people like it," he said. "It's like an open-air market."

Customers shopping on Tuesday didn't seem to mind the building's shabby exterior.

"The prices are just unbelievable," said Mark Vlott, 28, who lives in the area and gets most of his produce from Stiles.

"I thought it was sketchy at first, but I haven't had a bad experience."