Sunday, July 19, 2009

Supermarkets of the Catskills--How the Little Guys Compete with Wal-Mart

One of many gripes about Wal-Mart is that it supposedly eliminates competition. Here in the Catskill Mountains in the hamlet of West Shokan in the Town of Olive in the County of Ulster in the declining and falling Empire State I have a few options as to where to go to the supermarket--and it frequently is not Wal-Mart, although I respect its low prices and do take advantage of them with glee.

On the same highway as the Kingston, NY Wal-Mart, which is about 20-25 miles from West Shokan, there is a store called Adams Fairacre Farms and another supermarket called Hannaford's. Both of these stores are successful in competing with Wal-Mart because of their quality. Hannaford's, for example, has a fresh butcher shop and a fresh fish counter. They have a display with a huge assortment of feta cheese and a wide assortment of Greek Olives, not quite as extensive as a deli I remember in my childhood neighborhood of Astoria, Queens but pretty darn good. Their fresh bagels are near-H&H Bagel (of Manhattan's upper west side) quality. Adams is a local chain with excellent quality as well, and its parking lot is always nearly full.

Given this stiff competition, Wal-Mart at the low price end, Adams and Hannaford's at the higher price end, how might an IGA supermarket in Boiceville compete, especially if prices in Boiceville are high because of extra travel and delivery costs and low volume?

The quality of the deli in the Boiceville IGA is the best I have seen anywhere. It is better than what I used to get at Broadway Farm on 84th and Broadway. Their store-cooked roast beef is the freshest deli roast beef I have ever had. Zabars's isn't as good. Plus, until recently they had a daily sushi display, and it was very good. Unfortunately, their sushi chef quit. But their store-prepared hamburger patties are better than Hannaford's butcher (and Hannford's ain't bad). In fact, there is often a line at the deli. In a hamlet like Boiceville, that's an achievement. Sushi in Boiceville? When I was a child, you were happy to get a Slim Jim at the Sawkill Snack Bar not far from here. Now, the good people of Boiceville don't even need to go to Woodstock to have first rate Sushi. Who worries about gasoline prices? You never need to leave town!

But that's not all. There is an even smaller store that outcompetes Boiceville, Hannaford's, Adams' and Wal-Mart. It is called "Smoked Fish and Honey" and it's on Mt. Tremper Road just east of the Mt. Tremper stop sign going toward Woodstock. Smoked Fish and Honey is amazing.

I went there on Friday because I was told that honey comb is good for allergies and I thought I'd give it a try. "Smoked Fish and Honey" is owned by a guy named Lenny. The sign in the front looks like a private homeowner is selling Smoked Fish and Honey, but when you turn into the driveway there's an electric sign in the back and it looks like a regular store, but you can't see it from the road. The driveway is very cool, and there's a car with an imploded roof sitting there because a tree fell on it. Lenny, the bee keeper and trout smoker, wasn't in but his mother is an amazing Latvian grandma with a delightful sense of humor and wonderful old world charm. She regaled us with her insights about life. She mentioned that the tennis star from the 1970s and 1980s, Vitas Gerulaitis was her nephew (I suppose Lenny's cousin). They have a Time or Newsweek cover with him on it hanging in the store. (Tragically Gerulaitis died in a freak accident in the 1990s.)

Now here's the rub. The smoked trout at Smoked Fish and Honey is the best smoked fish I have ever had. Lenny raises much of the trout he uses himself, so it is very fresh. They hot smoke it with a special recipe. It is excellent. Likewise, the ultra-fresh honey is wonderful. I bought a jar and am floored. Unfortunately, a weasel broke into their chicken coop and ate their fresh eggs, but I am looking to buy those next time. (I have to come back to pick up the honey comb on special order.)

Now, can Wal-Mart compete with Smoked Fish and Honey? I think not. No way.

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