Friday, January 9, 2009

Waterfront Market

A quick check of the NRG website and this multi-colored picture shows up proudly on the page: When the Natural Retail Group bought Waterfront Market in Key West from local icon Buco Pantelis, everyone who cares about "things local" announced the sky was falling. There was a great deal of affection for the local grocery store which operated with an emphasis on fresh and organic, but that wasn't a national chain box store. NRG has thirteen stores between Massachussetts and Key West, ten of them are in Florida, two in Maryland and the other on Cape Cod. Key West joined the chain in March 2008. Since then I have heard from Waterfront adherents that things don't look as good as before and that things are slipping, but I would expect no less. The place has lots of employees all wearing olive colored NRG t-shirts, a touch of uniformity that does strike a discordant note at the "alternative" grocery store:From the outside the store looks much the same, the same Wyland marine wildlife scene remains on the walls. The name hasn't changed either on the front doors:But inside the doors, on the parking lot side of the store I found a notice urging people to use reusable shopping bags, such that one gets 20 cents off for every such bag used, in the manner of Whole Foods the national organic chain that does operate big box stores:And the produce section still offers organics in a community that struggles with the concept of paying more (for anything) that is of higher quality:My wife's sister, the general practitioner, has come up with some bizarre "cleansing diet" for my wife's inflamed joints which consists of ten days of squash and rice only, so we laid into the squash section trying to find the most interesting range of squashes we could find. Spaghetti (which is a crime to an Italian let me tell you) and acorn and zucchini and some round knobbly thing that is probably native to New England and poisonous to anyone else. We got some help from the olive shirted Natural Retail Group employee who struck me as being cheerful and local, despite early complaints that management imported non locals to run the store after the change over:Waterfront still offers the array of yuppie sauces, oils, potions and other exotica that the Food Channel on television has introduced across the land:And the deli section still offers ready to eat meals to the delicate skinned visitors who wear their sun protective hats even indoors such is the strength of the southern sun:Some foods are so interesting they even tempt, gradually, employees to try them:Plonk (English slang for wine, often cheap) comes from around the world in proper looking bottles, enough variety to require some serious meditation:All these exotica may seem run of the mill but Key West has spent much of it's existence since wrecking went out of fashion, just getting by. Wreckers imported anything they found on ships they salvaged and any tour guide in Key West's historic homes will tell you all about where there fittings came from. Nowadays island exotica comes by food truck:And for those visitors who seek local inspiration Waterfront Market carries a few books, not just cookbooks, for inspiration:It used to be that there was a fabulous juice bar and Internet cafe upstairs in the mezzanine, but that has gone and that's a loss. One acquaintance who was a fervent Waterfront Shopper told me she was disappointed with the change as she has lost a source of products she used to like to buy there. Nowadays she looks for her sodas and soy milk at other stores, including Publix the chain store by excellence. Then there is the fact that things aren't where they used to be and that pissed some regulars off. One point the disaffected brought up to me, who is not a waterfront regular, is that the new management failed to clean up the store when they had an opportunity. They tell me the place was a mess at the end of local ownership and the building could have used a good clean.There is still art hanging around though:I'm guessing that growing pains will yield to a new generation of shoppers who will gradually forget the "old" waterfront. I remember the annual newspaper listings for jobs paying something pathetic around $7 an hour and the annual turn over of low paid staff. I am not cut out for retail work and those that struggle to deal face to face with the grumpy public have my respect, which I try to retain even when I am grumpy. They do a tough job:Besides, you can still get a decent sandwich and an organic soda and sit outside facing the water and know you are supporting, if not a local store, local workers and a very small chain in a world still dominated by mega chains. That has to count for something, and the sandwiches are still good.