The New York Times published a story by Kia Gregory about the Zoitas family, a Greek family in New York City with a popular chain of food markets that began with a single shop in Manhattan’s Upper West Side and now growing to a half dozen markets. The full story is below.
Their battle began over cheesecake.
Ioannis Zoitas and his wife, Maria, have owned a grocery store on Broadway near 110th Street-Cathedral Parkway in Manhattan since 1977. Ioannis, known as Big John, was, and remains, a firm believer in produce, fresh, out front and stacked just so. Maria took pride in cooking for her family, which she had done since she was 11 on Lefkada, the Greek island where she and her husband grew up. She cooked big meals for their three children and a crowd of in-laws at their home in Flushing, Queens. Years ago, when the house emptied and the feasts diminished as their children went off to college, Maria proposed to Big John that she sell her cheesecake at the market.
“Forget it,” he told her. “Who comes to a market to buy food already made?”
Unmoved, Mrs. Zoitas would sneak slices of her cheesecake onto the shelves. Mr. Zoitas sometimes tossed her unsold cheesecake into the trash. But, eventually, he relented.
“After she scream and scream,” Big John, 69, recounted one morning as he stood outside the produce stand, sipping coffee. “You don’t want to hear it every day,” he said, and then chuckled.
The Cheesecake War of the mid-1980s is one of many mileposts in a family business that has been unfolding for 37 years. The 110th Street store is now one of five Westside Markets the family owns, including four in Manhattan (three on Broadway and one in Chelsea) and one in Maywood, N.J. (called Maywood Market). “Maria’s Homemade” dishes, dips and desserts fill their designated aisles.
In the coming weeks, the sixth store is set to open — at 12th Street and Third Avenue on the East Side of Manhattan. It will also be called Westside Market. And it is something of a gamble: It will be less convenient to a subway entrance than the other stores, said the Zoitases’ son, George, and it will be going up against two nearby giants, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.
George, 31, and his brother-in-law, Jimmy Beleses, will run the new store.
Every neighborhood has its food culture, particularly as food has evolved from necessity to a form of identity. What sells out uptown, like rice cakes, barely budges downtown. For truffles, it is vice versa.
“It all depends on the neighborhood,” said Mr. Beleses, 40, who started cutting meat in the deli at the 110th Street store after college, and once managed the Chelsea store. “One block makes a difference in this city.”
A 64-ounce-size laundry detergent does not sell to downtowners; they want 32 ounces, the brothers-in-law said. Uptown will buy fried chicken. Downtown, it is chicken baked with bread crumbs. Uptown, Amy’s canned soups are popular.
Downtown, homemade kale chips sell better. Uptown, Kobe brisket. Downtown, seltzer barely sells.
Each store has tipping points of families, foodies, college students, workaholics, shift workers, people on tight budgets and bigger spenders. At some Westside Markets, George Zoitas and Mr. Beleses said, discounted quality products like olive oil collect dust on the shelf, while at others, the same olive oil will fly to the register.
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“Our dairy buying, our produce buying, our grocery buying, our fish buying is all store level,” said George, who talks fast and with his hands. “It’s harder, but that’s what makes us different.”
George has lived near the new market since June 2013 to learn about the neighborhood’s food mores. He shopped at markets, visited coffee shops and wine bars, and talked to residents about what they wanted in a community market.
Most of the Westside Markets operate around the clock, seven days a week. The inside of each store is designed by Big John with pencils, paper, a ruler and a few erasers. “He will rearrange a display to gain an inch,” Mr. Beleses said. “That inch creates a different eye level.”
As for the prepared foods, every dish is either made by Mrs. Zoitas, 57, or made with her recipes, although in recent years she has swapped in ingredients like quinoa, kale and wheat berries. “I think it’s good to give something to people, and they like,” she said on a recent morning at the 110th Street store as she stirred big pots of shrimp in white wine; beef tips with peppers; and chicken with onions, chefs darting around her. She also had three cheesecakes baking in the oven. “It’s a good feeling,” she said. Their daughter Ioanna, 37, sells her brand of olive oil in the stores.
At Westside Market, typically, everyone starts out in the deli — except for George Zoitas. At age 12, he was making deliveries from 110th Street.
“My father didn’t want me to cut my fingers,” he explained, pointing at Mr. Beleses with a laugh. “I guess he didn’t care about your fingers.”
The store at 110th Street now carries more than 20,000 varieties of products. There is almond milk, coconut milk, organic milk. Customers opt for low-sodium and gluten-free items. There are 48 varieties of eggs. There are more than 250 types of beer. Cheese is its own universe.
Big John Zoitas cannot help but remember when food was hard to come by.
He grew up in the village of Roupakia in Greece. “Seven boys and no food,” he said. As a boy, he worked the farm of mostly olives and grapes with his father. He recalled how he would close his eyes and smell the tomatoes. School ended after the sixth grade so that he could work, a circumstance that still stings.
When Mr. Zoitas was 26, he worked as a stock boy at the 110th Street location, then a cramped bodega under a different name, which sold basics like bread, produce, meats and canned goods to a neighborhood of mostly working-class families, who, in fits, battled open-air drug markets and rampant crime.
He bought the store in 1977 with a down payment and a vow to make installments, and changed the name to Westside Market. “It is my baby,” Mr. Zoitas said. He expanded into the vacant bar next door and into the bank building behind it. “People started to eat more quality,” he said, “and they will spend extra for it.”
Mr. Zoitas will throw up his hands and turn his head if a produce clerk stacks the bananas too high (they’ll bruise, he will fuss) or puts out anything past its prime. “I love the produce,” Mr. Zoitas said.
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Big John got his name after mentoring one of the hundreds of employees, a teenager also named John. “Little John” eventually became a co-owner of the 14th Street store. He recently died from a heart attack at 46.
There have been other somber moments. In 2013, an employee contracted hepatitis A and caused a scare. In 2000, a worker on the night shift, Raymundo Juarez-Cruz, was killed by a cardboard box compactor at the 110th Street store as he was loading boxes.
“We have had tragic losses,” Mr. Zoitas said. He added, “Our hearts remain heavy.”
Most days, Mr. Zoitas goes about his routine. On one recent morning, he stood outside the produce stand of the 110th Street store and watched. He watched as two produce clerks handled the nectarines and arranged the good ones, just so. He watched as customers bypassed his produce, or stopped for the deal of the day: stacked at the right height, and calling out in big chalk characters, cartons of blueberries “3 for $5.”
The new store will be the first Westside Market with a brick oven. There will be gourmet pizzas, maybe even breakfast pizzas, George Zoitas and Mr. Beleses said.
“He doesn’t put chains on us,” George said of his father. “It’s do and learn.”
Big John does expect everyone to know what he knows, they said, although he has eased up a bit.
“But we need him,” Mr. Beleses said. “Things that are working are things he’s been doing for the last 40, 50 years.”