Friday, July 16, 2010

Location, location, location

The big news in the ‘hood for the past week or so was a devastating fire in a local grocery store.

Now, given where I live, this just wasn’t any old grocery store.

Like everything else around here – gaslights, brick sidewalks, wrought iron, window boxes, and even a couple of small cobble-stoned streets – this store was ye olde quaint charming to look at:  charming awning, fruit displays on the sidewalk, bakery shelves laden with yummy looking goodies.  This store is so charming looking, it appears on some postcards of Boston.

As as with so much that looks good – brick side walks can be slippery, and cobble stone streets are completely treacherous -  looks can deceive, and this store had its share of problems.

They’ve had a couple of health violations over the years, and have been shut down for short bursts of time.

Most people in the neighborhood are aware of the store’s rat issues. This is the city, after all, and you do occasionally see the critters out and about in the evening. But a friend of mind saw a posse of them cavorting inside amidst the fruit and vegetables one night when she and her husband were strolling by. 

The son of some friends of ours worked there one summer during college, and he would talk about going on Rat Patrol in the morning to make sure that any gnawed through loose items and packaged goods were discarded.

Personally, even though this store is about a one minute walk from where I live, I stopped buying produce there years ago. They were my go-to for English muffins, Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches, and wine.  Things in cans, or things to do laundry with. And that’s about it.

When I stopped buying produce at the store, I wasn’t so much aware of the rodent problem as I was of the freshness problem.

Inspect those raspberries as I would, holding up the container at all angles to catch sight of any tell-tale mold, by the time I got them home, they were in full, fuzzy, mold bloom.  A cucumber might appear firm to the touch, but within hours it was a suppurating mess, oozing around the bottom of the vegetable crisper.

Interestingly, the guy who used to be their produce buyer showed up at the Cape as the produce buyer for my sister’s summer-local store. For the first year he was there, the produce freshness deteriorated, but Kath says that it’s back to being good. Leading us to surmise that this fellow took everything he’d learned about buying looks-okay-but-is-just-about-to-rot produce at a bargain (and selling it at a premium) with him to the Cape. But that the Cape store and its patrons wouldn’t put up with it.

Anyway, these days, the only produce I’ll buy there is a banana for tomorrow’s cereal. (Examined for tiny tooth marks, of course.)

There was also the time that I found a dead lizard of some kind in my green beans. But that can happen. At first i thought it was a long, moldy green bean. But then I saw its little legs, in full rigor mortis.

Then there was the sour milk problem.

You’d think that, as long as you checked the sell-by date, you’d be good, wouldn’t you?

Not always. Their dairy cases weren’t always cooled to the extent necessary. (Don’t know whether this was to save on electricity, or because the ancient electrical system was the problem.)

Cheese was another sketchy item.

The store carried a wide selection of imported cheese, and one day I went in, hoping to pick up a few things for a party I was going to.

Unfortunately, pretty much everything other than Cabot’s Vermont Cheddar was well past the sell-by date. When I reported this to the cashier, she asked which cheese, and I had to tell her pretty much all of it.

My sister Kath’s theory is that throughout the store’s existence – it’s over 100 years old – it has been a dumping ground for Haymarket cheese and produce that the keen-eyed Italian shoppers from the North End – little old ladies who knew how to pinch a tomato or a sniff out a rotting cantaloupe – would reject. In 1910, the merchants were probably laughing up their sleeves about the Beacon Hill haute-WASPs and their Irish servant girls never noticing the difference.

And don’t get me going on the over-under charges.

I finally stopped checking, figuring that, for every time they charged me 2 cents for a can of tuna, they were charging me $5 for a banana. It just wasn’t worth hassling every transaction with them.

So I generally took my custom elsewhere, ordering non-perishables from PeaPod, and making the 1/4 mile schlep to Whole Foods for everything else.

The story of The Great Beacon Hill Grocery Store Fire – in which, fortunately, no one was hurt; the store was open, there are a number of upstairs apartments and a number of other businesses in the block, this could have been a bad one  – got more interesting the other day when it was reported that the store owner had moved some of the goods from the burnt-down store and was trying to sell them at his other similarly quaint store in Back Bay. (Thanks to my sister Trish for alerting me to this story.)

While it was initially reported that the owner had tried to salvage produce (which might have been okay – smoke does preserve things, no?) - it was apparently some canned goods, bottled water, and cases of wine that he didn’t want to go to waste.

But of course, there are laws about such things, what with insurance claims and all that. Not to mention that something like wine that’s been exposed to the tremendous heat of a fire might have turned a bit.

Someone – I’m guessing a disgruntled (ex-)employee  - dimed the store owner on the transfer of the they-don’t-look-damaged-to-me goods.

And apparently, while the inspectors were there checking out this violation, they noticed that the salad bar wasn’t properly cooled and was covered with flies.

So they closed the Back Bay store down for good measure.

Anyway, the upshot is that the store owner, who was initially getting gobs of sympathy in the media for his fire, now looks like he was trying to pull a fast one with some of the stuff that had made it through the fire.  Plus dozens of folks who’ve never even heard of the store are seeing the online comments come in fast and furious – and most are about the rats, the limp produce, the expired cheese, and the general dirtiness of the store.  Most of those commenting confess to shopping their on occasion, even though they know about the rats, the produce, the cheese, and the dirt. It comes down to location, location, location.

Astoundingly, though, some of the store’s defenders rave about the fresh produce and the array of cheeses. Maybe there’s a parallel universe they’re shopping in, and there may well be. My husband was told by someone who worked there that the owner set aside fresh items for his favored regulars. (We got the lizard in our green beans.)

It will be interesting to see how this all ends up: how soon they’ll come back, whether the store will be cleaner, whether the produce will be more up to standard.  Great fodder for the neighborhood yack-mill, that’s for sure.

In the meantime, I’m hoping that the 7-11 – the next nearest store – will start stocking Pumpernickel. Don’t know where I’m going to get my Skinny Cow ice-cream sandwiches between PeaPod orders.


A tip of the butcher’s cap our grandfather wore to both of my sisters for their keen following of this story, and their suggestions for this post. 

As for why the store isn’t named.  Anyone who knows Boston will know exactly what I’m talking about. For anyone else, it really doesn’t make any difference. And, while I’m sure that owner doesn’t know me, he would sure recognize me as someone who’s in and out for wine, baking powder, a banana, and Skinny Cow. I wouldn’t want someone figuring out that I’m the bee-otch who blogged about him, and having him berating me, and banning me from his store. Not just being paranoid here – my sisters had the same thought.


tom rogers said...

It was a rat hole when I had to mini-shop there FORTY years ago. Maybe he will take his money and run and some one will tart it up. Oh by the way, the Irish kitchen help girls of a century ago, would not have given one rats ass that the veggies were fresh.

Anonymous said...

Outside of THAT, how did you like the store? :)

Mike Marn