Eli’s Best

On 80th Street and 3rd Avenue in New York City stands the latest brainchild of Eli Zabar, known for his success at Zabar’s, the venerable Upper West Side food institution. His new operation, simply called Eli’s, takes his recent Vinegar Factory concept to the next level. The Vinegar Factory is wonderful but quirky; everything about it is rooted in its origins as a converted vinegar factory.

Eli’s, however, is at the base of an apartment tower in the kind of real estate available in every urban area. In this sense, Eli’s has rollout potential in a way The Vinegar Factory never did. The new facility consists of two levels with a forced traffic pattern. The street level has a restaurant, not yet opened on the prime storefront space. An escalator or elevator takes consumers down to the main shopping level with produce, meat, cheese, prepared foods, many HMR items and much more. The consumer then is brought back up for breads, prepared sandwiches, and other items before reaching a battery of cashiers.

Eli’s is certainly a fresh cornucopia – well over 30 feet of multitier displays devoted to specialty cheese, for example. The bakery items are a showcase, and the produce shows evidence of a real search for not merely the different, but good. Lots of nice consumer information, particularly on the cheeses, explains not merely the usage but the historical derivation of names.

What enchants about Eli’s is the constant reminder that it is run by a foodie. All too often, I visit facilities trying to distinguish themselves by carrying broad ranges of specialty items, but, unfortunately, knowing nothing about the stuff. As a result, the product mix seems like an assortment of things that are rarely sold, mostly because it is so bad. Not at Eli’s. It has unusual items to be sure, but items seem selected by someone who actually grew up loving food. There are, after all, advantages to being a Zabar.

Perhaps as interesting as what is carried is what is not. There are plenty of beverages, but one can’t buy a Snapple or a Coke. In part, this may be due to an unwillingness to make a price comparison, easy with commonly sold products, but just as likely it is because the mission of the store is to offer consumers the best in each category.

Still, the self-confidence startles compared to most retailers. Here, the store is going to tell you what kind of iced tea is the best. In this sense, it is a retail operation more like a restaurant than a food store. It is a place where the management is selecting the item that is best, rather than trying to carry anything that might sell.

Of course not to say that there is a paucity of choices at Eli’s. In fact, I question whether the store doesn’t go too far in offering variety. There are 12 soups, for example. On one hand, offering 12 soups is a great idea. By doing so, Eli’s virtually assures that any given customer will always find a soup that he or she would like.

Yet, I can’t help but think about the experience of the big multiplex cinema operators. When these Goliaths were first envisioned, the concept was that by having so many screens, the theatre owners would offer all current movies. As such, consumers could just head over to the local multiplex, confident of a full selection. In time, though, theatre owners found that the screens could be used more effectively by reducing the number of films shown and increasing the number of showings of the most popular films.

So it may be that on some of the items, particularly those that are self-serve such as the soup bar, too many choices may make it inconvenient to get to the most popular selections that currently are still given only one tureen in the soup bar.

In many ways, Eli’s is not new at all. Much of its format and product selection has been familiar to New Yorkers for some time in the form of local greengrocers/delis with extensive salad bars including hot foods. Yet, Eli’s creates a confidence in the quality of the food and the cleanliness of operation that many of the smaller stores lack.

A big factor is that much of the prep work for the produce and salad bars is done right on the floor, thus keeping employees on their best behavior and reminding consumers that they are in a place more than a few notches above the local greengrocers/delis.

Eli’s doubtless will change. Once the restaurant opens and people learn about delivery (with a $50 minimum purchase in the served area), things will shake out in terms of product selection.

It is not likely that there will soon be an Eli’s on every corner – this is a store that sells smoked sable for $25 a pound and doesn’t think it necessary to hide the fact by quoting prices in quarter pounds. There is no reason, however why branches couldn’t work in many urban and high-income suburban areas.
Yet, the big lesson of Eli’s is not the signage or putting the prep on the floor, it is not the HMR wall or the quality of the freshly baked bread. It is that, somehow, the store makes you feel that Eli picked everything out for you and that Eli knows what he’s talking about.

There was a time supermarkets tried to make customers feel that way – remember Julia Waldbaum? But, today, with megamergers creating distant retail conglomerates, supermarket delis may find it wise to pay attention to Eli and to how he lets the customer know that the food offered at his place is not merely available, it has been selected. Food for thought.