Paul Gu | SIPA Class of 2017
A Whole Foods Market is coming to Central Harlem, and for many businesses within the neighborhood, a warm welcome is not forthcoming. “For small business owners like myself, the incoming of Whole Foods Market is like a death sentence,” Mr. Shamsan Mohamad, 31, who owns 121 Lenox Gourmet Deli, told Daily News. “It will eventually kill all the small business owners.”
Within two blocks of the Whole Foods construction site, there are nine fruit and vegetable cart vendors who attend to customers daily. Representing a small part of the thousand permitted vendors across New York City, they are officially recognized by the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy and New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as the “Green Cart vendors.”
First introduced in 2008, the Green Cart vendors have served fresh fruits and vegetables to the city’s underserved areas such as Central Harlem. Delivering fresh fruits and vegetables at reasonable, often below supermarket prices, the vendors increased greatly the access to and consumption of fresh produce in many low-income neighborhoods across the city. Despite their success, however, less than half of the 1000 permitted vendors remain active today.
Having been a loyal customer of the vendors on 125th Street for over a year, and having heard about the Whole Foods construction, I interviewed six vendors over the past several weeks about the status of their current businesses and how this supermarket chain would affect them in the future. Two of their stories are highlighted here.
Mohammed Islam and Mohammed Rahman, who are both from Bangladesh, have been running their business for the last four years on 125th street.
Both vendors have a lot in common: they both hand-pick fresh produce from Hunts Points Market in the Bronx, often work over seventy hours per week, and both came to New York through the diversity lottery visa, an annual federal lottery system that invites 50,000 people from countries that have low immigration rates.
Moreover, both vendors have a good reputation and a group of consistent and loyal customers within the neighborhood. “After working here for over four years, I am doing quite well right now,” said Mr. Rahman, the owner of Green Carts on St. Nicholas Avenue and 125th Street.
Regarding Whole Foods entering the block, however, they had starkly different views.
For Mohammed Islam, 53, who runs the Green Cart on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and 125th Street, the arrival of Whole Foods meant the end of his business. “As soon as I find an opportunity to start another business, I’m quitting this,” said Mr. Islam as he put his hands in his pockets, trying to keep them warm from the cold air.
Before coming to New York in 2012, Mr. Islam worked as a pediatrician in Keraniganj, an outskirt district in Dhaka, the nation’s capital.
“My family was lucky to be selected as part of 5,000 visas that were given in 2012,” said Mr. Islam while surveying through his journey to the United States. “I am thankful that my son and daughter are receiving education here. But it was sad to let go of my work as a doctor.”
Before starting the Green Cart business, Mr. Islam worked at a Midtown Candy/Convenience Store on Midtown 36th Street, where he recalls the job being boring and not well paying. After working there for several months, Mr. Islam asked his friends for help. They were already running Green Carts on 125th Street and aided him in the process of starting one of his own.
Having worked on 125th Street for over four years, Mr. Islam now says that he is doing better. “When I first started my business here, not many people knew me. These days, however, most customers recognize me and they buy their fruits and vegetables here.”
“But this business,” he continued, “It gives me a headache.”
“Look,” Mr. Islam added as he sighed and pointed at the box full of bananas, “this one box of bananas weighs about forty pounds and I have to carry boxes like this on my own every single day. Because of this, now I have problems in my shoulders and elbows.”
He continued, “This business gives me little more money than candy store work but it is still not enough. Along with my rent and other costs, I have a family to take care of and this business just doesn’t provide me with much profit.”
Despite having many loyal customers, Mr. Islam also plans to move on to a different job once Whole Foods opens next year. He even added that if he gets a new job before the end of the year, he will be glad to shut down his four-year venture.
“There is already lots of competition going on this street, dividing customers. There is literally one Green Cart vendor on every block in this neighborhood. Once that supermarket opens, who knows how many customers I will lose,” said Islam.
Towards the end of the interview, a boy named William approached the cart with his grandfather. “Give this young fella an apple will ya?” asked Will’s grandfather as he handed Islam a twenty-dollar bill.
As Will and his grandfather walked away from the cart, I observed a frustrated look on Mr. Islam. “He just gave me a fake twenty-dollar bill.” Mr. Islam sighed as he put the fake bill into the trash bag. “The neighborhood never changes. I really don’t like dishonest people… I’m ready to leave.”
While some Green Cart vendors plan to either relocate, or close their businesses upon the arrival of Whole Foods Market, there are other vendors who do not think Whole Foods will affect their businesses at all. In fact, Mohammed Rahman, 41, the owner of three Green Carts on St. Nicolas Avenue and 125th Street, considers Whole Foods Market as another competitor who will further benefit his business.
“I have no idea about this Whole Foods Market but I know this. It will all depend on the price and quality of the items. If customers find a place where they can get good quality food in cheap price, they will go over there. I will go there as well. But if they find good but expensive items, they won’t go. Instead, they will come here.”
Pointing at the products in his carts, Mr. Rahman remarked proudly that he is sure that his fruits and vegetables have the highest quality in the area. “I buy the best quality items. I pick them up myself from Hunts Points Market every morning because I want to give good quality fruits and vegetables to my customers. I don’t want to give them any bad quality stuff because if I do, regardless of how I respect my customers and charge cheap price, they won’t come back if quality is bad.” He continued, “More stores, higher competition, but they will come to where the best quality food is being sold at the cheapest prices, which is here.”
Despite his rich expression and high English proficiency, Mr. Rahman came to New York less than five years ago. “You might not believe me but back in my country, I was a secondary school principal,” said Mr. Rahman as he justified his English fluency. “Also, even though I sell fruits and vegetables here now, I have a master’s degree in Economics. But I didn’t like the job. I like this business better.”
Mr. Rahman first started working as an employee for his friend, who owned a Green Cart in Midtown. After four months, he borrowed money from his friend and started his own in St. Nicholas Ave. in 125th Street, noticing that the area would bring him higher profits than Midtown.
Now, he runs three carts and has an employee of his own.
When he was asked to share his know-how in business, Mr. Rahman said he had two rules of thumb: provide the best quality fruits and vegetables to customers, and maintain good relationship with all customers.
As Mr. Rahman and I were talking, a middle-age woman, whom Mr. Rahman referred to as “mommy,” came to buy carrots. The customer, who was 68 years old, was a retired teacher who has lived in Central Harlem for the last 32 years.
When I asked whether or not Mr. Rahman was a good vendor, she immediately responded, “I have been his customer ever since he first started here. The day when he went to get his license renewed, I didn’t know and I was so worried that I waited for him the next morning to see if everything was okay!”
Throughout our conversation, I also observed something interesting. Several customers told Mr. Rahman that they would pay him later and took items from his cart. “One time, she wanted to buy a bottle of oil from me but she didn’t have money with her. She told me that she will pay me back later and I let her take the oil,” said Mr. Rahman as he pointed at one customer. “It took her three weeks to pay back. Sometimes, it takes customer weeks. I even had one that took six months!”
As a result, Mr. Rahman accrued a large number of dedicated customers. However, as the number of shoppers increased, he also had troublesome experiences with many difficult customers.
“Some people steal items. Sometimes, customers come and they demand lots of fruits but want to pay less. One time, this person came to me and after talking for more than fifteen minutes, he said ‘oh never mind, sorry’ and walked away,” said Mr. Rahman. “The crazy thing is that I see them almost every day! They just don’t care.”
When I asked Mr. Rahman about the gentrification in Central Harlem, he said that he too noticed a slow, but steady change in his business area, but in a good way. “This neighborhood used to be very bad. I had many disrespectful customers even two years ago. Now, the neighborhood is improving. I have gentler customers.”
Even after Whole Foods opens, Mr. Rahman plans to continue with his business. “Why should I relocate? I am doing well here and in fact, I plan to do this business until I die. This business will only stop when I die.”
He indeed believes that the easy access to cheap, high quality items would keep his business above all competitors, including Whole Foods Market.
“The bigger markets might have the same or even better quality. However, I am sure that my items will be cheaper and customers will come here,” explained Mr. Rahman.
“There are many people in this neighborhood who do not bother to spend more than five minutes to shop. Especially those who want to buy items quickly, they will stop by my cart quickly, pick up food, pay and go back to their houses. They will not spend 5-10 minutes waiting online to buy three apples.”
It’s dusk in chilly early-December, and I am standing at the cross walk of the Lenox Avenue and 125th Street in Central Harlem that overlooks a six-story steel building with big posters announcing, “Whole Foods Market Harlem: Summer 2017.”
Considering how Whole Foods has contributed to gentrification wherever it has cropped up in other parts of the United States, it is clear that Green Cart vendors, along with other food vendors on Harlem 125th Street, will have to make tough decisions – to either stay or relocate once Whole Foods Markets opens. As Mr. Islam said, perhaps Whole Foods’ entry may harm the business of vendors; or it may benefit them. Whether the vendors decide to continue their business on 125th Street or not however, it is also clear that their ventures would continue.