As soon as the alarm rings each weekday morning, my house is a chorus of questions. “Do I need more coconut oil on my arms?” my partner asks me. “Is there air in the bike tires?” I ask her. But our most common question, one that is perhaps the foundation of cohabitation, is “Did you put what you need on the grocery list?”
From there, it’s a mad dash to the kitchen. Phone in hand, my partner will squat in front of the fridge, surveying its contents, and then add eggs, sausages, and agave syrup to the grocery list in our shared Reminders app. I’ll take stock of the pantry, adding paper towels, penne, and seasoned salt to the list.
Because of our flexible schedules, my partner and I like to grocery shop before work. We split the list. I go to our local market, while she likes to swing by the Trader Joe’s close to her job.
The Met Foods I like to go to is on my way to the subway station in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. It carries the paper towels I love (Bounty Select-A-Size, $3.99). Walking in the store, a reflective ceiling gives the space a light-blue glow. In the summer, the windows tend to fog and you can watch from the sidewalk as the cashiers glide through their tasks in a Gaussian blur. The store always seems to be playing whichever Shawn Mendes song is popular at the moment, underscoring the sound of produce boxes getting dismantled and the idle chit-chat of the workers.
When you’re a morning regular at a grocery store, you see plenty of familiar faces. There are the early-shifters, who crack jokes while counting the cash in their drawers, and the breakfast seekers, who examine fresh rolls while sipping their bodega coffees. And then there are my fellow morning shoppers, shuffling down the empty aisles, enjoying the quiet calm of a space that’s usually frantic.
The first person I ran into on this humid day in July was James. “I come in early and get my things together,” he told me. He’s as Type-A as I am. He follows a strict schedule that includes doing all of his errands first thing in the morning. The grocery store is his first stop. “I do what I gotta do for them before they go to school or before they go to work,” he said with a sly smile.
In the back of the store, over an array of chicken breasts, I heard the familiar mutterings of someone both lost and in a hurry. Antonia was on the hunt for baby wipes before dropping her little one, Aster, at daycare.
“I don’t do the grocery shopping, my husband does the grocery shopping,” Antonia said. “I’m here out of pure necessity, it’s usually a quick in-and-out.”
Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” blasted over the tinny speakers as I carted to the detergent aisle. In the corner of my eye, I spotted a kid bouncing between aisles, showing off dance moves I’d only seen in YouTube videos. Steps away, the boy’s mother carefully compared two types of air freshener. “I’m a grandma shopper,” Delories said, winking in the way only an auntie could. “I comparison shop between [the] stores.” Morning shopping at this pace is a breeze. “Store’s empty, baby can act crazy, and he’s not in anybody's way!” she laughed.
The morning is a perfect time for the Met’s owner, Kareem Dolah, to tend to some of the more creative tasks of running a grocery store. He’s found success using Instagram to advertise the store’s offerings; the store’s account, @metfood_nostrand_ave, is up to 1,500 followers. “Lot of times people come in and they’re like ‘I don’t know what to eat tonight?’ Dolah said. “When me and my wife make something and [I] post it...I’m like ‘follow me, let me show you.’"
Today Dolah is shooting a new drink for the ‘gram. He wanted to create a skyline with the drinks and walk behind it King-Kong style. He recruited some of the cashiers to help with angles and set up the shot on a tripod-equipped iPhone.
Social media has been a way for Dolah to tap into the needs of his current and future customers. “[On Instagram], I had someone ask about oat milk. I started carrying it and let them know,” he said.
This particular Met Foods has been in Crown Heights since the early 1970s, and has seen the neighborhood transform from a segregated enclave to controversial center of gentrification.
“Unfortunately I have to hear both ends of the opinions of gentrification,” Dolah said. “Some people point their finger at me and say that we’re catering to the new wave of people.”
“My West Indians that we used to cater for dropped by almost half now,” Dolah continued. “Now it’s 60 percent, a little more than half. If they’re not buying corned beef in a can like they used to, there's no reason for me to buy it.”
Dolah is hopeful that he can responsibly run a store and serve the changing community. “I’m a food nerd… I do care… about my products and my workers,” he said. “I care about my shoppers. You can go to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s or all the new trendy shopping stores, but I try to make it more comfortable for all the people that come in here to shop.”
That care goes back decades. The entire morning I was there, I saw an older man going in and out of the freezer in the back of the store.
Victor has worked at Met Foods for 28 years. Dolah’s father taught him how to be a butcher. “I was a violent boy,” Victor said, resting his arm on Dolah’s shoulder. “I see [Kareem’s father] like my father.”
Victor isn’t the Met’s only long-time employee at the supermarket. Javier has been stocking shelves for 20 years.
“Before we don’t have organic,” he said.... “[now] big difference.”
I made my way to the back of the store, past the deli meats and the rainbow gradient of La Croix cases, to see if my favorite vegetarian burger was in stock; sure enough, there it was. I picked it up and checked the price. It was a full dollar cheaper than the competing stores in the area. I put a box in my basket and grabbed some brie.
There’s something about a neighborhood supermarket, I thought as I paid for my items and went back into the summer heat. It’s the great equalizer, a place that everyone will eventually visit, a microcosm of whatever neighborhood it is in. And in the mornings, you get to see a sweeter, slower side of that world. It’s something that you just don’t get on an after-work errand run or a weekend excursion. It’s special to weekday-morning shoppers. It’s like we’re part of a secret club, desperate to find some kind of peace in this hectic city.