Grocery Girl: Opening a Grocery Store


Former Served columnist Hannah Howard has moved from the restaurant industry to grocery market biz. She'll be sharing her experience here as the Take it away, Hannah! —The Mgmt.

Things are all aflutter right now. My company is opening a new store. A new store! A whole new museum of serious food. It's a subway to a train to a bus to get there from my little home in Manhattan, for a total journey of about two hours.

I forwent the bus and walked the last leg of the journey yesterday, basking in the sunshine. It was a perfect crisp fall day, and all was well in the world.

A zealous city girl, I was charmed by suburban splendor. The leaves are all sorts of glowing, fiery colors and kids were giggling en route to school. I was glad to get out of the city. For a day, anyway.

This is No Restaurant

I've opened two restaurants before. One was a tiny wine bar in NYC. The other, a funky Philadelphia restaurant with a stunning garden in an old colonial hotel.

Both times were staggering stressful, loads of work, and fabulously rewarding. One moment I'm organizing wine storage in a mildew basement, cleaning furiously, assembling furniture, emailing press releases, lugging dozens of pounds of short ribs through the hot sun.

The next moment, there's a real live restaurant with B-list stars and quirky neighbors waiting for tables, hectic magic in the kitchen, and teams of waiters carrying sweet polenta and whisking away empty wine glasses.

The Grocery Store Is Humungous

This is my first grocery store opening, and I'm most awed by the scale. Even the larger restaurants where I've worked have been like families. Everyone knows each other and more than enough of each other's business. Here, it's hard to even find the people you're looking for.

At my restaurant openings, the VIPs were friends of the owners, neighbors, perhaps a big deal chef around town. Here we're talking Mayor Bloomberg. It's a whole 'nother ballgame.

If I thought my corporate restaurant was big, this is a monster. The store itself is giant enough to get seriously lost in. There are aisles upon aisles, alcoves for easier cart navigation, counters and twists and turns. The back end is a whole additional maze of walk-ins, kitchens, offices, and decks for receiving. There are big, fancy printers where signs the size of my apartment getting made and cut and hoisted into place.

I made a wrong turn and found myself in a whole additional kitchen I didn't know existed, a dozen soon-to-be cooks unloading boxes and rearranging counters. "Hi," they said, "Who are you? Will you help us move this shelf?"

Here's What It Looks Like

"Should the kosher rotisserie chickens be in the kosher section, or should they live with the other rotisserie chickens?"

With the big space, big staff, and wildly giant number of products come big work. Every one of about 798,983,922 decisions warrant consideration. Should the kosher rotisserie chickens be in the kosher section, or should they live with the other rotisserie chickens? Do we want the signs to hang from the ceilings, or from the walls? Do we want to close at 10, or midnight, or later?

There are loads of logistics: parking, permits up the wazoo, enough staff to make a militia.

I've been watching shelving be built one rack at a time. Lights and fridges getting installed. Towering signs printed and erected. Bags of almonds getting priced, labeled, and arranged with the utmost care.

Today, at T-minus 5 days til the big day, we're getting potatoes, apples, and onions. The flyer we went over again and again and again for days is on its way to the mailboxes of every neighbor in town. We're getting big, beautiful wheels of cheese. The coffee roaster is all shining and stunning, like a Ferrari.

There's running, and shouting. Also, there's laughter. The parking lot has a fresh, shiny layer of asphalt. There's excitement brewing. We're almost ready to go.