The Roosevelt Island Residents Association Common Council gathered in the basement of the Good Shepherd Community Center one evening in 2002. FreshDirect, a startup grocery delivery service, arrived with trays filled with fresh food and snacks, eager to make their case. But the Common Council kicked them out without listening. They kept the food, though.
by David Stone
Unwelcoming FreshDirect on Roosevelt Island
Persuaded by my wife, I volunteered for a second round with the Common Council. Our neighbors in Manhattan Park, Matthew Katz and Sherie Helstien, were active on the Council, Matt as President, and enthusiastic about the group’s possibilities.
But soon enough, we saw the light, and the rough treatment FreshDirect got from our community flipped that switch.
FreshDirect was in its infancy and, because of its proximity to its Long Island City distribution center, picked Roosevelt Island as an early trial location. That model served for all of New York City as they grew from neighborhood to neighborhood.
But if the Common Council had its way, the food delivery service could rot in Queens.
An eager pitchman for FreshDirect arrived with trays filled with fresh fruit and veggies, plus cookies and other snacks. He also brought $50 coupons for first orders with their service.
But an expected presentation never happened because the Common Council ganged up, empowered by provincialism, and refused to let him speak.
Their reasoning: FreshDirect would take business away from Gristedes, the widely disliked grocery store Roosevelt Islanders loved to hate. Complaints were constant – about stale and spoiled products at outrageous prices.
And to be clear, the community has never had a locally owned food business. We’ve had and still have several good, small food shops, and still do. But none locally owned.
And here, FreshDirect offered a legitimate option – top-quality products delivered to your door at competitive prices. The Common Council humiliated the company’s rep, kicking him out and refusing to listen.
Katz finally gave in to the rude coterie disguised as the Common Council, canceling the presentation. It foreshadowed a group where personal agendas eventually made them irrelevant in terms of community needs.
FreshDirect Thrived Anyway
Despite the insular Common Council, FreshDirect targeted Roosevelt Island and, from a local footprint, marched through the rest of the city. Today, they’re a 20-year success story.
We lived across Main Street from Gristedes, then, but were proud to become a first-year FreshDirect customer. The company’s trucks soon became familiar all along Main Street, and we saw the growth wherever we went in Manhattan.
As hated as ever, Gristedes – owned by Red Apple – eventually rolled over and let Foodtown manage where they failed. And Bread & Butter Deli and Wholesome Factory survived too, providing vital, valued services throughout the pandemic.
The Common Council? All that’s left is a rump of personal agendas for a group that has not had an election in nearly four years. Bonus points for anyone who can point to any positive actions by them in the last 12 months. Naw, make that 24 months. Or 36. The results will be the same.
What prompted this article was a flashback sparked by a gift from FreshDirect. As a pioneer customer from 2002, my wife got a generous gift from the delivery service we’ve welcomed at our door a thousand times.
We were reminded of the rude unwelcoming they got from the Common Council. How their representative was publicly humiliated still reverberates with us.
I can still see the Council members grabbing cookies and fruit he left for them, oblivious as ever to the needs of the community around them.
We grabbed the $50 coupon and used it. We also quit the Common Council forever. Both were good decisions.
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