The troubled economy has sprouted many price-conscious consumers, but when it comes to food shopping, a number of Long Islanders say saving dollars and cents isn't their only priority.
"I'd rather sacrifice somewhere else and make my kids good food," said Lisa Blanz, 44, of Oyster Bay. The mother of two is a per-diem nurse and self-described foodie who shops at Christina's Epicure, a gourmet market in East Norwich. "It's about quality over quantity."
Blanz and others like her have kept Long Island's upscale gourmet food markets alive and, in some cases, expanding.
The national chain Whole Foods Market opened its third Long Island location last month. Uncle Giuseppe's Marketplace, which has three stores, will open a fourth in Port Jefferson Station next month. Iavarone Bros. moved its Huntington store to a larger space in Woodbury last year. And Grace's Marketplace, a well-known Upper East Side shop, opened its second store about 18 months ago in Greenvale.
"Our customer is a person [who] might wait a year to buy a car or go on one less vacation, but the importance of having the best-quality food for their family is probably the No. 1 thing in their home," said Fred Paul, general manager of Uncle Giuseppe's.
Managers and owners of these markets, located near Long Island's upper-middle-class and wealthy communities and in high-traffic areas, say there remains a significant customer base of food lovers and health-conscious eaters, as well as those with environmental concerns, to support their business.
"The long-term consumer trend is toward higher-quality foods, fresh, less processed, higher-quality ingredients and more intense flavors," said Jarrett Paschel, vice president of strategy and innovation at The Hartman Group Inc., a market research company in Bellevue, Wash. "That trend, we believe, is here to stay."
Some evidence for this can be seen in Wild by Nature, for instance, which has seen its natural and organic food business continue to grow, along with the demand for food-allergy-related products, according to Joseph Brown, co-president of the Bethpage-based natural and organic supermarket chain.
Grace's Marketplace is increasing its organic selection and is creating a gluten-free section. "A majority of our customers are foodies," said Rosemarie Pacheco of Grace's Marketplace, the fourth generation of her family in the gourmet market business. "They want to know what goes into our product and how we make those products."
Quality not optional
Consumers identified quality - defined by a product working well or tasting good - as most important in assessing value, according to an October 2009 Hartman Group survey. Price ranked sixth.
Many of Long Island's gourmet-market shoppers - who, store owners said, range from celebrities and the wealthy to middle-class teachers and firefighters - seem to use a similar equation.
"I won't sacrifice food," said Marcella Burney, 52, a Syosset yoga instructor who buys fresh bread every day at Christina's Epicure. She noted her 3-year-old shoes. "I will buy less clothes. That's my trade-off."
Change begets change
Consumers may have cut back on dining out during the past year, but their busy schedules and time constraints have translated into strong sales of prepared foods, which often cost less than eating out, merchants noted.
The battered economy has affected customers' behavior in other ways, too. Instead of shopping for the week, many are shopping for a few days to avoid wasting food, said Peggy Wallace of Christina's Epicure.
Customers are buying more of her comfort food - chicken potpies, macaroni and cheese, barbecued chicken - which tends to be less expensive.
In a struggling economy these markets also have had to adjust their inventories. During the December holidays Iavarone Bros. offered a catering menu with lower-cost items such as chicken dumplings, clams and stuffed shrimp instead of lobster tails, president Joe Iavarone said.
Grace's Marketplace still stocks caviar and truffles, but customer requests have prompted the store to add more generic goods, like Jif peanut butter and Arizona iced tea.
"We're trying, without sacrificing quality, to accommodate everyone's budgets," Pacheco said.