Astoria residents rally to save Key Food

Astoria resident Elle Clarke has lived on Ditmars Boulevard for decades. Like many of her neighbors, she is in danger of losing her local supermarket.

For more than 50 years, the Key Food at 22-15 31st Street has provided fresh produce, deli meats and other grocery items to the community.

But the supermarket, along with a row of stores on the busy commercial block, is set to be demolished to make room for a three-story commercial building, anchored by a Target.

For residents like Clarke, the closing of the centrally located market would be a nightmare. She was shocked and upset when she learned that it might close.

“You get off the subway at night, you come down the stairs, you go to Key Food,” she said. “Everybody uses this place.

“I don’t understand where we’re supposed to go,” she added. “I’m dumbfounded and very upset about it.”

Clarke was among more than 100 neighbors who attended a rally on Friday afternoon to save the Key Food. Local elected officials spoke about the importance of the grocery store to the neighborhood.

State Senator Michael Gianaris, who shops regularly at the location, said losing the store would hit seniors hard.

“It’s the only supermarket in this immediate vicinity where seniors can walk, get their groceries and walk home,” he said. “Many of the seniors who are so used to getting their produce here would be lost without it.”

The closest options are a Trade Fair at 37th Street and Ditmars Boulevard, Best Market at 20th Avenue and 38th Street, or another Key Food on 30th Avenue and 33rd Street.

Former City Council speaker Peter Vallone, Sr. said his family has been shopping at the Key Food since it was first built. In addition to the convenience, Vallone said the store

offers good food and produce at reasonable prices.

“I hope my family can keep shopping here,” he said, “because I don’t know where else we would go for a supermarket like this.”

The Key Food is also home to dozens of union jobs, according to Tony Speelman, president UFCW Local 1500, the grocery workers union. Those jobs come with pensions, benefits and guaranteed schedules.

Speelman said while most unions fight grocery store owners, they have a good relationship with owner Larry Mandell. 
“Larry is one of the bosses we can work with and get contracts every year, without a strike, without a problem,” he said. “He’s a man of his word.”

State Senator Jessica Ramos, who chairs the Senate’s Labor Committee, added that union jobs are “the economic anchors” of the community.

“We need to protect the good jobs that are here before our community starts to be built like strip malls,” she said at the rally.
Store manager Angela Stefanidis, who has been with Key Food for 33 years, started out as a cashier and worked her way up. She said the company offered her “great opportunities.”

“We have a lot of people working for us, over 100,” she said. “We’d hate to see them lose their jobs.”

Deli manager Laura Stevenson, who has served the Astoria community for two decades, added that the employees all work hard and have a great relationship with the customer base.

“We want to take care of this community the way it should be taken care of,” she said. “Target won’t do that for you, we do it for you.”

“We know most of the workers by sight, if not intimately, ” added Marie Torniali, who chairs Community Board 1. “Most of them have been here for 30 years, so they know way too much about us.”

The property, as well as other adjacent storefronts on the block, including a Subway, fitness club and deli, is owned by Brooklyn-based real estate organization Jenel Management. The company filed for a full demolition of the properties in April.

Jenel Management also owns a new commercial building across the street, which is anchored by TJ Maxx.

According to published reports, Jenel Management representatives say they have been in negotiation for years with Key Food to come back when the new structure is built. But Key Food owners reportedly walked away from talks to occupy 25,000 square feet in the building.

In response to those reports, Nick Roloson, chief of staff to Councilman Costa Constantinides, said Key Food operating out of the basement of the new facility would not be a fair deal to the community.

“Target clearly doesn’t want to share this space with anyone who provides those good quality items that you get here at this store,” he said. “They are forcing the developer, in public documents, to say they won’t share the space.”

Gianaris added that they want to impress upon Target that if they want to join the neighborhood as a responsible corporate neighbor, they have to listen to the community, which is telling them to keep Key Food.

“We’re trying to do this in a way that they understand how important this is to the community so they act responsibly,” he said.
For regular shoppers like Clarke, though Target has a grocery section, there’s no comparison to the fresh produce, cold cuts and other foods offered at the Key Food she has patronized for 30 years.

“What I would say to Target is please stay away,” she said.

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