Your local grocery is like your morning coffee: taken for granted, necessary, but a really good cup will stand out and keep you coming back for more. In Jersey City, we have few options: P&K Fruit Market, Shoprite, and my personal fav, Key Foods. I remember moving to JC from the city and immediately worrying about my shopping options, as I was coming from the land of Whole Foods and Fairways, but I shouldn’t have worried.

Coming from Manhattan, we had a Key Foods up the block and it was where I went for sugar, flour and maybe eggs, but not much more. Our Jersey City location could not be more different! In the dairy aisle, you have multiple oat, soy, almond and other milk and creamer options (I have my eye on a macadamia nut creamer at the moment). Now as a Heights resident, I still make my way down every week for my staples of smoothies, overnight oats and other snacks and ingredients I know I can only find there. They have recently begun a facelift, first starting with the dairy section and most recently an overhaul of the produce area which includes new refrigerated shelves, a separate organic section and a prepared foods section, great for your grab and go needs.

In lieu of the news of a Whole Foods coming to town, I was interested in how this store, which accommodates requests and rivals WF in their selections, was going to weather the competition. I recently sat down with owner Johnny Tavares and found out his philosophy, background and why he is confident that Key Foods will continue to be the neighborhood go-to. In a word, he has incredible heart and his dedication to his customers is unparallel.

Johnny’s family has been running Key Foods for years in New York and they took over the Jersey City location in 2012. He makes the commute daily from Long Island and spends full days to ensure that he is available to his team and customers. As he was observing the new crowds trickling into downtown, he realized that he needed to make some changes to the location, as this wasn’t going to be “your mother’s” Key Foods. He had just welcomed his little one and as is common with new parents, all of a sudden he was conscientious of what his baby food options were and decided to take a chance and bring in some higher end brands into the store. He brought in Earth’s Best, Happy Baby and Ella’s Kitchen, as well at white truffle oil (remember the craze?!) and organic spices, much to the chagrin of his father who was more old school in his approach to product purchasing. This was the beginning of an entire change of the store from major brands with lower quality to small, high-quality with better ingredients products which set them aside from the other local options.
Some of you may have seen my stories last week where I was making a recipe had just posted on the blog. It was full of random ingredients such as coconut sugar and cassava flour; I knew that not only that I would find those there, but many other options to substitute as well (there were at least 5 other gluten free flour options there!) Not only am I going to find what I came in for, but I have found so many great snack foods I didn’t even know were out there: hello mushroom jerky!

When you walk around the store with Johnny, you can see that it is his pride and joy. He has an open-door policy to customers and staff alike and wants the shopping experience to feel like an extension of home. If you are looking for a product and don’t see it, he will immediately jump into action and have it for you as quickly as possible, even if he has to go on a wild goose chase hunt for it. As we were walking through the store for the interview, a customer overheard this claim and decided to cash in on it, asking for yellow yams. Johnny told him to come in the next day and he would have it: what other store are you going to find that level of customer service at?! His most surprising request today was monk fruit sugar, and he not only did he find it but was excited to learn something new. Those aisles are definitely narrow, as anyone with a stroller knows, but they are packed with the most diverse products and will save you that trip into the city to find Arrow Root flour. I always want to have my own episode of “Chopped” when I’m walking through and seeing all of the options. And can we talk about the new produce area?! The new refrigerated shelves guarantee that your salads will be fresh as can be, the prepared foods have options from everything to party dips (try the bean dip!) to dinner on the go options, all prepared at a local commissary. It was very important to Johnny to have a separate section for the organic produce, otherwise if they had contact with the other fruits and veggies, what’s the point?! It’s his attention to detail and quality that sets his store apart and keeps his clientele coming back in week after week.

His dedication also extends into community involvement. One September a few years back, a local opera company approached him about doing an urban opera and using the store as one of their locations. The premise was a full day of an entire opera being performed in actual settings of local businesses: a cemetery, a restaurant, Grove street plaza and in the afternoon, Key Foods. By the time they reached the store, they had gathered a following of a few hundred people, so when they began performing throughout the aisles, that gathering followed them through the store, and for many that was their first time visiting. A complete windfall, this exposed the shop to a whole new crowd and business skyrocketed immediately. This willingness to take a chance on new opportunities and to fluidly adapt to the constantly evolving neighborhood has taken Key Foods from being just another neighborhood grocery store being the stand-out star downtown and the go-to for any and everything you could possibly want. Johnny also supports local sports team such as softball and little league, he donates to the kitchen at Grace Church and involves himself in any other way he can. He may live on Long Island, but it’s clear that his dedication the Jersey City community comes from genuine love and pride for the community he has watched grow and change over the years.

So while we are all excited for the new and shiny Whole Foods to arrive, don’t forget your local Key Foods! While both stores will have similar offerings, WF will not get to know your face, make sure that the specific products you are looking for are kept in stock and is clearly not a family owned business. One of my favorite things about Jersey City is the amount of local businesses and the loyalty of the community to them. If you have not met Johnny or his manager Luis (who is just the nicest!), the next time you are in, do yourself a favor and introduce yourself and you won’t be disappointed. Johnny feels that when you come into his store, you are essentially coming into his home and he loves to meet his guests.

Key Foods is located at 574 Jersey Avenue downtown and they offer delivery!

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