This post is one of a series of essays written for the New Amsterdam Market. Each essay stems from a conversation between the author and a vendor who participated in the New Amsterdam Market of June 29th. The essays seek to address each vendor’s (food-related) enterprise, to highlight the reality behind their commitment to sustainability, and to convey the voice and personality that they bring to their work.
Brant Shapiro probably doesn’t get interviewed very often. He is a true purveyor, a grocer, a man whose work is rarely appreciated in today’s food system. Consumers don’t necessarily consider the products in one grocery store as any more difficult to source than the products of a more “healthy” food shop. And one might assume that Brant’s store, The Health Shoppe, could get large quantities of organic produce as easily as any non-organic items. Even if we’re aware that it is more difficult, we all know Whole Foods isn’t struggling to put food on the shelves, so who’s to say Brant’s business is any different from Whole Foods?
The Health Shoppe is smaller, for one thing, and isn’t considered “gourmet.” But the biggest difference, in fact, is the shop’s dependence on an individual like Brant.
In the 1950s, Brant’s great uncle established the first health food store on Long Island. His father and uncle worked there until 1969, when they opened their own store, The Health Shoppe, in Morristown, New Jersey. They expanded the business to include four locations, each of them sites where one could find a selection of vitamins, supplements, and minerals. By the time Brant came on the scene in the’90s, a different sort of health food store was a spreading phenomenon. Bread & Circus became the largest natural food retailer in the Northeast, before it was bought by Whole Foods in 1992. And it was around this time that Brant decided to convert The Health Shoppe into a store where customers would find a selection of produce and food products, in addition to the former vitamin-rich inventory. Brant is responsible for sourcing that selection.
All the produce at The Health Shoppe is Certified Organic, as well as all the poultry, milk, and juices. The shop sells no products that contain corn syrup. Brant bases his supply choices upon his own experience and education. “I used to love fancy foods and fancy wine,” Brant said, “but the more I got into that stuff, the less fancy it got…until I hit the soil. I know the best of foods have a lot more to do with dirt than anything else.” This knowledge may be spreading, but the unique products Brant seeks to supply are still difficult to source. Brant buys cheese for the store from Mateo at Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont, and Karen at Three-Corner-Field Farm in New York; yogurt from Patches of Star Dairy in Pennsylvania; bread from Kathy at Bakehouse; and eggs and produce from John at Runnin’ Free Organic Farm in New Jersey. “Local farmers get dibs on the market,” Brant said, “but it takes a lot of coordination.” For example, Runnin’ Free Farm delivers four times a week, but other suppliers are less consistent, and may not normally sell their products to wholesale customers. “Sometimes I have to sit down with farmers and establish what they’re going to charge me,” Brant explained. “It’s sort of a big experiment.”
Experimenting or not, Brant manages to keep a lively business in Morristown, New Jersey, a town not known to be particularly progressive. “We try to educate people on the ethics of food,” Brant said, “but in general all I can do is make sure I’ve chosen carefully what to sell in the shop.” All the prepared food in the store is made from scratch, and there’s not a Heinz Ketchup or Mayonnaise bottle to be found. “We boil the chicken for the chicken salad from the bone,” Brant elaborated. “We make everything at the sandwich bar except for the hummus. And all the produce, grains, and beans are Organic.” As Brant described it, The Health Shoppe is sort of a mutant store – the busiest hour is lunchtime, and the place has a co-op feel, though it’s not cooperatively owned or operated. “It’s the way I want it to be,” Brant said, “and the way I think it has to be. For me…Well, running the store this way is exactly what I want to be doing.”
The Health Shoppe sponsors a weekly farmers market just outside the store and participates in an annual New Jersey farm tour event and open house. Morristown Hospital recently asked Brant to set up a market on the hospital grounds. While the community of New Jersey farmers and food producers is growing in strength and popularity, Brant said many customers still don’t know or ask much about the connection between the store and the local farmers, and don’t always appreciate the products or the prices. “People complain sometimes about our prices,” he said. “But if they only knew! If I took into account the time and logistics involved for getting the yogurt for example: my purchasing yogurt from the Greenmarket, carting it through the city in my cooler, to my fridge, then back to the cooler, into the store…this stuff could cost $70! But that’s where it’s at right now. These are the foods I want in my shop.”
Brant admitted he suffers from a bit of a professional identity crisis. “I’m not a producer, or a butcher, or a cheesemonger,” he said, “and I’m not just a guy who buys and sells things to make money. That’s why, really, it felt good to be at the New Amsterdam Market. It gave me some identity. That Market gave me a place as a purveyor.”