Rockaway Reflections

As someone who grew up on New York’s Rockaway Peninsula (my family has been there since the early ’60s, following many summers spent at its beach to escape an un-air-conditioned Brooklyn apartment), I view the reopening of the Key Food on Rockaway Beach Blvd. as a hopeful sign that the area will move past its lingering problems and thrive once more.

Well before the devastating Superstorm Sandy’s arrival in late October 2012, parts of the peninsula were already prey to joblessness, crime and a shameful lack of services, brought most wrenchingly to public notice when one of the community’s two much-needed hospitals closed down. As a result of such conditions, many of Rockaway’s residents – particularly the elderly, the disabled and the poor, many of them without reliable transportation – have had difficulty accessing well-stocked, full-service supermarkets offering fresh, healthy foods.

Despite a persistent cold drizzle, a festive feeling prevailed at the store’s April 4 grand re-opening, aided by a popcorn booth, a stilt-walker greeting customers, balloon characters created on demand, and tables providing samples of fruit juice concoctions and Monster energy drinks.

George Knobloch, COO of Staten Island, N.Y.-based Key Food Cooperative Inc., affirmed the importance of independent grocers like Rafael Diaz and Evelyn Vargas, the sibling owners of the store, to areas like Rockaway, since they live and work in the community, and therefore understand its needs much better than a big, impersonal chain based far away.

He noted that there are currently four Key Food stores on the peninsula. Diaz and Vargas had two Rockaway locations, both of them devastated by Sandy, and made the decision to invest in just the Rockaway Beach location, to make it better than before.

Knobloch is still impressed by Diaz and Vargas’ accomplishment in renovating their remaining store. He was there the Monday after the storm and described it as a “war zone.” (Pictured at right, foreground, are Knobloch, Vargas and Diaz taking part in the ribbon-cutting ceremony).

Growing Fast

Enterprising members like the Rockaway Beach store owners are a natural fit for the Key Food co-op, though. Knobloch describes it as “probably the fastest-growing independent grocery chain in the New York area, in terms of percent growth,” noting that it offers “a great proposition” to its membership in such areas as merchandising, IT and advertising support, while enabling them to develop close relationships with their surrounding neighborhoods.

As I left the store following the ribbon-cutting to catch the bus back home in the rain, Earth, Wind & Fire’s R&B groove “Fantasy” was playing on the outdoor PA system: “And we will live together/Until the twelfth of never …” The Ramones’ punk-rock classic “Rockaway Beach” might have been more geographically appropriate, but in its perhaps inadvertent wish that this store remain an integral part of a grateful community until the twelfth of never, “Fantasy” was the perfect choice.

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