Categorized | Brooklyn, Featured, Russian

Luxury Supermarket Gourmanoff Underlines Change in Brighton Beach

The Gourmanoff supermarket on Brighton Beach Avenue. Photo by Lou Marillier/GlobalCityNYC

The Gourmanoff supermarket on Brighton Beach Avenue.
Photo by Lou Marillier/GlobalCityNYC

With its gilded chandeliers and valet parking, the newly opened supermarket Gourmanoff is a glittering symbol of the growing income disparities in Brighton Beach, the Brooklyn neighborhood that is home to New York City’s largest Russian community.

“It’s an exciting store,” said Lidya Shpilsky, a first-time shopper at Gourmanoff. Shpilsky said she enjoyed the experience, but “the fish has higher prices than anywhere else.”

Indeed, fresh salmon steaks cost $4 a pound more at Gourmanoff than in the nearby Best Buy International, a less-fancy grocery frequented by many of Brighton Beach’s Russians. Gourmanoff also boasts that it offers New York City’s widest range of smoked fish and caviar, which costs up to $700.

“It’s like they built a supermarket that is supposed to be on Times Square,” said Igor Morozov, receptionist at the Shorefront Y, a center that serves the Russian Jewish community in Brighton Beach, many of whom arrived here from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s with few financial resources.

Many of those immigrants still live in this Russian enclave of Brooklyn, which has the city’s oldest median age, 46. And according to the Department of City Planning, half of the district’s population was surviving on Supplemental Security Income or other public assistance in 2010.

For some seniors here, the $1.50 lunch served at Shorefront Y is a big attraction. That’s why Morozov believes that Gourmanoff’s owners have picked the wrong location for their enterprise.

“It’s trying to be an upscale kind of thing, but people are not going to go there.”

Across the street from the valet parking spot, several elderly women sitting on park benches agree. “It’s too expensive. The bread is five dollars,” said Alexandra Barjova. One of her companions, who declined to give her name, said of Gourmanoff: “They don’t accept food stamps on ready-made food, like the others do.”

The Oceana luxury complex on Brighton Beach avenue. Photo by Lou Marillier/GlobalCityNYC

The Oceana luxury complex on Brighton Beach Avenue.
Photo by Lou Marillier/GlobalCityNYC

This last detail was not a concern for Mila Khononov, 43, dressed in a casual blue tracksuit, who emerged from Gourmanoff with her daughter, each carrying heavy bags of food. Khononov lives right behind the park, in the 865-unit luxury apartment complex Oceana, where condo prices range from $500,000 to $3 million.

“I used to drive weekly to the Fairway supermarket in Red Hook to find organic, good quality products,” said Khononov. “Now, it is right across the street.” Along with Oceana, the neighborhood’s glitziest residence, built in the early 2000s, Gourmanoff  “adds another layer of luxury to the neighborhood,” said Khononov.

The Soviet Jews who settled in Brighton Beach in the early 70s and late 80s were fleeing a system that discriminated against them based on their Jewish identity. In the U.S., like many other immigrant groups, they settled in enclaves and started re-creating the familiar. Local stores opened offering Russian books and movies. Familiar foods were imported from the Soviet Union to stock local grocery shelves.

“Brighton Beach used to be a visit back to the Brezhnev era,” said Steven Gold, a Michigan University professor who has studied the Russian-Jewish population.

Over time, some Russian-Jewish immigrants in Brighton Beach created a “self-selected group” that valued material, ostentatious success, said Vera Kishinevsky, a psychotherapist who teaches at Manhattan College. She described their behavior as “having, for people who did not have.”

The "Kitchen Cabaret" inside Gourmanoff. Photo by Lou Marillier/GlobalCityNYC

The “Kitchen Cabaret” inside Gourmanoff. Photo by Lou Marillier/GlobalCityNYC

Some left Brighton Beach to seek greater financial success and escape from what they saw as an all-too-Russian atmosphere.  Now, the neighborhood is beginning to draw them back — some of them with the wealth to buy Oceana condos and shop at Gourmanoff, said Kishinevsky.

Gourmanoff also uses “code words such as ‘organic’ or ‘artisanal’” that make wealthier costumers feel comfortable and may attract them to the area, said Phyllis Conn, a professor at St John’s University.

Ella Sobolewsky, who opened the first of her four groceries in 1984, on the block right next to Gourmanoff, said she is not terribly concerned about the competition.

“Everybody has got their own favorite market. This is our second generation of customers,” said Sobolewsky.

Others are less sanguine. The president of the Business Improvement District Yelena Makhnin, visibly upset, categorically refused to comment about Gourmanoff’s arrival; so did the owners of the Brighton Bazaar supermarket, which stands on a corner in front of Gourmanoff.

Brighton Bazaar has long been an institution in the neighborhood, often recommended in guidebooks for tourists who want to shop for Russian products.

In contrast with Gourmanoff, there are no valets carefully parking gleaming Bentleys in front of Brighton Bazaar. Nor does Brighton Bazaar have Gourmanoff-style security guards — a hefty presence that makes the entrance look a bit like a nightclub scene with bouncers.

Gourmanoff occupies the ground floor of a former Art Nouveau theater and nightclub, and its owners kept a theater operating on one floor. The building has had difficulty obtaining a certificate of occupancy from city building regulators — a document usually required before a building opens to the public.

Last week, the city’s Department of Buildings temporarily closed the theater. On the department’s website, the building is still considered to be in violation, and a hearing is scheduled for mid-October. Since Sept. 1, 23 complaints were filed against the building — concerning everything from plumbing to electrical wiring — and seven are still active today.

The supermarket’s chief executive brushed off the complaints. “Those who complain are either competitors or jealous,” said Ed Schnayder, whose family owns NetCost, a chain of supermarkets offering low-priced Eastern-European products. “My building is built 100 percent properly,” he added.

Schnayder called Gourmanoff a “discounted luxury store” but acknowledged that its chandeliers and high-end caviar might be a “cultural shock” for many in the area.

“Oceana made a big difference in the neighborhood, and Gourmanoff probably will too,” said Schnayder.


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