King Kullen in Riverhead is emptying the shelves.
“Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?”

King Kullen in Riverhead closes its doors today, and, despite all the grocery store upheaval that we’ve seen all around the East End in the past few months, this closing is the one that really hit me in the gut.

It’s not that I didn’t care about the other grocery stores that failed.

King Kullen in Riverhead closes today.
King Kullen in Riverhead closes today.

My first job was at the A&P in Mattituck, which changed its name to Waldbaums while staying a part of the now-bankrupt great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company.

I wrote reams of short stories about my time there, primarily because I was angry at the writer John Updike for making the A&P seem like a much more boring, stuffy and bourgeois place than it actually was.

You meet everyone in a grocery store, especially in a small town where the grocery store company has a captive audience. The place itself wasn’t so interesting, but meeting everyone in town was.

When Waldbaums in Mattituck changed hands, along with nearly every other Waldbaums on the East End, earlier this year, the cracked tile entryway was still cracked when it reopened as a Key Foods, the lighting was still pretty funky, and the meat seemed just, eh, a bit fresher.

King Kullen in Riverhead is unfortunate to be in the shopping center that Walmart vacated a couple years back, in favor of a new, nearly impossible-to-access superstore at the far west end of town, which is only really convenient if you were planning to drive from Up Island to the end of the Expressway just to go to Walmart.

My son’s first job was at this King Kullen. He started just after Walmart left, and the entire time he worked there, he heard rumors that the store would be closing soon. King Kullen’s lease expires this month, and they’ve decided to cut their losses and transfer their staff to other stores.

This is the grocery store that I walked to as a young mother, baby carriage in tow, to pick up peaches and bananas for my newborn boy. It’s the grocery store where my Aunt Marie surprised my whole new little family by letting me pack up a cart and then walk out the door while she paid the check.

It’s the grocery store I wandered while listening to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, “A Supermarket in California,” with my Walkman headphones covering my ears:

“What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!–and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?”

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?  — Allen Ginsberg

We’ve gotten pretty accustomed to super-cheap food in super-slick packaging sold in bulk from national chain stores. This King Kullen was never the cheapest alternative around, but it was always clean, the produce and meat were always fresh, and most of the people who shopped here had been shopping here for decades.

For those of us who live in Flanders, which has long suffered from a lack of decent access to a grocery store, it also served as the closest grocery store to our homes. It was the only store you could “run to” and be back in time for unexpected company to drop by.

As workers emptied out the shelves Wednesday afternoon, they wandered around chatting with customers, occasionally facing out the last few cans of peas and beans on the shelves. Most of them said they’d be relocated to other stores. All the prescriptions in the pharmacy have been transferred to Walgreens, just a little farther west on Old Country Road, which really hasn’t been an Old Country Road for quite a long time.

But the young cashier at the register was going to be looking for another job. He didn’t have a car, he said, and there was no way he could join his coworkers and commute to another store. Today, he’ll be heading out into the brave new world of post-grocery-store clerk life. I almost suggested he should read John Updike to get some pointers. I guess I’ve changed a lot too since Walt Whitman hid in Ginsberg’s meat department when my world was a fresh blank slate.

I put my groceries in the hatchback and headed home to make meatloaf and mashed potatoes. It’s going to be a long, hungry winter down in Flanders.

 

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

4 thoughts on “The Latest Casualty in the East End’s Supermarket Saga

  1. Yep, its pretty sad how “progress” keeps messing with our memories. But lucky King Kullen to have you write their Riverhead Peaches & Penumbras Elegy! I wonder – what *was* Garcia Lorca doing down there by the watermelons?

  2. Since moving back to the North Fork (Mattituck) full time in 2012 in the immediate aftermath of Sandy, I have been perplexed and angered by the lack of quality places to shop for groceries. I guess I was spoiled in Virginia with stores like Wegmans, an upstate New York based chain with no presence downstate, but in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia. If you have ever shopped at a Wegmans you understand where I am coming from. If not, you should get on the internet and google Wegmans and you will then say; Oh, now I see.
    The Waldbaums store in Mattituck to me was a disaster, in that it was always dirty inside and out. The presentation and storage of fresh vegetables, meats, and seafood looked as if the cases hadn’t been cleaned in years, causing me to “Emergency Shop” for canned goods only. As a result I had to travel to Riverhead to shop or further east to King Kullen or IGA in Southold.
    After complaints to the Waldbaums management in Mattituck and to A&P headquarters, nothing ever changed. Well, now we know why. I hope that the new Key Food store, Mattituck Market will improve the overall infrastructure of the store and offer a clean and healthy atmosphere to shop for groceries in Mattituck.
    I do feel for the employees who have lost their jobs or have been reassigned, but remember that you are the face of the store you work at and should take pride in and make sure that your work environment is clean and welcoming. You, your friends and family all shop at your place of employment.
    I guess the main purpose of this rant, is that the people of the North Fork and all over Long Island deserve a quality place to buy their groceries. If the rest of the country can offer this why can’t the East End.
    Just Saying…

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