By Joelle Berger

Before its citywide takeover, Fairway belonged to the Upper West Side. The O.G. (Original Grocer) of our neighborhood hung its proverbial plaque on 74th and Broadway, and the rest was gourmand history. Shoppers from avenues near and far packed its narrow aisles, seeking great produce, name brands, its own brand, and reasonable prices. Even when I moved to the area just five years ago, my walking proximity to Fairway made my otherwise average apartment the subject of envy amongst my peers. In a way, its presence affirmed my decision to move uptown, away from the faster life I lived as a graduate student and closer to a sustainable routine. Life is different up here, I would say. But I do live near Fairway.

fairway2Then, the irony kicked in. Fairway expanded throughout the city and beyond. A mega outpost opened next door to my first apartment in Chelsea, with shiny aisles as wide as Costco and offerings so abundant, I could not help but experience the evils of grocery envy myself. At my location, forceful grandmas play bumper-carts at the deli counter. Aggressive shelf stockers prioritize their broccoli heads over your real one. And, it pains me to mention, but the Great Rat Infestation of Yesteryear left us deterred from our beloved olive bar for too long. Now, shopping in the treacherous lanes of the original Fairway could arguably be viewed as less of a privilege and more of a hassle.

However, there are overarching reasons to continue shopping there, reasons why we brave lines out the door every weekend and before holidays. Over time, I have set aside my grocery envy in favor of developing tactical maneuvers to conquer its madness. A successful trip requires strategy, not luck. Now, these strategies cannot all be deployed at one time. But using them will reteach your brain to remember that there are still a fair number of ways to love our Fairway.

Shop to the Nines. Expedite your trip by shopping early or late in the day, rather than on weekend afternoons or weekdays straight from work. Use 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. as benchmarks. These may not seem like the most natural times to visit, and exactly, they’re not. Sometimes, instead of cooking Sunday dinner at home, my husband and I grab a cheap bite in the area and tackle our week’s grocery list afterwards. We might lose out on one night’s meal, but the peace maintained before our hectic weeks is well worth it.

Go with the Flow. The flow of traffic, that is. Create your grocery list based on the layout of the store. For example, when you first enter, produce appears first, then dairy, then deli, and so on. I try to group items on my grocery list in the order in which I will see them in the store. This minimizes the annoyance of needing to steer against the strong current of other shoppers because I forgot the string beans.

Travel Light. Proceed with as little baggage as possible to have no strings attached while you shop. By leaving the large purse or other items at home, you need not be tied down to your cart, making it easier to grab and go with less time saying excuse me. Can you pare it down to just a shopping basket? Even better.

Look Alive. The deli, butcher, or seafood counter is no place to space out. When ready, take a ticket (if necessary) and stand by. With this crowd, admiring the fresh baked peasant bread behind you will earn you a one-way ticket to being skipped if you’re not paying close enough attention. Like many things in New York City, this is not rude – just efficient.

Use the Stairs. During peak times, the first-floor elevator area clogs up like the 72nd Street Subway Station at rush hour and can turn just as nasty. Do you just absolutely need those loose pine nuts from the second floor? Take the stairs beyond the checkout area and scoop up the few items you want in hand. Your Fitbit will thank you later. See also Travel Light, above.

Be Patient. Seriously. Grocery shopping is not an act of leisure, at least not at Fairway. The struggle is real. But when the lines stretch long, especially at checkout, take a deep breath and exhibit some patience. The folks at checkout could win an Olympic medal for how swiftly they scan goods and move people out the door. You will be on your way soon enough, with another trip behind you by the time you unpack your bags.

Joelle Berger writes about cooking, restaurants, and travel on her blog, Average Joelle. Follow her on Twitter: @averagejoelle and Instagram: @avgjoelle.


COLUMNS, FOOD | 33 comments | permalink
    1. paperpest says:

      Since Trader Joe’s opened on 72 things haven’t been as hectic at this Fairway. I moved to NYC in 1975 and became friends with someone who lived near Fairway. I loved the produce and that is why I started shopping there. I am now retired, so can pick the most leisurely times to shop.

    2. Sean says:

      Why bother?

    3. Elizabeth says:

      I have found that Trader Joe’s is a much better alternative. More organized and much pleasanter clerks. The 9-9 rule is still a good one as is the organized list. Joe’s is also CLEANER. Perhaps it is time for Fairway to clean and remodel..

      • Karen says:

        Fairway was my stop of choice for quite a while. I used to drive in from Jersey twice a month to shop at the 125th street store before I moved to NYC. But I agree about Trader Joe’s. Lines are crazy long most of the time but it’s really a pleasant stop. And for what I buy, the prices are great. I do still shop at Fairway on 74th for odds and ends on those off hours, though.

    4. Gretchen says:

      I live around the corner from Fairway and have a direct, unobstructed view of their loading/garbage-pickup zone (yes, same entryway!), and if you saw what goes on there over a 24-hr. period, you would never step foot in this rat/mice/roach-infested filthy mess called the Fairway Market. Consider the mice in the olive bin just the tip of the iceberg. So shop at your own risk. Well, ok, it might be safe to buy kitty litter there.

    5. Tim says:

      I’ve lived near the Fairway for 13 years and I have no idea what the fascination is with that store. I shop there maybe a few times a year to buy an already cooked chicken and it’s always a nightmare to get around. And I’ve never been convinced their produce or meats are that great as the few times I’ve bought stuff, its been the same or worse than the Pioneer. I’m very happy to be what most people consider “slumming it” at the Pioneer. No need for Trader Joes or Fairway. Good for most of you as that is one less person in the already overcrowded aisles.

      • geoff says:

        i keep meeting people who think pioneer is too old, too dirty.

        good. stay away. pioneer is the great neighbourhood secret and has been since 1978, when i first shopped there. same three managers, all these years.

        see ya there, tim. (i probably have, many times)

        • sam says:

          Agreed. my only problem with the Pioneer is that it’s closed on Sundays! (which is when I usually realize that I’m out of milk).

          Fairway is great in theory, but I hate the person who i become when I go into Fairway – I don’t want to be a person who wants to slap old ladies, but when I spend any time in Fairway, the bumper-cart playing grandmas make me want to tear my hair out. I’ve largely taken to getting my groceries delivered through a combo of Freshdirect and Peapod, and supplementing from the Pioneer.

          • AllofUWS says:

            Walked by on a Sunday and passing young fellow looked and said “What super market is closed on a Sunday??”…. Pioneer my friend…Pioneer

    6. marie says:

      I avoid this store if at all possible. Not only is it dirty, crowded and expensive but the employees are awful. Trader Joe’s if way better for me (I’m not a gourmet cook) and generally going to any grocery store early or late is the way to go!

    7. UWSsurfer says:

      Fairway needs to make the big trucks
      that unload all night long turn off their engines.

      There has to be some other way to keep
      their refrigeration working without idling.

      The noise and toxic exhaust fumes are horrible.

      In the spring, summer, and autumn, the Mr. Softie trucks spew out the noxious exhaust
      and noise.

      They should be made to at least vary where they park so you don’t have to deal with them everyday.

    8. Sean says:

      “It’s like no other market.” LOL

    9. Kenneth says:

      Fairway is disgusting. It’s filthy. The employees are rude and hostile. The shopping carts have dried food from 2006 encrusted in the corners. The exit doors haven’t worked in weeks. You litterally have to wait for a shopping cart because they are not replacing them when they break. They have the street and their dirty sidewalk perpetually blocked with trucks, metal carts and stacks of empty wooden pallets. Then there is that ridiculous elevator. Anyone who thinks Fairway’s produce is fresh or high quality needs to take a trip to Whole Foods to be reminded what top quality produce really is. While you are there, note Whole Foods prices. The are a lot less than they once were compared to Fairway. If Whole Foods sold brand name paper products, Vintage Seltzer and Evian, I’d probably never have to set food in Fairway ever again. There is a reason their profits and stock price are in the dumper.

    10. Tostonesfix says:

      If you’ve been to Fairway more than once, you know these things. I like their butcher but otherwise, there are plenty of places that are better.

    11. katherine says:

      I am so so sick of missing or incorrect prices at the 125th st store. Isn’t there a law that items need to have visible price stickers in NYC supermarkets? Lately, for things on sale, there are frequently signs like “2 for $4, $.65 each” (where the item price is just wildly wrong). They just don’t seem to care, which is the worst of all. Plus, now produce from ANYWHERE IN THE US is marked “local.”

      • katherine says:

        Okay, I was back at the store and realized what I thought was the “item price” is actually the “savings” so that makes sense, but labelling is still frequently missing/wrong!

    12. Sally says:

      I find it strange that there is no mention of Fairway’s kamikaze pricing tactics. For example, why is it that a box of 4-6 SOS soap pads costs several bucks ($2-3), while for one more dollar one can get a box of 18 at both Fresh Direct and Shop and Stop!!! Of course you will say that people go there for the food. I would suggest people shop there out of sheer habit. If one makes a complaint at Fairway, they act as though you just have an attitude. No, no. No suggestion is made for Trader Joe’s, which does not support local growers.

      At least Whole Foods makes no pretension about dollar savings, but they’ve learned a thing or two from New Yorkers. They’ve cut their delivery price in half, and their own brand is, comparatively, inexpensive and wholesome, and of high quality. Complaints about products or staff rudeness are written down in front of you, and you are thanked for bringing it to their attention. (What they do with it, who knows?) At least they hear you out, willingly.

    13. Debbra says:

      The prices have gone up astronomically, especially for cheap everyday things and are under the guise of “price freeze” or “two for one”, including Tropicana orange juice which was $2.79 and then abruptly changed to “two cans for $6.00”. And then there is Kraft Mac and Cheese (yes, I have children) which was $1.49 for a small microwavable container and is now “2 for $4.00″….and on and on it goes. I spoke with the manager who said the new prices came from “corporate” headquarters and LOTS of people had been complaining….clearly, he was not happy about it. Also, it’s no longer reliable in that I can’t count on the same item being on the shelf and must go back again and again to find things there. I don’t know if they think the new people living in all the new luxury high rises won’t think twice about the ever increasing prices, but I’m shopping for more and more things at Westside Market which now has some items at cheaper prices…i.e. seltzer 4 for $3 – Fairway seltzer is $89/bottle. And then there’s Trader Joe’s which is the best for prices and produce.

    14. shari says:

      I have to say that I am a longtime fan of Fairway but recently I have noticed the quality of their fresh fruit and vegetables has gone down significantly. I am constantly spending unnecessary time trying to find unbruised, unwrinkled, and firm apples, peppers and tomatoes to no avail. As much as I hate “Whole Check” — I mean “whole foods”… I think I may have to start going there for better quality. Shame.

    15. Wendy says:

      I don’t understand how people can compare Fairway to Trader Joe’s. They are two completely different shopping concepts. There’s simply no contest between Fairway’s fresh produce and Trader Joe’s. You don’t go to Fairway to buy soap pads – duh! You go to buy their produce, olive oils, cheese, prepared foods, organic choices, etc. Their variety far outpaces Trader Joe’s which deliberately limits food choices. Their nut prices are similar to Trader Joe’s. Trader Joe’s does not have fresh farm-to-store produce.

      I have NEVER waited on line at Fairway as long as I have waited at Trader Joe’s. If I see that the line is all the way back by where they serve coffee, I turn around and walk out.

      And the UWS Fairway is by far the most well organized and compact of any of them (by the way the Fairway on 125th is a split-off from the original one)

      I suggest those of you in love with Trader Joe’s read up on it – it’s owned by Aldi, The German conglomerate. Many of their food items are in fact made by the corporate biggie companies but re-branded as Trader Joe’s. Not especially healthy. Caveat emptor.

    16. Karin says:

      I only go to Fiarway when it’s too late to shop elsewhere. My regular purchases keep going up, BY A LOT: first by more than 10%, then another 10%, etc. A checker told me they keep raising prices on best-sellers to see how much the traffic will bear.
      Many surprises at the register, since items aren’t marked, and/or don’t line-up with the price tag on the shelf. It’s been so consistent for so long, I believe it’s done on purpose to trick shoppers into paying more. You’d think there’d be a law…

      They keep moving merchandise around the store. So… from day-to-day, I don’t know where to find things, nor do I know what they cost if I do find them. On many levels, it’s unsettling and unpleasant to set foot in Fairway.
      I’d rather shop at Citarella where prices and quality are predictable.

      • katherine says:

        I agree, Karin! But Citarella doesn’t have much of what i need and prices are very high. Regretfully I now prefer Fresh Direct over Fairway.

    17. Alan Goldberg says:

      Thanks so much for this!
      At least it’s better now than before the expansion a number of years ago, when it really seemed a madhouse. My sister has a friend who claimed to witness one customer beaning another with an eggplant.
      My own method now is, like you, to shop in strict order of the layout. But the biggest change I made a couple of years ago was to get a cart, enter, take a huge breath, and then go slow and steady, as Zen as possible, until checkout.

    18. lauren says:

      A few weeks ago I bought a large (8 or so pound)brisket at Fairway that cost over $100!!! I was in a rush and didn’t discover it until I got to the register. By that time, I was so hurried, I just bought it and left. You can imagine my outrage when I got it home and had to trim AT LEAST 3 pounds of fat off of it. And I left plenty of fat on for the cooking as well. The brisket fed 5 people tops. Never will I buy meat at fairway again, or anything else if I can help it. Sad because I have shopped there for so many years.

    19. prof. malcontent says:


    20. Jenny says:

      Not only are the prices always wrong (one time they tried to charge me $10 for 3.49 item!), last week they rang up one item twice…a $5 item. The cashier sent me to the supervisor for a ‘store credit’. The supervisor offered me the credit per policy…which I refused. She was half-smiling when she said it because she knew no one would accept that, since it was their fault.

    21. Laurie says:

      Fairway is the filthiest store in the area. I now shop at 77th street West Side Market. I was shopping at Fairway since it first opened. They aren’t competitive, they offer nothing, their fish counter is vile and their produce is disgraceful. Save your money. Go to a Trader Joe, or West Side Market. They are always pruning their produce. Fairway cakes are vile, and their prices ridiculous. When I have a chance, I take a bus down to Whole Foods Worth the trip.

    22. Laurie says:

      Fairway is not allowing me to post because I have told them the same things before. Sad commentary I would say.

    23. CTP says:

      As a long time Fairway shopper, I, like most, have a love hate relationship with it. The variety and prices, I love, the people who shop there, I hate. I hate them. I fantasize about beating them up. I cannot overstate this enough; I hate them with the white hot heat of a thousand suns. But, I have to defend the workers. The people who work at Fairway on Bway and 75th are sorta wonderful; I am surprised anyone would say they are not. Of course, there is always one person who is not on board, but, for me, 99% of the time, the fairway employees make it bearable to spend any time in that godforsaken hell hole. I often have thought about how nice they are and how hard it must be to be nice to the jerks who shop at Fairway, and that makes me even more impressed with their niceness. 100 percent of the time, a large work force of mostly good employees is the result of good management and fair employment practices, so maybe Fairway is really doing something right. Granted, they are not exactly the crazy sunshine purveyors that Trader Joe’s employs, but for what they put up with, there must be a real culture of customer service at Fairway that one might not see at your typical Grosstides or Food Emporium (I’m looking at you Bway and 90th). I just have never had a really bad experience with any employee at Fairway (I have bad experiences everywhere I go, I yell at people in the streets, I’ve reported bank tellers, I fight with PTA president, I am not an easy person) and I felt I had to defend them.

    24. Gerry Sanseviero says:

      Thanks for this article, great stuff. Only yesterday I said to a friend that Fairway is “my happiest place on earth.” Please don’t feel sorry for me, those who hate it, I walk in there and the colors of the produce alone fill me with joy.

      In my humble opinion, Fairway is a store for people who cook (not to be confused with the inane “foodie” moniker). Trader Joe’s is a place for people who like trends.

      Walking into Fairway is like walking into the back of a professional kitchen. These guys are New Yorkers, doing it right for decades.

    25. Carolyn Pellett says:

      What fun…reading this article. When I lived on W 78th from 1970’s to 1990. Food shopping was sublime! There was Zabars for coffee, Deli, and kitchen gadgets
      upstairs (Not to mention the addition of fresh baked cookies near the front door. Next stop B&H cinnamon and raisin bagels And Lox and plain bagels. On to Fairway where the freshest produce and great cheese were located. On down to Citarella, which only sold fish and seafood. For general grocery, Pioneer on Amsterdam, under the bowling alley, provided free delivery to my 3rd floor walk-up on W. 76th and to my Ground Floor Garden apt. On W 78th. I visited a Trader Joe on 71-72 St. during their first year. Unimpressed. Long for the days of yore!