Love Letter to an Independent

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After some 30 years, Sobsey’s Produce in Hoboken, NJ, has changed hands. Read one woman’s appreciation to learn what a quality retail relationship feels like to a customer and how it can’t be replicated by a behemoth.

I first heard about Sobsey’s in church. My husband and I had just crossed the Hudson from Manhattan to Hoboken, NJ, in search of slightly cheaper real estate and more square footage — to ensure a longer marriage.

I’d always seen myself as a Manhattan girl, never imagining I’d end up in Jersey. Yet in 1997, here I was. I still went to the high-end St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue when a fellow parishioner told me I could preserve a high-end palate as well by shopping for food at Sobsey’s in Hoboken, a little purveyor situated right behind the courthouse. Wow. Was she ever right. The place delivered on quality fruits, veggies, fish, chicken and steak — and more.

I can’t remember what my first impression was, because I can’t remember not going there. In the 20 years we’ve been in Hoboken, Sobsey’s was where I got everything my refrigerator and pantry desired.

I basically gave up going to grocery stores since I figured I’d rather buy the basics like milk at Sobsey’s, putting the money into Mike Sobsey’s pockets rather than a national chain. So in addition to the wild salmon (which was so good I stopped ordering it at restaurants), the sweetest plums ever, the Jersey arugula, the tomatoes that tasted like tomatoes — in addition to whatever else one gets at grocery stores —I got juice, milk, eggs, flour, sugar, etc. at Sobsey’s. The A&P only saw me when I needed paper towels and foil.

When you walked into the place, this is what happened: You entered a world of not only fabulous food but friendship. The store was run by Mike and his brother-in-law Mac. I think Mac was responsible for the soundtrack, whatever high energy, funky music was playing in the background. There was bantering with the customers, always called by name. If Mike didn’t know your name, he’d ask it. Emiliano and Juan helped with the re-stocking. The displays were always fresh and full. Nothing ever looked picked over, tired or bedraggled. Ever.

Food and Friendship

Mike was the one who got up in the middle of the night to personally pick out the produce at markets in the Bronx. His relationship to the food he sold was personal. When the family closed down the store every late summer for a few weeks vacation, that connection came to me more profoundly. Going to other organic markets in town was just different. The people who worked there did not know their produce like Mike. They did not drive in the middle of the night to select it with their own hands and taste buds. When Mike told me to get those particular blueberries or those grapes, I did. I knew he had tried them himself. And if I wavered, he offered me a sample.

When I picked out something he thought was not up to par, he yanked it from my cart and picked a better representative. It occurred to me that I was shopping in another world, a small town in another century. Who in this day and age ran a business like this?

When I asked for a delivery, Mac came to my door eschewing payment or tips. It was always ever thus. You sensed there was a belief system in place at Sobsey’s, and it centered around doing the right thing. Picking the best possible food for customers and getting to know them, genuinely enjoying the company of those who shopped there.

When Mac slipped me a free bar of chocolate or a small Little Pie Company sour cream walnut apple pie, I don’t think he did it because I had just spent a few bills. I think he did it because he liked me, and he knew I would delight at the gift.

I don’t know if Emiliano cut up others’ mangoes, handing over a packet of neatly diced fruit that I would have mangled at home. But it felt like an act of friendship when he did it for me.
I remember saying to my husband, after we moved, that we never ate this well in Manhattan. That if Sobsey’s ever closed, God forbid, we would have to move. And so there was a faint thud in my heart when a year or so ago I joked with Sohiela, Mike’s wife and partner in making the place look lovely with fresh arrangements and hand-picked gift baskets, that they could never go on vacation again. There was just no substitute for Sobsey’s. I couldn’t eat in Hoboken without them. “What are you going to do when we retire?” she laughed. Oh no.

Of course, after some 30 years of setting his alarm for 3 a.m., of keeping the shop open 7 days a week, Mike deserved a rest. But that didn’t mean I had to like it. When word leaked out earlier this year that Mike would start sleeping in a bit after he found a suitable person to buy the business, I had to tell him how mad I was about this. He smiled. But I knew the die was cast.

So now there are new owners at Sobsey’s. And they intend to keep the business going. But I have to say, shopping there was a singular experience. An exercise in good food and friendship — a feeling that no money can buy.

Melissa Roberson is a New York Times Best-Selling author who writes for Guideposts and WeightWatchers.com. She’s been a columnist and editor for Prevention, The New York Times and Time Inc.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine December 2017

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