After nearly thirty years of life, Columbus Natural Food on 95th Street and Columbus Avenue shut its doors on Sept. 27 amid an outpouring of thank-you notes from local residents. According to store owner Chet Patel, the store’s fate was sealed by his landlord’s decision not to renew or extend his lease past 2024. “They wanted to go through with plans for a retail expansion,” he said. “More money might come in that way, and as a business owner I don’t have anything against that... but it’s just our bad luck.”
City records say that the building that housed Columbus Natural Foods was bought by Namdar Realty Group with a $49 million mortgage though Steve Kashanian from the real estate developer who purchased the building says that the total buying price was $68 million. The new owners inherited from their predecessors a project to expand and transform the space to house community facilities, potentially including other stores and a Chinese restaurant.
Both Patel and Steve Kashanian from Namdar Realty Group confirmed that the latter proposed re-offering a lease to Patel once the renovation was complete. But Patel declined the offer. “I didn’t wait to wait around for two, three years while renovation was happening for the possibility that the store might return,” he said. “No businessman would do that. It was time to move on.”
For the last several years, Columbus Natural Foods had been living a troubled existence as rents climbed up and COVID-19 and many city residents fled the city during the early days of the pandemic. With the advent of remote work many opted not to return. “[Longtime customers] moved out to different neighborhoods and said their goodbyes, said they’ll miss us,” Patel said. “And then we lose a customer that’s been in the neighborhood for 15, 20 years. We cannot gain these customers back rapidly.” Newer, younger residents that replaced them gravitated towards large chain stores like Trader Joe’s, draining Patel of business. With the lease due to expire, Patel vacated the building in mutual agreement with his landlord after several failed attempts to sell the store.
Many of the customers who continued to buy from Columbus Natural Food deeply mourned its departure. One of them, a teacher named Laurie, began to cry as she recounted hearing the news. “It’s very difficult for me personally, because it’s a central part of this neighborhood and my life in this neighborhood,” she said. “I have been there so many times, people there know everyone, and the people who work there look out for us.” Laurie had bought her Thanksgiving dinners from Columbus Natural Food for ten years; when she fell ill from COVID-19, store employees helped deliver food to her apartment.
On September 26, a day before the Columbus Natural Food was due to shut down, Laurie and Julia, one of her third-grade students, noticed customers coming and going with sad, wistful expressions. “That’s when I thought, since this store was so important to us, why don’t we end with something meaningful?” Laurie said. Using a piece of chalk, she wrote messages on the pavement expressing her love and gratitude for the store and especially to Jay, the manager who she describes as “the face that customers always see.” Julia also decorated the area with flowers, hearts, and shooting stars.
Other customers began to join in with Laurie’s encouragement, and even after she left the messages continued to sprawl across the sidewalk. By the next afternoon there was hardly any space left in front of the store. “Don’t leave us,” one of messages pleaded. “We’ll miss you so much,” said another. Many of them commended the quality of the store’s food and service. “You have the best pastries!!!” read a note above a heart.
Patel has a recently bought a house in Florida, and so he hopes to move there by the end of October to start a similar retail store there. But he will miss the customers he had in the Upper West Side, especially the more elderly ones. “Getting to know them, taking care of them, making sure they got special order items, those things were very important,” he said. “When I spoke with them at the end, with a lot of them asking what they would do without the store, I got teary-eyed.”