“People like the fact that these are classic sandwiches. Sandwiches they grew up with. Before you eat one, you know what you expect it to taste like. And we respect what they’re supposed to taste like. We make a serious effort to deliver that.” -Matt Ross
When Matt Ross and Eric Finkelstein were undergrads at the Rhode Island School of Design, they thought it would be fun to open a grocery store. Years later, after a few more twists and turns, ups and downs than might be typical, they did just that. Now that Court Street Grocers in Carroll Gardens has been open for nine months, it’s probably safe to say that it was worth the wait.
Matt, Eric, and chef Andrew Burman are doing something right. They’re dedicated to sourcing hard-to-find grocery goods that have their own cult followings outside of the New York City orbit. They bring in fresh produce from a farm near Matt’s childhood home. But it’s their approach to classic sandwiches – the varieties you’d be more likely to find on a diner menu than in a specialty food joint — that has the neighborhood and sandwich fiends citywide abuzz.
We met with Matt and Eric at Court Street Grocers on a hot summer morning to learn more.
So how did you guys meet? How did you come to open this place?
Matt: We went to art school together, at the Rhode Island School of Design. We lived together at school. While we were in school we talked about how much fun we thought it would be to open a little grocery store.
Eric: We actually went as far as talking to a realtor about space, but it was kind of a joke. It would have been purely art at that time. We had no clue what we would have been getting into back then.
Matt: Ha ha. Yeah, it took a long time, but here we are.
After school we both ended up in New York. I was working at a place selling art supplies and I got tired of it, so my girlfriend and I moved to Portland Maine for a while. I worked in a cheese shop there. When we came back to New York, I started working at the cheese section at the Balducci’s on 14th Street.
Eric was working there too, so that’s when we really started hanging out again every day, and talking seriously about opening our own place. At some point Eric randomly emailed me a real estate listing for a retail space on DeGraw Street, and we decided to go look at it. That was the start. But only the start.
We ended up looking at all kinds of spaces, and we ran into all sorts of insanity. About two years ago, we signed a lease for a really cool space on Underhill Avenue in Prospect Heights.
What happened? How’d you end up here in Carroll Gardens?
Matt: (Sighs) Basically, we signed the lease and started renovating the space. We spent months working on it. We were to the point where the floors were down and the walls were painted and we were ready to start making food, when the Department of Buildings pulled the plug on us. Apparently there was some obscure code that neither our lawyers nor the landlords owners had found that said the space wasn’t legal for a food business.
The landlord talked about going for a variance, looking for ways to make it work, but it became clear that it could all take years. We realized we were going to have to start over. So we dove right back into looking around for a space. We weren’t paying rent, so it wasn’t a disaster financially – we just lost a lot of time.
Eric: And sweat. We had done all the work on the place ourselves.
But we dove right back in. We came close to signing for a place on Union Street down by the water. That became another soap opera. We were just getting manhandled by the brokers. It was crazy! The day we decided to walk away from that, we were walking down Court Street…
Matt: We had taken these walks up and down Court Street what felt like hundreds of times, pacing around the neighborhood, kind of depressed, looking for space…
Eric: And as we were walking down this block, we saw a guy hanging a ‘For Rent’ sign in the window here.
Matt: We had been through a couple of those real estate soap operas already, so we didn’t want to get excited about it, but we looked through the window, we looked at the block, and something just felt right about it. We were like, “OK, this could be good.”
Then we called the number and no one answered. We left a message and no one called us back. We called and called and called. No answer, no answer, no answer. It got to the point where we were actually staking the place out. We were literally sitting on the curb all day.
So how did you actually break through?
Eric: Eventually Matt came by one day and there was someone in here. The guy kind of sent him away, but it led to a call back from the landlord. He told us he had no interest in having a food business in the space. He had never allowed a food business here and he didn’t want one. But we managed to keep him on the phone, explaining what it was we were trying to do here.
A week later he called us and said that his wife had told him to rent the place to us. He just said, “My wife told me to do it.” So we got it and a few months later, in November of last year, we opened.
I guess you owe her a sandwich. Speaking of which, let’s get into the sandwiches. The thing everyone seems to absolutely rave about here is the sandwiches. Were they always part of the plan?
Matt: Sandwiches were always a central part of the plan.
Who comes up with the recipes?
Matt: Eric, Andrew and I do, but it’s not like we’ve invented any exotic new sandwiches or anything.
Eric: We literally sat down for about five minutes and made a list of the sandwiches we’d like to see at our dream sandwich shop on the corner.
Matt: It took a lot more than five minutes to figure out how to make them really well, but the idea was to do classics really well. We’ve got a reuben, a turkey club, a grilled cheese…We didn’t intend to invent crazy new sandwiches. People like the fact that these are classic sandwiches. Sandwiches they grew up with. They’re familiar. Before you eat one, you know what you expect it to taste like. And we respect what they’re supposed to taste like. We make a serious effort to deliver that.
Eric: And we do that by searching for the most appropriate ingredients. That doesn’t always mean the most expensive, or fanciest, or rarest ingredient. An example – on the reuben, we’d been using this really nice comte cheese, but we found that it actually tastes better with a cheaper swiss cheese.
Apparently that approach to classic, familiar sandwiches is really hard to find in New York, because people do really seem to like ours.
How about the grocery items? You’ve got a lot of stuff you don’t see anywhere else.
Eric: Even back in school, when we talked about opening a shop the general idea was to feature great products that weren’t easy to find. When we were working together at Balducci’s, we realized they had a lot of great products, but they were the same great products that were on the shelves at all the other specialty food places in the city.
We realized that was because there was one big distributor handling specialty foods for just about all the specialty food stores in the city. The more we’d look at those types of places, the more we realized that they all had a lot of the same products on the shelves. And that was because they were acquiring their stuff in the simplest way possible – through one distributor. There wasn’t any effort to find anything really unique or different.
Very early on, we decided that we wanted to start with the producers. We wanted to focus on finding really great products that just weren’t available around here, and figure out how to get them on our shelves. If there wasn’t a local distributor who carried something we wanted, we’d figure out how to get them ourselves.
How did you pick what you wanted to carry?
Eric: We just paid attention for a few years. We talked to people too. We knew we wanted to have a really great peanut butter, so we’d ask people, “What’s your favorite peanut butter?” We had a bunch of products that we’d discovered while in school, or while travelling – things that you just can’t easily get here. And we did research. We Googled.
Matt: Yeah, we’d search for things like random peanut butter blogs. We’d look for people who spend way too much time obsessed with things like peanut butter and read about their favorites. We wanted to find products that had sort of cult followings somewhere else, but that were really hard to find here in New York.
Eric: It wasn’t hard work. It was fun. You just realize that there’s a pretty big difference between what you’re presented with at a big tradeshow like The Fancy Food Show, and what people’s favorite products actually are.
Tell us about some of the products.
They’re all pretty interesting. Rhode Island School of Design is in Providence. They had this notorious mayor up there – Buddy Cianci. He was the mayor for like twenty years, and was finally busted for being totally corrupt. He now makes his own sauce called ‘Mayor’s Own Marinara Sauce.’ We had to have that. We spent like two years trying to figure out how to get that stuff down here. Lots of trips to Providence.
We’ve got this stuff called Cheer Wine from North Carolina. It’s a cane-sugar soda that you can’t find anywhere up here, and it’s really good. I don’t know how we ever discovered that one, but we tried it and we really liked it. So my parents drove 500 miles down there to get a bunch of cases. Now it’s available through a distributor, which makes things a little easier.
Another good one is Vernor’s Ginger Soda. It’s the oldest soda brand in the country. It’s really good, but it’s hard to get. There’s a distributor here who carried it. They’re a really big operation, and we’re just a little shop, so they’re always telling us, “We’ll be there tomorrow. We’ll be there tomorrow.”
He brings his clients here for lunch, but he never gets us our stuff on time!
Anyway, we just look for things that are really good but that tend not to be easy to find here. There’s something nice about discovering something good that you can’t find anywhere else.
You’ve got a nice produce selection up front. Where’s that from ?
Matt: It’s from a farm right near where I grew up in New Jersey. It’s called Melick’s Town Farm. I’ve been going to their farm stand since I was a kid. It’s not all organic or fancy, but I know them personally. I’ve known them for my whole life. I get to bring their stuff in from the farm and sell it here in Brooklyn. My parents pick stuff up and drive it in, and we have it here for the neighborhood. I think that’s cool.
The way we do things here is a little different, but for us, the more personal it is, the more fun it is.
Court Street Grocers is located at 485 Court Street between Nelson and Huntington in Carroll Gardens.