A Real Ethnic Warehouse Store
Universal Supermarket - Rahway, NJ
When big-chain American supermarkets' "idea of international foods selection is carrying both Ortega and Old El Paso", it's quite a shock to step into Universal Meat Supermarket (the "meat" seems to be a holdover from its previous life as a Western Beef). Universal is a real ethnic store. As much as I like stores CitiGrocer and Supremo, they somehow don't have a true authentic feeling, and are extremely Americanized. When you enter this store, or Kam Man Foods, if you're looking for Chinese groceries, the experience is very different.
This store opened as a Food Fair, which later became Pantry Pride. It later became a Rex-Gene supermarket, followed by a Western Beef. Universal opened some time around 2005. (Most of this information came from here. Also click to see a daylight photo.) Universal clearly did minimal, if any, renovations after opening in the old Western Beef. It seems that either R-G or WB expanded into a neighboring storefront, and I believe there's another vacant storefront next to the supermarket waiting to be expanded into.
Enough talking about it! Let's step inside.
Many stores have these "walls of values", originally designed to conserve valuable backroom space, but the display has become an art form, a way for the store's staff and management to show off their talent. This store has a particularly impressive and well-displayed "wall of values".
Along the back wall is a "cafeteria", or hot foods counter. There is also a very small deli counter, neither of which was open when I visited after dinner one night.
"Checkerboard Arches" decor package. Consider the following picture of the Manasquan, NJ Acme:
I'm tempted to say that the lettering comes from an old Checkerboard Arch Acme. Let's figure out some chronology here: according to the article I link to above, in 1998, the Rahway store was still open ("Its remaining food stores are in West Long Branch, Rahway and Sayreville"). The Wikipedia article on the corporation is less than spectacular, simply stating that the chain closed in the "late 1990s". Supermarket News gives us a better look at the timeline, stating on June 1, 1998 that Western Beef was purchasing three of the Rex-Gene stores, with an option to purchase the fourth. Let's say Western Beef closed in 2000 for the sake of this argument. That puts Universal's opening in the same year, let's say, based on the general lack of renovation from WB. What makes that conclusion even more tempting to jump to is that an Acme in nearby Port Reading closed at almost the same time - in September of 2000, according to Acme Style. There's always the chance that the Port Reading Acme had gotten the Checkerboard Arch remodel in the early 1990s, and Universal bought a few key signs from Acme, and installed them in their own store, given that the Port Reading store is no longer a supermarket. It's a possibility . . .
Nah. Too much of a stretch. Here's why.
- WB closing in 2000 means they lasted just over a year. While I've heard of so-called "crash-and-burn" stores, that's too close. More likely WB made it another four or five years.
- If Universal did buy the lettering from a closed Acme, why only three signs? Why no frozen foods, dairy, meat, or seafood? The "Western Fish" awning (coming up soon) suggests it's left from Western Beef, and the matching meat awning would have been from the same time period.
- Universal clearly never had a bakery. So why would they buy a "bakery" sign, then install it over what was clearly always a general-merchandise aisle?
- Look at the lettering closely. Specifically look at the R. Notice how the bottom right corner of Universal's is on the diagonal, while Acme's is completely horizontal. There are some minor differences that suggest it is not a former Acme sign.
- Notice also how Universal's lettering is significantly thicker (as in it sticks out from the wall farther) than the Acme counterpart.
Along the back wall of the store is the meat and seafood counters. In the back left corner of the store is a packaged meat department. The corner dead-end is characteristic of Western Beef's mazes -- I mean, stores.
A few more exterior photos before we move on . . .
Is Universal rocking the boat of the grocery industry? Maybe not, but they're doing an excellent job of what they are doing: ethnic foods. Strangely enough, even though they cater to a mainly Hispanic market, the owners appear to be Indian and the store manager, whom I saw at the store, is African-American. Regardless, it's the only supermarket in Rahway, so it certainly fills a need.
Where Are They Now?: The Rex-Gene Stores
Rahway, NJFood Fair > Pantry Pride > Rex-Gene > Western Beef > Universal Meat Supermarket
2325 Elizabeth Ave, Rahway, NJ 07065
West Long Branch, NJRex-Gene > Kmart
108 Monmouth Rd, West Long Branch, NJ 07764
Rex-Gene seems to have originally shared the space with Kmart, but when R-G closed in 1998, I don't think Western Beef ended up moving in, and Kmart expanded into the old R-G.
Manalapan, NJRex-Gene > Western Beef > Elite (?) > Work-Out World
300 Gordons Corner Rd, Manalapan, NJ 07726
I don't know for sure that this is where Rex-Gene was, but it's the most likely former location in Manalpan on Gordons Corner. Key Food later tried opening a Fresh & Natural Market in a much smaller location at the other end of this mall, but failed, and Uncle Gino's Marketplace has opened in the old KF space.
Sayreville, NJShopRite > Rex-Gene > Western Beef > Drug Fair/Family Dollar > Walgreens/Family Dollar
426 Raritan St, Sayreville, NJ 08872
The ShopRite was owned by the Saker family and moved to its current location in the mid 1980s. Rex-Gene would have moved in soon after ShopRite left. The 30,000 square foot location was divided between Drug Fair and Family Dollar after WB left.
Universal Meat Supermarket2325 Elizabeth Ave, Rahway, NJ 07065
Open Daily 7AM-8PM
My Rating: ★★★☆☆