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Special Report: Food Universe Marketplace - Passaic, NJ

Food Universe Marketplace
Opened: May 3, 2024
Owner: Kevin Kim
Previous Tenants: A&P (1970s-2001) > Food Basics (2001-2015) > Gala Fresh Farms (2016-2018)
Cooperative: Key Food Stores
Location: 514 Van Houten Ave, Passaic, NJ
Photographed: May 10, 2024
Welcome to another new Key Food store! We recently saw the new Brooklyn Fare on the Lower East Side and a SuperFresh coming soon to Highland Park, New Jersey. Now it's time for another brand-new store! And yes, we've been here before. The Food Universe space is carved out of part of a longtime supermarket -- in the 1970s, this building was constructed as an A&P, then closed in 2001 and reopened that year as an A&P-owned Food Basics. JoshAustin610 says that this was the first Food Basics in the United States. When Food Basics closed in 2015 in A&P's final bankruptcy, Aurora Grocery Group acquired the space, turning it into a Gala Fresh Farms in 2016. They renovated in 2017, but unfortunately, the store didn't make it and closed in 2018. The majority of the building became a combination Dollar Tree and Family Dollar (those stores always depress me), but 9,000 square feet on the far-left side remained vacant. Gala Fresh was affiliated with Key Food, and it's possible Key Food held the lease and sublet to Gala Fresh (that's a pretty common arrangement for members of a cooperative, the cooperative leases and then the operator sublets from the cooperative). In that case, Key Food might have held onto the lease and transferred part of the space to another owner, in this case, Kevin Kim. Kim built an expansion out the left side of the building, bringing the space to a total of 16,000 square feet.
Kim first owned Associated supermarkets in Queens, eventually joining Key Food around 2014. He later opened locations in New Brunswick (Key Food 2015-2017, SuperFresh 2017-2019), Fairview (Key Food 2016-2017, SuperFresh 2017-2018, Freshway 2018-2019; now a City Supermarket), Garwood (The Food Emporium 2016-2017, SuperFresh 2017, now a LIDL), Edison (2016-2017, now Lotte Plaza), Staten Island (Food Universe 2016-2018, Freshway 2018-2019), Belleville (2017-2019, now a LIDL), and Plainsboro (2018, now Asian Food Markets). Well, none of those went so well, and my guess is that he simply expanded his business too quickly and couldn't support all of those new stores so fast. By 2020, Kim had closed or sold all of his remaining supermarkets, but later that year, bought one more -- the SuperFresh in Bloomfield. That store seems to do fine, and it seems somewhat better-run than his earlier stores. In 2022, Kim announced a set of two new stores -- a SuperFresh each in Clifton and Passaic. That was later switched to Food Universe before either store opened, likely because Clifton and Passaic already each had a SuperFresh under different owners. Clifton's Food Universe opened in May 2023 in a former Rite Aid, and Passaic's opened almost exactly a year later with the soft opening on May 3, 2024 and the official grand opening on May 10 (yesterday).
Like Clifton, the Passaic location feels much larger than it actually is, although because of the expansion, the layout is a little bit awkward, and the store is slightly more cramped than Clifton. Still, there's a lot to offer here. I should note, too, that I haven't been to the Bloomfield SuperFresh in a while but last time I was there, it was still just as clean and well-stocked as it was when it opened. I revisited the Clifton Food Universe yesterday, too, and it was equally clean and well-stocked, so I'm fairly confident that this store will remain similar to how it looks these days.
You enter to this hallway on the left side of the storefront, then turn right to enter the expansion in part of the former parking lot. This expansion is a separate room from the main supermarket, with the majority of the space taken up by produce. Deli and hot foods are on the front wall, with seafood and meat service counters on the back wall. Packaged meats and packaged baked goods are on the right side of this expansion room. In the front corner of the expansion, there's a doorway to the original supermarket building. In that room, the grocery aisles run side-to-side with dairy on the back wall and continuing down part of the last aisle on the far right. Frozen takes up the rest of the far right side of the store. It's an awkward layout, but it certainly packs a lot in given the store's very small size.
Yellow was the color proudly on display at the Clifton Food Universe, and here in Passaic, a very strong orange color welcomes us to the supermarket. I honestly can't say I hated the bright wall and floor colors in person, but I just have no idea why such strong colors were chosen -- and why, like Clifton, there is no decor at all in any of the departments. It's worth noting, as a sidebar, that the other Gala Fresh in New Jersey was just over in Paterson. That store also became a Food Universe, although it's under different owners. There is now a SuperFresh and a Food Universe each in Clifton, Paterson, and Passaic. I've been seeing a lot of ads for SuperFresh lately, especially on the sides of buses (plus some on the radio), so I think Key Food is pushing the brand as they clearly hope to expand more and more in New Jersey.
Deli and prepared foods are along the front wall, so if you look 90 degrees to your right when you walk in, you see the deli. The deli is much larger here than Clifton. These departments take us into the main supermarket building as well...
...but more on that later.
The produce department is bountiful, a really impressively large selection for such a small store. (I think about supermarkets in equivalent urban neighborhoods I've seen in other cities, and you realize just how good we have it here as far as availability of fresh foods. Many neighborhoods lack access to good food -- and many people lack the financial ability to buy it -- but in so many parts of the country, you'd never find a store with half its sales floor space dedicated to produce, meat, and seafood in a city like Passaic.)
And the produce at Clifton seemed just as expansive and good as when the store first opened, so it looks like they'll be able to keep this up.
I'm a big fan of the large selection of loose produce rather than everything being bagged or boxed or wrapped. That's one of my biggest pet peeves about a lot of big-chain supermarkets' produce departments.
A very large seafood counter is behind the produce department, with tanks being installed for live fish and shellfish behind the counter (Clifton also has these). The windows you can see to the right are for an enclosed (probably refrigerated) butcher room.
Again, quite a good selection of fish. And the meat counter is bigger than you can shake a stick at, too...
Then on the far right side of the expansion, we have frozen and refrigerated meats (as well as some more near the back of the produce department), and cold cuts and refrigerated baked goods. There's no in-store bakery.
I really am just blown away at how much they've fit in this rather small store. Then again, the emphasis is very obviously on the perishables, and the grocery aisles are pretty straightforward. Complete, but nothing too out of the ordinary.
One minor sign of a slight mixup -- some of the sushi (oh yes, they have sushi and fresh made tortillas here) had labels for the Bloomfield SuperFresh. About 2/3 had those and 1/3 had the correct labels. (I saw a few signs at Clifton with the SuperFresh logo, but mostly, that store is consistent with the Food Universe branding.)
Now over into the original supermarket building! This is the far-left side of the original Gala Fresh Farms/Food Basics/A&P building, roughly where they had frozen and dairy, along with the last few aisles. In the below picture, we're looking towards the back of the building, with the checkouts to our right. You can see that the Food Universe is significantly more compact than the Gala Fresh, but also that they pack a lot into the space.
And looking over across the front wall of the store, we have the hot food bar in the front and the registers off to the left. Customer service is in the front left corner.
The grocery aisles are pretty short. There's an additional aisle running along the right side of the store, with dairy and frozen on the outside and soda on the inside.
And you can see that there's not a whole lot to choose from as far as packaged grocery goes (although still it's quite a solid selection).
The orange walls aren't unpleasant here, but they're still just a little strange.
It looks like the fixtures here were new. I didn't see any obvious secondhand fixtures, including anything left over from Gala Fresh. They didn't replace a lot of the fixtures, which were from the Food Basics days and not exactly aging gracefully, from what I remember. Here's the back wall of the store...
...and there is backroom space (including a second floor) behind this. I really don't know how they set it up with the Gala Fresh backrooms. As we see, there's not a lot of effort put into the appearance of the space, but if Clifton is any indication, it'll be clean and well-stocked if not beautiful.
And looking up towards the front of the store from the back wall. 9 grocery aisles in total. Interestingly, Gala Fresh only had 10 aisles, excluding the grand aisle. They had a few extra-wide aisles and things, and each aisle of course was much longer. But it goes to show that the space can be used more efficiently -- especially when two garbage stores, I mean dollar stores, are hogging most of the space.
Frozen and dairy on the far right-side wall of the store, which would've been around aisle 7 perhaps of Gala Fresh.
And here's a look towards the back of the grocery section.
I like the wooden beams above the registers, and the hanging light fixtures over customer service (and the deli, which I forgot to mention). Four registers, which is the same as Clifton.
I always love to see new supermarkets, and I do in fact have a soft spot for this store because I really liked the Gala Fresh that used to be here. I hope this Food Universe lasts for a good long time! There's a lot going on in supermarkets lately, so here's a summary of some other things we're seeing today!


  1. Perhaps it also makes sense in a spot like this to focus more on the fresh items as those dollar stores will also offer some packaged food items, so people may very well shop in both sides to mix & match what is available.

    1. Definitely true. I don't think Family Dollar sells fish, and I don't think I'd want it even if they did. But that is a common setup, and I can think of at least one other location where a supermarket was subdivided into a fresh-focused market and a dollar store.


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