Food News

The Groceries New Yorkers Reach for in Times of Crisis

A look at what people are buying, and what they're leaving behind.

March 15, 2020

On Saturday morning, Eddie, 61, was on his knees in the pasta aisle of Gristedes in Manhattan’s West Village, moving a new shipment of jarred tomato sauce onto shelves.

A supply truck—the second in three days—had just replenished the grocery store’s stock of items selling out all over the city. “It’s spaghetti sauce, toilet paper, water, paper towels, rice, beans,” he said, ticking them off from memory. “Frozen vegetables, canned tomatoes, canned soup—all the Progresso was sold out.”

Since U.S. public panic over the coronavirus has escalated in the past week or so, “every day’s stressful,” Eddie said.

Photo by Ella Quittner

A few aisles away, Herb—who splits his time between Gristedes and a Stop & Shop in the Bronx—stocked the cleaning aisle. The stuff selling out fastest, he said, is unsurprising: “toilet paper, hand sanitizers, wipes.”

But the items that have lingered? “No one’s buying jelly, but the peanut butter is sold out,” said Herb, with a laugh. I asked if he thought they were making peanut butter–only sandwiches, with all the bread missing from the nearby shelves. “I couldn’t imagine,” he said, shaking his head.

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Top Comment:
“I live in NYC and currently have four and a half rolls of toilet paper in my possession and the amount of bandwidth that fact has taken up in my brain is astonishing to me. Not that I'm inviting anyone over but if I do it's strictly BYOTP. ”
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Also in stock in droves were canned sliced beets, a stack of lasagna noodles marooned on an empty noodle shelf, several tiers of Martinelli’s sparkling apple cider, chips of many flavors, gefilte fish, whole-wheat burger buns, kidney beans, non-organic eggs, multiple types of boxed cake mix (except for the funfetti, which was gone), and pudding and jello in flavors spanning citrus, faux-fruit, and chocolate. As promised, the jelly section was thriving.

Photo by Ella Quittner

Back in the pasta aisle, Eddie, who has been employed by the West Village Gristedes for 30 years (“half my lifetime”), recalled his past encounters with New Yorkers panic-shopping for groceries. He’s seen shelf-stable items, like beans, fly from the store in a similar fashion in advance of snowstorms, and especially during the blackout that befell downtown Manhattan in 2012 at the peak of Hurricane Sandy.

But panic-buying then was “not this bad—Sandy would come in second, and snowstorms would come in last,” Eddie said.

At the Trader Joe’s a little ways down Seventh Avenue, “Keto Fudge Bites” were totally wiped out, but the Organic Sparkling Yerba Mate that lives just below it was stocked in full force.

Photo by Ella Quittner

Bell peppers in every shade were rampant, while only five sweet potatoes endured, strewn forlornly across an empty produce shelf as if just washed ashore. Piles and piles of Roma tomatoes waited patiently to meet their new owners, while below their shelf, an entire ledge of Kumato Brown Tomatoes had been bare for who knows how long. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts were nowhere to be seen, while bone-in pork cuts and filet mignons dawdled hopefully.

Over in the freezer aisle, a stack of frozen raw red shrimp from Argentina towered so theatrically, I worried it might collapse into the next section over, which itself was empty but for a single remaining package of frozen swordfish steaks. I watched from the prepared meals section as a lone shopper paused in front of shrimp mountain, reached for a bag, perused its contents with one arched eyebrow, then placed the shrimp back in the freezer with a sigh and sauntered off.

Photo by Ella Quittner

On her Instagram story, Man Repeller founder Leandra Cohen—a top-notch critic of grocery-adjacent topics—narrated her own visit to a Manhattan food store by way of hand-drawn arrows and language that might’ve seemed cryptic to someone reading it a hundred years ago. “Regular granola gone, but gluten free still v much avail,” she wrote, from the cereal aisle. “Beet and kale chips still in tact,” and “Regular buttered popcorn: gone. Skinny pop standing strong tho,” she reported from the snack shelves. And pasta, she declared, was “OOO.”

So why are New Yorkers turning to some stable goods, like pasta and canned tomatoes, while completely neglecting others (pistachios still-in-shells have nudged me to mention them, for example)? What did spaghetti squash or jelly ever do to us?

Part of it is cost, to be sure—show me one person bulk-buying those Trader Joe’s filet mignons and I’ll show you how hard I can work for a dinner invite—and some of it’s got to be chalked up to versatility (name 10 ways you can use a jar of jelly in one day, I dare you).

A Trader Joe’s customer named Zach seemed to think it was all a bit of a crapshoot: “There were a lot of frozen cauliflower pizza crusts left,” which was a surprise. “Especially around here,” he said, motioning toward the produce section, where a woman in a floor-length fur coat was squeezing blood oranges contemplatively, “that seems like something people would go for."

When I asked if he bought any of the crusts, Zach said: “I did not.”

Photo by Ella Quittner

Six hours later, back at Gristedes, where toilet paper was now sold out, Eddie was still restocking the pasta aisle. I asked him why New Yorkers amass large stores of rice, beans, and pasta in times of uncertainty, before, say, frozen shrimp.

He said, with a smile, “Because they’re easy to make!” And, because “beans are full of protein,” and some people find pasta comforting. But in Eddie’s book, the best comfort food of all is a pint of Häagen-Dazs.

“Coffee, chocolate, and vanilla,” he said. “In that order."


For those with resources at this time, please consider donating to your local food pantry (like Food Bank for New York City) and organizations like No Kid Hungry, and avoid overbuying, which creates availability issues for other families with near-term budgetary constraints.

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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.

22 Comments

Jim M. March 22, 2020
My wife totally agrees with Eddie except she would prefer Ben & Jerry's!
 
Barbara March 22, 2020
Ten ways to use jelly:
1. as a sweetener for soups and stews
2. blend into some to frozen fruit to make a frozen fruit dessert
3. use it to sweeten your tea -- or to 4. make a hot, sweet beverage from jelly only
5. dilute it with hot water and use it to activate the yeast, then make a nice Challah loaf
6. Damn, folks! Buy a jar with all the peanut butter you're buying and use it on the sammie -- how are you choking those things down without it?
7. Let it warm to room temp and use it as an ice cream topping
8. Glaze pork or ham with it -- probably good with lamb and chicken too.
9. You know, a little bit of jelly makes fried and scrambled eggs tasty -- try it -- you'll like it.
10. I imagine it would give a good kick to any sweet and sour dish, including Sauerbraten. Try to pick up a lighter color jelly so it blends into the dish.
 
Barbara March 22, 2020
11. substitute it for sugar in any salad dressing.
12. use it as the sweetener in a BBQ sauce -- don't those tiny hot dogs in a sauce use grape jelly?
13. clean, peel, seed and cut really ripe fresh fruit. Put it in a large jar with a lid, cover with the cheapest brandy you can buy and add jelly. Cover and set the jar(s) in a cool, darkish place. Wait 6 months. Enjoy the very best fruit brandy you've ever tasted. Truth.
 
Frances H. March 22, 2020
I enjoyed the story! Very entertaining and interesting. Love the return to Gristedes and final comment. Thanks!
 
Miss_Karen March 19, 2020
Hmmm... observations from a certified foodie AND a grocery store employee: I don't understand the tp thing. There was actually a fight in that aisle on Saturday. Yep. Seriously. Our store doesn't have ANY beans of any sort, not dried or canned. Nada on the rice/pasta game too. If you want chicken, you'll have to catch it yourself I think.
People are seriously out of whack on this. They are buying WAY more of a product than makes sense. (22 cans of evaporated milk, 17 cans of tuna) the list goes on and on.
Thank goodness that I have a normal stock of things as Smaug mentioned. It's much more practical to just cook/prepare meals than spend an excessive amount on everything processed. Get creative with the food you have on hand already.
 
KEITH T. March 18, 2020
I had been away on a trip the week panic spread through our coastal city. When I returned home on Friday, I planned to shop early Saturday morning. I was in the grocery store at 6 in the morning. There was no produce and minimal fruit. The meat was non-existent. Even freezer bags were gone. I guess the hoarders now had to store what they had bought in excess. I usually shop with a menu planned out for the week, that quickly went out the window as I stood in the empty bread aisle and had a small meltdown. So, I readjusted my train of thought and plans and bought what I knew we could eat and still be healthy. It is a great thing that I can cook and bake and that we are all still healthy. I will not venture out again for another week, hopefully the grim display will be different and all of the madness will have subsided.
 
Panfusine March 17, 2020
I had stocked up on Glycerin & both Isopropyl (90%) and ethyl alcohol (70% )with the intention of making transparent soap earlier. using it instead to make hand sanitizer which has been extremely effective. ~ 1 cup of alcohol and a generous tablespoon of glycerin plus a few drops of your favorite essential oil yields plenty of hand sanitizer that does not dry out your hands at all. Spray bottles thankfully are still available online.
 
Susan R. March 17, 2020
I live in rural Montana and we just started having confirmed cases. I work for a school and heard we were talking of closing our district down so I made it to the store before the rest of the town went to stock up. No tp, disinfecting supplies, hand soap. Minimal paper towels. Lots of shelves were empty in the canned goods because they just finished having a case lot sale and the new truck wasn’t in yet. All the giant bags of shredded cheese were gone but the big blocks (on sale) were still there. No potatoes. Pasta and pasta sauces were dwindling. Rice and flour almost all gone, dried beans were getting picked over. No bananas or powdered milk.

We were pretty much out of groceries except for meat and I Came home with: a huge bag of whole wheat flour and smaller white flour, sugar, eggs, butter, gallon of milk, coffee creamer, gallon of ice cream, frozen veggies, frozen berries, apples, broth concentrate, a few frozen pizzas, cheese blocks, apples, carrots, lots of popcorn, fun flavors for popcorn and ice cream toppings, pasta sauce, dried beans and chickpeas, peanut butter.

There’s stuff I still need to get but this should hold us over for awhile. Thankfully I had just stocked up on some things that were gone. Also glad I went when I did because within hours the state shut down schools and it was even worse after 24 hours.
 
slatalla March 15, 2020
Any projections about the continued availability of Stouffer’s frozen spinach soufflé?
 
Christina F. March 15, 2020
We went out last Thursday for normal shopping. We went to Trader Joe's, wholefoods, costco and Aldi, target and Walmart. Costco & Walmart had the least amount of items. My mom and I couldn't believe it. Not a single toilet paper, paper towel, clorox wipes and they were almost sold out of meat. We picked up a few items for fear we wouldn't be able to get them in awhile. I choose two whole chickens(I bake it then will boil the leftover meat and carcass to make homemade chicken noodle soup), party wings, ground turkey, canned tuna, green beans, 1/2 and 1/2, a bag each of almonds, pecans and walnuts. 5 dozen eggs, one each of a cheddar cheese block and colby jack. Epsom salt, an easy read digital thermometer(didn't have one) individual Saline nasal spray. I didn't need what most other people needed because we already buy in bulk for the tp, papertowes, kleenex, chicken broth,diced tomatoes and tomato sauce. And always have a variety of canned beans(Black, Garbanzo, Kidney, and Pinto's) I also always have a variety of pastas, rice, couscous, polenta, potatoes, Acorn squash, grits and oats. We do freeze quite a bit of meat and only bought what we were low on. At the other stores we got a few fresh vegetables and fruits. Onion, celery, carrots, garlic, parsley, cilantro, ginger, lemongrass, apples, grapes, pears, oranges,lemons and limes. Bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumber, spinach, mushrooms, bok choy, lettuce. Cottage cheese, greek yogurt, peanut butter, Cereals. fresh and canned juices. I did buy more canned and frozen fruit than I normal do to make smoothies, oatmeal, or put on cottage cheese & yogurt. I also already picked up everything I need for my St. Patty's day dinner! And lots of wine! We're gonna need it! My husband make fun of my mom and I about buying in bulk! I bet he wont now! Hope all of you stay safe and where able to get what you needed!
 
Kim W. March 15, 2020
Big box stores in the Chicago area have been mob scenes for a while now. I live in Rogers Park and small, family owned groceries in my neighborhood that have always been great are by far your best bets at this point. And for the record peanut butter jelly less sandwiches are great......
 
Stephanie B. March 15, 2020
I went grocery shopping today (in LA) at 8am hoping to beat the panic and just do my usual grocery shopping. 1) I did not beat the panic hoarders 2) I was surprised by what was left. Obvious staples were cleaned out, and baking basics like flour and sugars. Thankfully people have thought better about hoarding fresh produce (not so last week). I was surprised to see frozen veggies were also decently stocked, and for some reason no one touched black eyed peas at either store I went to, neither canned nor dried. Black eyed peas are delicious and cook pretty fast; people don't know what they're missing out on!

Any sort of pre-made, prepackaged, shelf stable or frozen foods were gone though, and of course any form of softened paper. But there was still plenty of soap 🤔
 
Kim W. March 15, 2020
In my neighborhood one of the larger supermarkets was sold out of all forms of black eyed peas...I always have some on hand for Texas caviar....too funny. The only dried bean option in any quantity were dark red kidney.
 
Stephanie B. March 15, 2020
There have been other times I've wanted them and stores didn't carry them. Maybe LA people aren't wise to how good black eyed peas are. Or I just like them a lot. I also found the local stores to be better supplied than the kroeger run store (Ralph's here).
 
Christina F. March 15, 2020
I love Black Eyed peas too! I grew up in the south and now live in Nebraska! At times they can be difficult to find! However, my trader joe's and whole foods carry them and surprisingly my target has them in frozen. I put bacon in mine if I'm cooking them and serve with southern greens, fried okra and corn bread of course. I also make a black eyed pea salad that is really good that you serve cold. It's a little like the texas caviar but slightly different. But I almost always have canned or frozen!!
 
witloof March 15, 2020
I live in NYC and currently have four and a half rolls of toilet paper in my possession and the amount of bandwidth that fact has taken up in my brain is astonishing to me. Not that I'm inviting anyone over but if I do it's strictly BYOTP.
 
Stephanie B. March 15, 2020
Lol I have the exact same amount! And yes, it occupies my thoughts a lot.
 
Panfusine March 15, 2020
Since this a period where online bonding has to take precedence, wondering if we could come together to share recipes and tips on how to make do on available resources (pantry hacks, cooking technique hacks etc) in the home, as well as ideas on how to help out in our respective communities.
 
Christina F. March 15, 2020
what a good idea!
 
Smaug March 15, 2020
Meanwhile, in the real (ie non- New York) world more or less the same thing is going on. Most of it seems to be just general panic- why toilet paper, for example? I was in a way encouraged in my local Safeway to find things like flour (all kinds), dried beans, canned tomatoes (though not the ghastly garlic laden ones) and other such staples largely depleted- if Americans get out of the restaurants and into the kitchen, it will signal to some extent a return to sanity (if only temporary). I consider myself fortunate that I'm generally stocked well ahead on non-perishables and frozen perishables- hopefully the panic will subside before I run out of things.
 
Stephanie B. March 15, 2020
I don't think Californians will have much choice but to start cooking now that restaurants have been limited to half capacity, though I don't think that will ease the panic hoarding at the grocery stores.
 
Smaug March 15, 2020
I should think it will make it worse, at least in the short run, but if it gets more people cooking I'm all for it- people are far too prone nowadays to cede the basic processes of their lives to strangers.