You want to eat good? Drive to the Garage: Reggie Nadelson visits New York's cut-price gourmet outlet

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT'S 5am in deepest SoHo, and beyond the chic shops selling Southwestern folk furniture made of distressed pinecones, the organised chaos has begun.

At the Gourmet Garage on Wooster Street in downtown Manhattan, vans belonging to the city's smartest restaurants are pulling up to collect the day's supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. Buyers can choose between eight kinds of shiitake mushroom, not to mention the enoki, the chanterelles, the morels and the amanitas. There is baby bok choy and fresh lychees and the teeny purple aubergines gleam like amethysts in the dawn light.

But the really big news is that you don't have to be in the restaurant business to get into the Gourmet Garage. At noon, scrubbed down and restocked, it opens its doors to the public, selling the same exquisite foodstuffs - at the same wholesale prices.

It is all here: white truffle oil and red and yellow sun-dried tomatoes, smoked salmon and smoked shrimp, andouille and pepperoni, caper berries big as cherries, caviar, tombstones of parmesan and bitter chocolate, homemade salsa, fresh baked breads, and rugelach, a sort of rich little Jewish cake filled with jalepeno jelly.

A pound of Scottish smoked salmon that might cost dollars 32 ( pounds 21) at a shop is dollars 17 ( pounds 11) at the Gourmet Garage. A five-pound bag of Colombian coffee is dollars 14 ( pounds 9.50); it sells for about dollars 6.50 ( pounds 4) a pound elsewhere.

This is a foodie revolution. Designer clothing has been discounted for decades; upmarket electronics are available in a million outlet stores. The Gourmet Garage is the first fancy food discounter, and it is a sign of the times. The New York Nineties has found its zeitgeist in this cheerful warehouse in SoHo.

'The lesson of the Nineties is that people don't want to change their lifestyles,' says John Gottfried, one of the owners. 'They just want to pay less to sustain them.'

The Gourmet Garage mixes the warehouse club's economies of scale with the refined tastes of the foodie emporia, where Eighties New York had its tastebuds tutored to the sounds of Mozart in spaces so exquisite they were sometimes known as 'mustard museums'. Teensy baby vegetables were purveyed like so much fine jewellery.

The warehouse or price clubs, on the other hand, resemble aircraft carriers - 50ft ceilings with 150,000 sq ft of floor space. They are open all hours, and specialise in selling basic goods in bulk. There are no frills and no service. If you can't reach something on the shelf, there's no one around to help. You do not buy a single chicken, you buy a 10-pound bag, and there is probably only one choice. The savings are enormous.

According to Mr Gottfried, American-style discount and warehouse clubs are already staking a claim in Britain. For the second major lesson of the Nineties, he notes, is the decline in full-price retailing.

The seven-month-old Gourmet Garage is set to turn a dollars 4m- dollars 6m ( pounds 2.5m- pounds 4m) profit in its first year, and has a second outlet opening in the autumn. It began when Mr Gottfried, a former food and wine writer and wild mushroom maven, joined forces with Andrew Arons, the man who brought radicchio to the US and became a foodie hero.

What the Eighties revealed was that people were willing to pay for flavour. American supermarkets, for instance, had always demanded tomatoes that were hard, green and uniform. Tomatoes that could travel. Tomatoes with shelf life. The farmers used to plough the ripe red tomatoes under with the vines. When a monied market for tasty produce appeared, the farmers woke up. Now, says Mr Gottfried, 'they send crews to pick up the garbage, in other words, the ripe tomatoes'.

Most of all, people love Gourmet Garage for its honesty. This is the buzzword in the Nineties, the word that bespeaks a knowing consumer, a foodie insider. And what is the actual product most in vogue, the product most sought after by a generation weary of foodie fervour? Just an 'honest' ripe tomato.