Michael Yeo opened the machine in his storefront window, scooped some of its contents into a paper bag, shook in sea salt, and handed it over: roasted pistachios, fragrant and sweet. Get ’em hot and fresh while you can because Yeo’s shop — among the last of New York City’s on-premises nut roasters — will shutter at the end of July.
Wedged between a eyebrow threading parlor and the defunct Tribeca Watch Repair at 166 Church Street, SP’s Nuts & Candy Co. is better known as “We Are Nuts About Nuts,” after the old-timey sign outside. If you call the shop, Yeo answers, “Nuts about nuts,” though that’s debatable: A Korean immigrant in his 60s, Yeo doesn’t eat nuts. But 21 years ago, he bought the business from another Korean who had purchased it from the Iranian guy who launched it back in 1978.
The neighborhood then was a sleepy area of post-industrial spaces vacated by food manufacturers that had grown up around the sprawling Washington Market which closed in 1967. When the producers moved out, artists moved in. Realtors followed, and by the time the nut shop opened, the area had a sexy, new TriBeCa moniker.
The hankerings of employees in the surrounding office buildings used to sustain his shop, says Yeo. That was before the turnover to high-priced apartments heated up.
In his storefront, a half-dozen shoppers contemplated bins of dates and dried kiwi, chocolate-covered peanuts and just-roasted cashews. Yeo cracked jokes as he scooped and weighed, providing the personal service you likely can’t get in the Whole Foods bulk aisle. “Now offices all around here are closed. Business is hurting.”
According to a report by the Downtown Alliance, the number of residential units increased by more than 300 percent between 1990 and 2015 in the BID whose northern border is Chambers Street, half a block south of Yeo’s shop. The vast majority of those are in converted commercial buildings. The Cary Building, the 1857 landmark where Yeo’s shop resides, used to house the New York Sun, among other enterprises. Now it’s apartments. A four-bedroom loft sold in 2006 for over $4 million.
Yeo rang up a customer named Ann, whose employer of 28 years had moved off the block and into the World Trade Center. She had walked up from the tower to score almonds and candied papaya. “Everything seems to have been snatched from us, all the mom and pops,” she said. “He’s one of the last of the Mohicans that’s been supplying us with treats for so many years.”
Yeo’s struggle reveals that more local homeowners doesn’t mean more customers for local food businesses. “With office space, you typically you have four people for every 1,000 square-feet. Residential is a lot less dense than that,” says the Real Estate Board of New York’s Michael Slattery.
The downturn is magnified in tony neighborhoods like TriBeCa, says David Dyssegaard Kallick of the Fiscal Policy Institute. “People assume upscale residents will buy more stuff, but they’re not going down to the local store for nuts. They’re spending money on bigger items and less in local groceries.”
Or they might not be around to shop at all. “Apartments for high prices are often second or third homes,” Kallick notes, “so people don’t spend a lot of time there.”
Given all the property changing hands in TriBeCa, you might think that increased rents are the sticking point for shopkeepers like Yeo. Indeed, he says he paid an above-average 5 percent annual rent increase, even as profits hovered just above a paltry $20,000 in recent years. Clearly, his overhead has hurt him. Still, his unit’s $300 per-square-foot asking price is less than a tenth of what it would cost in Midtown. And money-hungry landlords don’t necessarily kill successful small businesses.
“You can mitigate rising rents if you continue to have customers. Foot traffic is one aspect of that,” says the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce’s Jessica Walker. Then there is the Internet. “The way that people buy things has changed quite a bit. We’re trying to see if there’s a way for small businesses to amend their strategies. Is there a way for them to compete online?”
Not in Yeo’s case. “No online sales,” he says. “I’m old-fashioned.”
So that is that. Yeo is packing up his roaster and leaving Church Street. He has no succession plan: “I don’t want to recommend this kind of business to my family. It’s only for the first immigrant generation, not the second.”
Despite Yeo’s sentiments, immigrant shops are thriving here. According to Kallick, 48 percent of New York’s small businesses are immigrant-owned, with a large percentage in retail food.
“There are many more immigrant restaurants now than 20 years ago,” says food historian Andrew Smith. “Diversity is expanding and thriving.” Some places, like X’ian Famous Foods, become destinations and spin off into chains. And Gothamites are always looking for the next hand-crafted food item.
Still, all that dynamism isn’t enough to save TriBeCa’s nut roaster. Though a bag of warm pistachios can be a wonderful thing, maybe we don’t need to mourn too much.
“I like that nut shop. I’m sorry to see it going. There’s some loss to the character of the neighborhood without it,” says Kallick. “But New York also thrives on churning in population and business. Forty years is a good run.”