I love Eli's Vinegar Factory on E. 91st in Manhattan. If you don't know it, it's not a vinegar factory (at least not anymore). The building is a warehouse that at some point in its history (Google is not giving up the details as to the history of this place!) was a factory that produced vinegar.
I first started going to the Vinegar Factory as a single guy living in the city. I had been in the restaurant business prior to being in personal service, so most of my friends were restaurant guys. A few of us would get together on Sunday, head to the Vinegar Factory to pick up some food and then spend the afternoon cooking, eating, and drinking. We weren't just any cooks either, one of my buddies was cooking at Blue Hill at the time, another at the venerable La Cote Basque (now closed), and I had a wealth of cooking experience cooking at high-end restaurants in California. We had a blast and cooked some amazing food together, if only I could remember what we made!
Fast-forward 10 years, I'm back in the same neighborhood that I lived in when I was single, a few blocks away from the Vinegar Factory once again! I introduced my wife and kids to the store soon after they arrived to join me in New York. An added bonus is that there is a gymnastics gym, "Art Farm", and dog groomer and boarder on the same street! I never noticed that when I was single!
There are many great things about the Vinegar Factory, they have the freshest seafood that you've ever seen, amazing produce (some of which is grown on the rooftop greenhouse!), house aged meat, fresh pastries, freshly roasted coffee beans, delicious prepared foods, and the list goes on. In fact, Eli Zabar's idea for the Vinegar Factory was to create a store where the majority of the products were produced on site. He's done an amazing job at creating a truly special place for food (which, of course, comes at a hefty price!).
There is, however, one thing that I can't get out of my mind that really bothers me about the place, the service. A few of the departments have good service, the seafood section comes to mind. But I went in the other morning to get a cake for my daughter's 4th birthday and had an experience that I saw coming for a while that really bothered me.
I was there fairly early in the morning. I had just finished my Saturday morning run and I stopped in to pick up the cake and a few other items. I knew that they'd have some cakes available that would be beautiful and delicious. I went to the pastry section and stood around for a minute. When it was apparent that no one was manning the area, I went to the butcher's counter nearby and asked for some help. Mind you, there were probably 15 customers in the whole store. The lady behind the counter told me that she'd be right there. Three minutes passed, then 5. Employees kept passing me, looking at me, and when I looked back they looked away, so as to not be responsible for having to talk to me. I finally stared at another butcher behind the counter and he finally had to acknowledge me. I asked again for help from him and he told me that I had to talk to the woman I had already asked for help from. I told him that I had already asked her (now) 10 minutes ago. She was busy slicing smoked salmon, not for a customer, but for the display! By now, I'm upset and I head to the checkout counter and ask for help. This time I'm not letting the buck get passed. To avoid the brush off, I tell the lady that I've been waiting for 10 minutes, no one will help me and I need the cake now. She reluctantly came back to the pastry area to help me. I also wanted to have a message written on the cake. I spell out my daughter's name L-I-L-I to her. I'm hopeful that it'll be right. Another 5 minutes passes, no cake. I'm calm, enjoying my coffee, but getting impatient. The cake finally descends from upstairs and I take a look at what they've done. I was amazed by the beautiful flowers that they piped onto the cake in many different colors, BUT my daughter's name is mis-spelled! L-I-L-Y! At this point I'm over it, but not pleased with the service I received when spending a lot of money for a very small cake. We edited the writing to correct the spelling, as you can see in the photo.