Key Food supermarket stakes claim in Hartford’s Parkville neighborhood, chipping away at the city’s food desert

·5 min read

In a city with few options to purchase fresh groceries, a new, full-service supermarket in the Parkville neighborhood aims to chip away at a “food desert” that has often forced city residents to grocery shop in the suburbs.

Key Food supermarket opened a week ago in the Pope Commons shopping center, and it marks a milestone in efforts to widen the option for buying healthy foods within the city. In recent years, there has been a major focus in bring more full-service grocers to the city, in particular to serve downtown Hartford and its northern neighborhoods.

“Customers can find anything that they are looking for, and they can stay in Hartford,” said Jeffrey Perez, the store’s co-owner, said. “You want to come into a nice store in Hartford instead of having to go to West Hartford or Glastonbury.”

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Perez has run the CTown market on Wethersfield Avenue for the past 16 years. Perez and his cousin, Wilson Urena, a partner in CTown with Perez’s father, co-own Key Food in Hartford.

Perez has run the CTown market on Wethersfield Avenue for the past 16 years. Perez and his cousin, Wilson Urena, a partner in CTown with Perez’s father, co-own Key Food in Hartford.

The partners see a lot of potential in Hartford, Perez said, and in particular, Parkville with its rising profile in the arts, entertainment and dining. The neighborhood got a boost this year, despite the pandemic, by the opening of the Parkville Market.

“So, we decided to bring in a different brand, it was something that was missing in Hartford,” Perez said. “We did it a little more upscale, while providing the same low prices to the customer.”

Key Food isn’t a well-known name in Connecticut, with just a handful of locations. But New York-based Key Food, founded in 1937 , is a cooperative with more than 315 grocery stores in six states, some owned by the company and others, like in Hartford, by member owners.

In addition to Key Food, the chain operates under the names Food Universe, The Food Emporium, SuperFresh, Food Dynasty and Gala Foods.

Perez and Urena chose Key Food because they have relatives in New York running stores under the same brand. Key Food also has high expectations for the appearance of their stores and how they are run, Perez said.

The 18,500-square-foot grocery store is less than a third of the size of an average Super Stop & Shop, but is still large enough to provide a viable grocery shopping option with selections in different food categories, said Martha Page, executive director of the Hartford Food System, whose mission is to provide access to affordable and healthy food.

“It needed to have something there, and that’s a good choice,” Page said.

Page said she has known Perez and Urena for years since her office is across the street from their CTown store. She said they have expanded to offer broader selections and the parking lot is often full, indicating support from the local community.

Perez said he and Urena signed the lease for the space at Pope Commons in March with the shopping center’s owner, Carlos Mouta, a major property owner in the neighborhood and developer of the Parkville Market.

Perez said the store probably would have been open sooner, if it wasn’t for the pandemic slowing things down. Perez also said he had no regrets about opening now: “This is the time to do it, the opportunity was there. We’ll see how it goes.”

In addition to fresh produce, Key Food offers meat, seafood, dairy, frozen foods and prepared foods. The store also is striving to cater to ethnic tastes, including Jamaican, Brazilian, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Peruvian and Columbian, “plus what you would buy at a Stop & Shop, your regular household items, just a mix of everything,” Perez said.

“I wouldn’t say Stop & Shop is a competitor, but we’re trying to get a piece of their market,” Perez said.

The store is offering home delivery, including “taxi” service for people who need a ride home and don’t want to carry bags of groceries, if the purchase is $50 or more.

An official grand opening is planned for January. By February, the store expects to offer online shopping through Instacart.

Perez said he sees the store’s market expanding, with the addition of hundreds of new apartments in and around downtown in the near future and the Park Place Towers apartments just a short walk away. And, he said, the Parkville Market just to the west is drawing visitors from both in and outside of the city, giving the store more visibility.

For a decade, the city has struggled to increase grocery store options in Hartford.

Downtown has added two markets, The Greenway on Asylum Street and the Hartford Food Market, at the corner of Central Row and Main Street, plus delis that also include some groceries.

Plans for the Downtown North redevelopment around Dunkin' Donuts Park call for a grocery store but that is expected in the phase that follows that one that broke ground last month.

Contact Kenneth R. Gosselin at kgosselin@courant.com.

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