NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ–The downtown Superfresh finally closed for good on June 1 following a years-long struggle to survive.
The store's operator had accumulated an unpaid debt of $768,997.24, according to the New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA), which wound up filing for an eviction on May 13.
The NBPA did not disclose its legal action until June 3, in a city government statement that said June 28 was supposed to be the "agreed upon final day of business, but store management moved ahead and closed abruptly over the past weekend."
"We are disappointed by this outcome, but discussions regarding the future of the space are ongoing as we search for new tenants," reads the June 3 statement from city officials.
Mitch Karon, the Executive Director of the NBPA wrote to New Brunswick Today that they are working with Pierson Commercial Real Estate to try to find a tenant and that "NBPA is open to various uses such as office, medical and/or retail."
"There has been interest by others, at this time no commitments have been made," wrote Karon.
The supermarket is on the ground floor of Wellness Plaza, a NBPA-owned facility that opened in 2012. The building is still buzzing with foot traffic — the fitness center and deli upstairs are open, and many, many jurors, attorneys, and county employees park in the nine-story garage above.
The project was championed by the New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO), which has been a major partner in more than a dozen developments in the city's downtown.
"It's disappointing," said Chris Paladino, the President of DEVCO. "I believe that, you know, now collectively we need to re-evaluate what the right use for the space is, and we will continue to assess other opportunities for people to obtain fresh food in the city."
“I miss it more than ever,” said downtown resident Ray Petit, adding that he and his wife have continued to patronize ShopRite of East Brunswick, where they used to live, for their “big shopping” needs.
But he said they shopped at Superfresh a couple times a week for "small items" since it was convenient to purchase beer and wine there, ahead of Rutgers football tailgating outings.
“I knew that they were struggling, as the store was usually mostly empty,” added Petit.
Now, the scene inside the former supermarket is eerie. A look through the windows shows abandoned equipment, shelving, cases, and empty store racks among other items.
NBPA leased the space to Kevin Kim through his limited liability company, Kumkang Fruit and Vegetable Corporation, to operate the grocery store. At the time, the city cited his experience running supermarkets in Queens and Long Island.
While the amount owed to NBPA was striking, Kim recently said that he wasn't giving up.
“We are working very, very diligently to survive day and night – seven days,” said Kim on May 13, adding that his business was "current and okay" with the NBPA. "We agreed everything and we are good.”
That same day, the NBPA filed for eviction.
Kim said he “lost a lot of money" but would never "give up,” in the interview, less than three weeks before vacating the space. Kim told this reporter he intended to keep moving forward, and discussed recent merchandising changes.
According to a prominent supermarket blogger, Kim runs "successful supermarkets in New York City" but it became clear to him that "he not only specializes in running stores in lower-income urban areas with large Hispanic and Caribbean populations, but… that's the only type of store he can run."
And, despite New Brunswick fitting that description, Kim's Hub City location never took off. As New Brunswick Today reported in January, the store drastically downsized its retail floor space.
The market's departure has left a void for New Brunswick consumers, who traditionally have a hard time finding healthy affordable food and often choose to leave town to shop for groceries.
"This area desperately needs a high end full service supermarket," added Petit, the local resident who lives on Spring Street and walked to Superfresh regularly with his wife.
"Still, I would pay attention to population density and average income in the area," said Petit, who still has high hopes for redevelopment in downtown, citing a performing arts center (PAC) set to open later this year.
"Once the New Brunswick PAC opens this fall, it will also help in increasing the pedestrian traffic in the area."
Petit said he hopes the new project, combined with redevelopment of the former Ferren Mall site adjacent to the Wellness Plaza "will give the entire George Street area a facelift."
This isn't the first time one of Kim's Superfresh locations has closed in the area. A store in neighboring Edison Township closed in 2017 after a very short run.
“This place has a 'going out of business' vibe to it,” wrote Local Guide Natalie Siebers on Google Maps, in an online review of the Edison store about a year ago. That Superfresh was located in Tano Mall.
“It was understaffed, different counters inside have separate closing and opening hours, two-three [aisles] have been closed off completely and the shelves weren't well stocked,” added Siebers.
The closure also represents the second supermarket operator to leave town owing a massive amount of money to the Parking Authority.
The first supermarket to lease the space from NBPA – Pennsylvania-based FreshGrocer – opened for business in November of 2012. It then operated for 18 months before closing in May 2014.
FreshGrocer failed to pay rent after just a few months in the space, and still owes the NBPA more than $1 million in back rent.
The space sat vacant for more than a year, before Kim opened up shop as a "Key Food Marketplace" in mid-August 2015, and started paying NBPA rent in October 2015. The market rebranded to a Superfresh in 2017.
The store seemed to have trouble attracting high-income shoppers, who instead visit Trader Joe's and Whole Foods Market, or nearby wholesale clubs like Costco and BJ's.
Meanwhile, others opt to do their grocery shopping at Walmart, Stop & Shop, or ShopRite, to name a few.
Beginning in July 2016, the New Brunswick supermarket's monthly rent increased to $61,271.30 per month, including base rent, fixture rent and a state permit to sell beer and wine.
In November 2017, the store began "short-paying" the rent, paying NBPA no more than 60% of what they owed each month.