Chef’s Choice Cash & Carry

A community grocer out serving big-box contenders
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Victor Martins

Since 1987 Chef’s Choice Cash & Carry (Chef’s Choice) has been a fixture in New York’s West Indian neighborhood. Based in Flatbush, Brooklyn, family-owned and –operated Chef’s Choice was one of the first to cater to vibrant Caribbean American community.

“My father, Frank Russo, started the storefront in 1987 when he noticed the Caribbean community was exploding,” tells Pat Russo, now president of Chef’s Choice. “At the time, no one was really catering to the community food-wise so he set up the first Chef’s Choice storefront and it quickly took off.”

A butcher by trade, Frank had the ability to hand-cut a variety of specialty meats daily, offering a freshness the area didn’t have prior. “Oxtail, for example, is a staple in the West Indian community and my father was able to offer that and other specialty cuts,” shares Pat.

Carrying on a West Indian tradition

With sprawling success through the 1990s, Chef’s Choice continued to add on. “We bought portions of the block on Utica Ave. as they became available and now we have a 45,000-square-foot location,” says Pat.

After donning NYPD Blue as a sergeant, Pat left the police department in 2000 to help take over the family business. “I grew up driving a truck for the business and would come in when my father needed help, but he gave me the keys in 2000,” tells Pat. “I kept the business and the tradition going after he passed away and we’re still running strong.”

As a family-owned operation, Chef’s Choice has a strong customer base and loyal following, something Pat says has helped the company stay afloat when big-box competition moved in. “One of the main reasons we’re still in business is service,” measures Pat. “We have to serve the heck out of people because we simply don’t have the buying power and can’t compete with big names like Costco, Jetro and B.J.’s on price.”

Serving in three ways

Chef’s Choice has grown to encompass 45,000 square feet and much more than just the storefront Cash & Carry. “We are like three businesses in one,” explains Pat. “We operate the grocery, cash and carry side, but we also are a wholesale supplier in the food service business for restaurants, particularly the Golden Krust Jamaican cuisine chain and government entities, such as the NYC Department of Education [DOE] and the Rikers Island State Penitentiary. About a third of our business is government contract work with local school systems and Rikers, a third is the restaurant distribution and a third is the grocery cash and carry storefront.”

Chef’s Choice has been working with the NYC DOE from the beginning, supplying Staten Island schools. As the locavore movement has swept the nation from restaurants to school programs, Pat says he’s often on the hunt for local produce, frequenting some New Jersey farms for peaches, apples and nectarines. “We have our buyers contact local growers as much as possible,” he says.

Continuing its service to the NYC DOE, Pat says Chef’s Choice was awarded another contract in November 2014. “We were awarded the contract for eight more years, delivering for full-service breakfast and lunch, with groceries, produce and frozen foods,” he details.

Standing out in service and quality

Pat says longstanding relationships, and the trust government customers have in the company, really keeps business moving. “We’re going up against the big guys – Costco, Wal-Mart, B.J.’s - you name it,” he assures. “We don’t have the buying power so we have to beat them out in service and quality.”

As a USDA-certified plant, Chef’s Choice delivers a wide selection of custom-cut meats, from oxtail and goat to pork shoulder, lamb chops and chicken. “My father started this tradition and it’s become something we’re well-known for in the West Indian community,” says Pat.

From the company’s still-standing single location in Brooklyn, Chef’s Choice distributes to clients throughout New York City, New Jersey and Long Island. “We now employ 50 full-time staff members and 10 part-time,” shares Pat. “We lease a fleet of seven distribution trucks with our longtime partner, Mendon, leasing to get orders out to customers in a timely manner.”

According to Pat, Chef’s Choice is always looking to add unique products to the grocery lineup. “We recently added a Jamaican soda company called Bigga to the list,” he shares. “Bigga brands are now in all of the Golden Krust and West Indian stores we service.”

No cake walk

What Chef’s Choice can’t do in price point, Pat says the company makes up for in special selection, service and quality products. “We have a very loyal customer base and following,” he says. “We employ a lot of people in the neighborhood and we offer great benefits – health and vacation and sick days; this makes us an attractive place to come work.”

But the cost of keeping these benefits has increased substantially in the last couple of years. Rising health care costs coupled with stringent rules and regulations makes business no cake walk, according to Pat. “Luckily, we remain solid – we’re selling food and people always have to eat,” he mentions. “Also, our customers are faithful and we’re a local business that’s been here since 1987 when we were the only ones serving the community.”

Even after 27 years, bigger competition and increased costs of doing business, Chef’s Choice Cash & Carry remains a neighborhood landmark and major wholesale player throughout New York, New Jersey and Long Island.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Dart Container Corporation
Mendon Trucks
RS Porter & Co.