A 24-Hour United Nations for the Pantry

Carnival Fresh Market opened three years ago in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn. Credit Ryan C. Jones for The New York Times
From the outside, Carnival Fresh Market looks like any other corner produce store. Crates filled with onions, peaches and four-for-$5 mangoes sit stacked, end to end, under a red-and-yellow striped awning. Just inside this three-year-old shop in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn, however, a United Nations of foodstuffs awaits. Here in the bulk bins are blue-black Uzbeki raisins and nuggets of chocolate-dipped halvah. There in the dairy case, cheese selections range from a briny nabulsi, popular in the Middle East, to rounds of Bulgarian kashkaval and sliced kosher provolone.

“They sell a lot of exotic products. Some don’t even have English on the package,” said Jeff Cohen, 57, who owns a clothing outlet down the block and shops at Carnival several times a week. “I usually just buy fruits and vegetables, but I’m fascinated by what they stock.”

Wandering through the cramped aisles is like going on a gastronomic treasure hunt. (Moldovan sour cherries in syrup! Fresh cactus paddles!) Heidi Blacker, 40, said Carnival is her first stop when seeking out uncommon ingredients for her catering business. “I used to travel to Sahadi’s in Brooklyn Heights, but now I just head there on my way home from the train,” she said.

While Carnival has lured some curious and enterprising shoppers with its niche products, its fundamental goal is to serve its multicultural community. “We try to answer to every person in the neighborhood and be there for them,” Ozcan Tas, the general manager, said, referring to the cross-section of peoples — Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, Mexicans and Russians, Italians and Orthodox Jews, to name but a few — who call Kensington home.

Ilker Karakaya, 44, Mr. Tas’s cousin and Carnival’s owner, has been in the fruit-and-vegetable business for nearly two decades, and is a longstanding regular at the Hunts Point Produce Market. In 2013, he bought an existing grocery store on the tiny island of concrete where Church Avenue and Beverley Road converge, as well as the two small clothing businesses adjacent to it, and began to make big changes.

“Things are much more organized now,” said Nima Ullah, 20, whose family shopped at the location’s previous store. “The old place did not have so many canned goods or fresh desserts,” she said, gesturing toward a display case filled with baklava, Russian sour-cream cakes and other pastries made in nearby bakeries.

Mr. Tas, 29, who immigrated from Turkey in 2009, handles most of the store’s daily operations. But he and Mr. Karakaya share a fervent preoccupation with improving customer service. Mr. Tas keeps detailed lists and spreadsheets on his phone that outline plans for making the shop function better. Most days the shelves are not only restocked but also rearranged to fit in new products, like a live-action game of Tetris. “We want our customers to wonder what we’re going to have tomorrow,” Mr. Tas said.

Outside, bags of slightly overripe produce are sold at a discounted rate, “for people who cannot afford the full price,” Mr. Tas said. Last April, before Passover, boxes of matzo appeared on the shelves. Last June and July, during Ramadan, an already impressive selection of dates swelled considerably to accommodate Muslim families who traditionally break their daily fast with a piece of the dried fruit.

Many of Kensington’s residents hold multiple jobs or finish work shifts in the middle of the night, which is why Carnival stays open 24 hours a day. During last winter’s big snowstorm, the shop glowed like a lighthouse amid a sea of darkened storefronts.

Elsewhere in Brooklyn, things trend toward the slick, big and basic. But Carnival, it seems, didn’t get the memo. Judging by the line of customers, which can run 10 to 15 deep at peak hours, this grocer’s community-oriented way of doing business is working out just fine. (By
Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07