Universal Food Markets
Owner: Vishu Patel
Opened: between 1997 and 2000
Cooperative: Retail Grocers Group
Location: 2325 Elizabeth Ave, Rahway, NJ
Photographed: May 2019 and July 2021
Cooperative: Retail Grocers Group
Location: 2325 Elizabeth Ave, Rahway, NJ
Photographed: May 2019 and July 2021
This is a pretty last-minute update! These pictures are brand-new -- by which I mean that I took them and wrote this post yesterday. And by yesterday I mean that this post went up at 12:00 AM on Thursday and I finished writing it at 11:03 PM on Wednesday. Now obviously I don't usually have such a quick turnaround (there are photos I took back in 2016 that I still haven't gotten around to posting yet), but things are happening quickly here. I was tipped off to a remodel going on at the Universal Supermarket in Rahway by an Instagram post, and I figured that, since this was one of the first stores I toured over on The Market Report, it was time for a revisit. Oh wait, except I stopped by in May of 2019 to buy a few things and use the bathroom and got a daytime exterior picture, which it turns out I never posted. Here's a comparison between the 2019 shot and yesterday's in-progress shot.
Let's take a moment to review this store's history. It was built as a Food Fair, later Pantry Pride, which closed by the late 1970s. At that time, it became a Rex-Gene Food Warehouse, a local chain of discount supermarkets that there isn't too much information on, although I do have a more detailed examination of the chain's history on another post about them in the future. Rex-Gene sold to Western Beef in 1998, but only a few of their locations actually became Western Beef stores; this one did. Unfortunately, they didn't last long and closed soon thereafter, with Universal Supermarket opening up by 2000. The company was incorporated in 1997, which I assume means there was an older Universal somewhere. When Universal opened, they did so with an intriguing (not attractive, but interesting) combination of leftover Western Beef decor and secondhand Edwards decor from a nearby store. (I suspect, as I mention in that linked post, that the CTown taking half of the former Edwards/Stop & Shop was also Universal-owned, so it would make sense that the decor migrated from there to here.) 24 years later, after doing basically nothing to the space for that time, Universal is making some much-needed investments in the store.
These, so far, do not seem to include replacing this old sign on Elizabeth Avenue. There's currently no sign on the storefront, although I assume there will be once the facade is finished. And I have to wonder what logo will be used, since Universal doesn't really have one. There's no website, for instance, and the circular features a picture of the store instead of the logo and name.
Hard to tell whether the facade will remain this gray color when it's done. I would assume it's just a temporary base color, but the fact that the white accents are already done makes me think that might be it.
Here's an overview of all the work being done on the storefront. As I mention in the original post, the produce, deli, and hot food departments are in this expansion to the right, making the entrance and exit rather weird since you walk in and immediately turn around 180 degrees to enter the produce room. I certainly couldn't say for sure, but I've got to assume that the entrance is going to be moved to this boarded-up area, which would lead directly into the produce room. That would make so much more sense.
That has to be a future entrance. Why else would it be set up like this? Now we can't go in here just yet, so let's walk in through the current entrance and turn to go towards produce...
Notice any changes here compared to our previous tour? The sign directing people to "Produce - Cafeteria" has been removed from the doorway to produce, making it higher and making it feel more spacious. And notice any relics from previous tenants? Yes, both the floor and the (more obvious) orange ATM sign are left over from Western Beef.
Okay, so right away we notice that the lighting has been replaced. Good start! The fixtures, however, have not, nor has the floor, and all of those need to be updated very badly. The Edwards decor has also been removed from the walls, though we'll see other Edwards remnants shortly.
Looking up to what looks for all the world like it should be the entrance. The area is closed off for now, and it previously had shelving for soda and baked goods such as rolls and bagels. Those have been rearranged but they're still in the area. I don't know how extensive the work is going to be, but I'd love to see all new fixtures and flooring (which both aren't so bad here, but we'll see places where they both desperately need to be replaced), and the ceiling should also be painted. Notice that the new lighting allows us to see all the peeling paint on the ceiling.
Some structural work going on in the deli/hot food area in the back, and we see a newly built out wall above them. While it looks like there's quite a bit of structural work happening, it doesn't look like the departments are being rearranged (instead, it looks like they are being streamlined in their existing locations).
Nonfoods remain in the first aisle (strangest place to put them, if you ask me) but at least the Bakery sign is gone. This store doesn't have a bakery. This sign isn't gone though...
The promotional signage at each endcap is entirely Edwards signage. This one would've promoted Edwards' storebrand, which I believe was Finast (left over from Ahold's purchase of Finast, or First National Stores). That logo is gone, sadly.
Heading to the meat department in the back, we see that the drop ceiling has been removed although it looks like the framing for a new one is now in place. It's hard to tell for sure, but I believe the partial wall we see above the meat department is new and that previously, Western Beef had installed an awning over the butcher counter that Universal then left in place.
Looking across the meat department. The meat and seafood would've previously been in a separate room when the store was Western Beef, and it ain't hard to tell where the division was. But Universal opened it up without changing the floor, making this transition stick out like a sore thumb. Meat and seafood continue in their separate room behind the dairy department, which you can see sticks out into the grocery aisles for aisles 6 and beyond.
Okay, but wait a minute. I don't know too much about construction, but those (new) light fixtures are installed above the (new) drop ceiling framing. Does that mean they're temporary? Or does that mean the framing isn't actually structural, and there won't be ceiling tiles installed in it, but it's just for the appearance?
A little bit of a strange meat corner here, with dairy on the other side of the wall we see on the left. This corner still looks pretty dim, even with the new lighting.
The "Western Fish" awning (a play on Western Beef) has been removed in favor of this wall, which was newly installed over the counter. I will say that I'm not sold on the blue wall behind the counter, but we'll see how it all looks when it's done. And so this is a question I have seeing this remodel in progress: how extensive will it be? Will we get a new decor package or blank walls? The Instagram post I referenced earlier is from the firm in charge of the renovation, who also did the Compare Foods in Passaic. By the way, that's now a SuperFresh, and we'll take a look at it with the new banner in a special report tomorrow. And that Passaic store is just gorgeous, as are some of the other stores they've done. But Universal has put so little money into this store since its opening and virtually none into its other stores for many years (decades?), too, so why would this one suddenly get a big investment with brand-new decor and new fixtures? Note that, at least so far, none of the fixtures have been replaced or even repainted. Oh, and speaking of SuperFresh, the gorgeous Linden SuperFresh opened in 2019 half a mile from this store, and that store seems to do a pretty good business so far. I wonder if Universal has lost significant numbers of customers to SuperFresh in the last two years. Okay, now back to the renovation here.
Universal is much smaller than SuperFresh and has weaker produce, meat, seafood, and general grocery, but its strength is international foods. Of course, SuperFresh dedicates six long aisles to international foods along with 14 of general grocery... compared to this store's total of 11 aisles. But it is true that there's a lot packed into this store of just 29,000 square feet, less than half the size of the SuperFresh.
More Edwards SAVE! signage visible at the endcaps of each aisle here.
As I believe I mentioned previously, the orange grocery shelving is left over from the store's days as a Western Beef.
Dairy on the back wall of the main supermarket, though again the meat and seafood departments continue behind the dairy wall. Notice that the wall above the dairy cases has been newly painted white. Will we get some other decor or is that it? Honestly I wouldn't mind the blank white walls so much if the ceiling were repainted either a brighter white or a dark gray or black, and if the floors were more consistent in some way. But we can also tell these dairy refrigerators are quite old and seem to be very much in need of replacement. Pop Tards are still located in aisle 10, if you were wondering.
Time has not been kind to the frozen department in the last aisle here, though. The weirdly mismatched tile is in really bad shape, the cases are leaking, and as we see here, some of them are very noticeably rusty or worn.
New walls have been built out in the front corner and around the customer service counter, though, but no other real changes in this area. Sadly, the Edwards Express Checkout sign hanging above the counter is gone, though the backlit Express Line sign remains (and honestly might be even older).
Here's a good look at the front end from the exit door. A few things of note here. First, more Edwards SAVE! signage remains on the ends of the aisles. But second, I can't place those checkout lane markers. I assume they're secondhand from elsewhere, but I'm not sure I've seen them anywhere else. Third, notice that lane 7 has been converted into more or less a manager's office (not in use now, it looks like). I don't exactly understand why that's done, since there are offices behind the customer service counter, which you can see if you use the bathroom back that way. It's also the same thing present in the Universal-owned CTown in Orange. (Though I have no pictures of that area in Orange since the manager was sitting in the chair with his feet up on the register. Interesting.) Anyhow, we'll certainly be back at this store soon enough to see what's going on with the remodel once it's finished, and I really hope there are some more major changes soon! Make sure to check out today's other tour here, and tomorrow we have some special reports along with a look at what's coming up next.