John Tapper: Trailblazer

Stylized street clock in front of gourmet grocery The Garden. Photo by Eric Ryan Anderson

By Mary Yeung

He always had it, that compassion thing, says John Tapper, president of The Garden, a health food supermarket in Greenpoint. Even when he was a rebellious teenager, doing things that would drive his mother into flying-plate rages. If he saw a kid being picked on by a class bully, he would always come to the kid’s rescue. It was just who he was.

Tapper owns the long-running and celebrated grocery on Manhattan Avenue. I was going to start by asking him about the store, but all Tapper wanted to talk about was his life: Buddhism, a vegetarian lifestyle, and how eating healthy food can provide you with amazing healing powers.

I tried to get a fix on his life. “Tell me about that rebellious kid again,” I prompted. Tapper shrugged and said maybe it was because his Austrian father was an atheist and his Polish mother was a devout Catholic, and he felt he had to take sides. Or maybe because his early childhood was spent in Poland and it just wasn’t easy for a kid with a Austrian last name. Or maybe it was just his being a middle child in a family of ten kids, trying to adjust to a new American life while his parents were working long hours away from home. Who really knows why kids rebel? But he remembers hanging with a rough crowd and getting kicked out of Catholic school from time to time.

As he got older, Tapper saw some of his friends on a familiar path to drugs and jail. He found music and the strength to turn his life around. He graduated from Brooklyn Tech, and went on to study classical music at Queens College.

In the 80s, Tapper found a job as a musician at the Metropolitan Opera. He moved to Manhattan and lived in a large loft on West 27th Street with a small group of artists, musicians, and writers. Those were transformative years. He and his friends stayed up late, composing music, talking about literature, religion, politics, and food. He found the Buddhist philosophy particularly compelling, the concept of the push and pull, having compassion for all living things, and the idea of karma, where whatever kindness you put out will come back to you manifold. Today John is a vegetarian, and so are his wife and eight-year-old twins.

Tapper said when he was 24, he opened a wine and liquor store on Norman Avenue. He made good money and was somewhat happy. But in the late 80s, he visited Austin, Texas, and stumbled into a beautiful supermarket that sold organic produce with a health-oriented, gourmet deli counter. He was so impressed. He just knew that these kinds of stores were the wave of the future. “The store was Whole Foods,” he recalls. “It was privately owned and there were only two branches at the time.”

He came home inspired, and in 1994 he opened a store modeled on Whole Foods on Manhattan Avenue. “In the beginning, we were really idealistic. We only sold organic fruits and vegetables, our deli counter served only vegetarian meals, and we didn’t carry any kind of snack foods. But Greenpoint just wasn’t ready for a store like that 17 years ago.”

Tapper, who manages the store with two of his brothers, said they struggled for the first seven years. “We couldn’t even pay our rent in the summer; everybody was out of town and we had these huge electric bills.” Fortunately, his landlord understood, and he rescheduled his payments so they could pay the bulk of it in the winter, when the holiday season kicked in.

To help the business grow, the Garden today functions much like a mini Whole Foods supermarket. In addition to organic produce, it has non-organic fruits and vegetables, and carries natural meat, cheese, baked goods, coffee, honey, snacks, and healthy frozen food. This is the local place where you can find quality baking chocolate and natural cleaning products, too. “We try to order food that is free of chemicals and artificial coloring whenever possible.”

Today, the demographic in Greenpoint has changed, and the average New Yorker is much more receptive to paying more for organic food. So business is good.

Tapper says he believes in the healing power of healthy eating because he did a stint at a holistic health clinic in upstate New York back in the 80s. “I think they were called ‘Fat Farms’ in those days,” he laughs. “I saw firsthand how people came into the clinic barely able to walk, and three weeks later, after a healthy vegetarian diet, they walked out happier and healthier.”

He is alarmed by the changes in food quality worldwide in recent years. “Twenty years ago, when I visited Poland, I found the fruits and vegetables there amazingly flavorful, much better than what we had in the states. That’s because people in Eastern Europe were still farming the old way—bio-dynamically. Three years ago, I went back to Poland, and the produce changed; it tasted just like the commercially farmed products here. Americans can’t sell their gmo food to rich Western European countries, so now they’re pushing it onto poor Eastern European countries,” he sighs.

Tapper doesn’t buy the argument that many Americans can’t afford to eat organic. “In Western Europe, there are just as many low-income families as there are in the U.S., and although the food there is a lot more expensive than here, still, people are doing okay,” he says. “Instead of buying three or four tasteless tomatoes, why not buy one beautifully grown heirloom tomato and savor every bite?”

I pointed out that with a median income of about $50,000 a year in America, I’m not sure that a family of four on that income can afford a steady diet of organic food.

John conceded that I might have a point. He said small scale organic food farmers may need government subsidies so markets like his can bring the price down. It makes sense. Since the government subsidizes corn and tobacco, why not organic food?

“I recently heard a proposal from Mark Bittman (The New York Times food columnist). He suggested that we put an extra tax on junk food, and use that tax to subsidize organic farmers. Now normally, I would oppose the government imposing special taxes on anything, but in this case, I think it makes sense. We have a major obesity epidemic in this country. We need to do something!” he says.

The Garden
921 Manhattan Avenue
Greenpoint, Brooklyn 11222
(718) 389-6448