New York State In-depth

Accidental grocers transforming a neighborhood food market

Jessica Dussan and Leo Torres have gotten used to cleaning up after disasters.

The husband-and-wife team, who have owned and operated the Bohemia-based environmental restoration firm Green Island Group for the past decade, have restored a wide variety of damaged commercial and residential properties.

Removing hazards like asbestos and mold, as well as performing lead abatement, have been Green Island’s focus, as it specializes in restoration and emergency response.

But in recent weeks, the entrepreneurial couple has been working hard to restore a flagging neighborhood grocery store, which has become their latest business venture.

Dussan and Torres are the new owners of Fair Trade Market, a 24,000-square-foot food market on Connetquot Avenue in Islip Terrace.

The couple could be called “accidental grocers,” as they were researching locations for another business when they learned that the Islip Terrace market was being offered for sale.

Dussan and Torres, who will soon be applying for a retail license in New York’s budding cannabis industry, had been looking for properties in the towns of Babylon and Brookhaven to locate their planned dispensary, when they stumbled on the grocery store listing.

“I was looking at locations for that, and then we found this,” Torres says. “So, we thought since the licenses were going to take a while, why not have a business that will bring in some income in the meantime.”

FAIR TRADE MARKET: With new owners at the helm, the 24,000-square-foot grocery store is freshening up. / Photo by David Winzelberg

So far, becoming successful grocers has taken a lot of green. The couple has already invested about $1 million in purchasing and renovating the place.

“It had a lot of problems,” Torres said. “The produce wasn’t fresh, there were many expired items, and the prices were out of line. We felt we could do a better job.”

Improvements at Fair Trade include a renovated produce area, repairs and upgrades to its refrigeration and HVAC systems, new plantings out front, and a new fresh seafood department.

“We opened a sushi section with a sushi chef on the premises,” Dussan said. “We’re also planning to create a juice bar with sophisticated equipment.”

In addition, Fair Trade’s new owners will soon introduce a new bakery department with baking on the premises and create a “classic butcher shop” which will cure its own meat and offer dry-aged steaks.

The market’s meat department is a favorite of Torres, who grew up around his parents’ small meat market in his native Guayaquil, Ecuador. Dussan, who was born in Queens and spent five years in Columbia as a child, began her career mopping floors in downtown Manhattan during the cleanup following the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.

In 2012, Dussan and Torres started Green Island Group out of their garage. In 2019, Dussan was named Entrepreneur of the Year by New York State’s Entrepreneur Assistance Centers for her role in leading the MWBE restoration and environmental response firm.

In navigating their new grocery business, the couple has taken a very personal approach.

“Last week, a shopper was getting ready to call a taxi to get back home with his groceries and Leo jumped in and drove him home in his car,” Dussan said.

Their hands-on strategy and work ethic hasn’t been lost on local admirers.

“Grit and determination are what Jessica and Leo bring to the table and, judging by the improvements they’ve made already, as well as exceptional pricing, Fair Trade will provide a great grocery alternative for our community,” said Suffolk County Legislator Steve Flotteron .

Fair Trade has become even more essential to the neighborhood recently, following the recent closure of the Stop & Shop supermarket in nearby Islandia just two months ago.

Meanwhile, the accidental grocers continue to grow with their new enterprise and take cues from Fair Trade’s shoppers.

“It’s a community supermarket,” says Dussan. “We’re on the floor everyday talking and interacting with our customers to find out what they need. We’re listening.”

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