Corporate Mustard Showroom Helps Explain New York’s Retail Rent Crisis


The story of skyrocketing rents has two components: residential and commercial.

My New York neighborhood, the Upper West Side, features fairly stable residential rents, but commercial rents seem to have been soaring. This has caused the familiar angst over the loss of neighborhood businesses to the ubiquitous bank branches and drug stores.

But today even chains are getting priced out. The quintessential marker of gentrification, Starbucks, was recently forced to relocate in my neighborhood. They vacated their stores at 67th and Columbus when the landlord raised their rent to $140,550/month.

You’ve got to sell a lot of grande’s to cover that kind of rent check. How many businesses can realistically survive at this location? (Maybe none – it’s still vacant).

A block up the street, another store helps illustrate the forces sending retail rents through the roof. It’s the Maille “mustard boutique” at 68th and Columbus pictured above.

Maille is a supermarket brand of dijon mustard. It’s a product of Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch food and consumer products giant. You may not know Unilever, but you know their brands, including Hellman’s, Dove, Lipton, and even Ben and Jerry’s.

This particular location provides mustard tastings, and sells dijon in a variety of flavors not typically available. I believe they also have some vinegars. I was once needed some dijon and purchased a jar of their regular flavor for $7 – which is $3 more it sells for at the grocery store a few blocks away.  They apparently charge as much as $99 for a jar of black truffle mustard.

I don’t know what their monthly rent is. It’s a smaller, mid-block store than the former Starbucks location. Based on square footage equivalents, the rent would be somewhere around $30,000 a month.

Can you really sell enough mustard to cover that kind of rent (to say nothing of the “mustard sommelier” and other employees they have on staff and all the other costs of operations)? I see people in the store, but it’s never crowded. And it’s rare to see someone walking out with a shopping bag.

It strikes me as dubious that this store could even break even, much less turn a profit that would earn the required return on invested capital.

But ultimately it doesn’t matter if this store makes money or not. The rent isn’t even a rounding error to Unilever and can easily be justified as a marketing expense.

If there’s one thing it’s not hard to find in this world, it’s gourmet mustard. This neighborhood needs a corporate mustard showroom like it needs a hole in the head.

But we have one anyway. And there’s actually a second location in the Flatiron. These are the only Maille stores in the US, save for what appears to be a popup going into a Connecticut mall.

You can tell a lot of amazing “only in New York” stories. But this is an example of a bad one. These showrooms may be exclusive to the city, but they put upward pressure on retail rents and make it harder for actual neighborhood serving businesses to make it. (This location was closed over the summer for a sidewalk replacement project and I was hopeful it wouldn’t reopen – alas, it was to be denied).

Multiply two Maille mustard showrooms by all the other major corporations who use NYC as a branding platform, and it’s easy to get a sense as to why retail rents are so high in Manhattan.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Photo: Maille mustard “boutique” on Columbus Ave at 68th St.

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If large brandowners want to enclose Manhattan retail plots and raise mustard, I say that's the whole point of private property.

Crocodile tears

Enjoy the taste of your own medicine, Mr. Renn. You did as much as anyone to promote the policies that led to this, during your umpteen years of learning on the job as a self-qualified urban policy expert, adopting a rather rapid succession of mutually discordant principles as each talking point in turn was shown up as transparently ridiculous--the only common thread being pandering to big-money developer and political interests who pay urbanist "experts" to whitewash their schemes. I'm sorry, but in this radically disillusioned time there's just no way to make that look good, or even marginally plausible, any more. Still, you're going to have to keep trying if you want to maintain your carpetbagger's foothold in Manhattan.

For several generations now, any number of real New Yorkers with no pretentions to consultancy or punditry, or to any expertise beyond a knowledge of their hometown, would have told you that Maille showrooms are the way things tend to go in Manhattan unless the sort of policies you advocate--when you do advocate concrete polices--are sharply checked. It is in large part thanks to the services of such as yourself that this tendency has gotten completely out of hand in the last couple of decades.

You like to say that you started out as a kid from the country with a fascination for big cities. Maybe, after all, that wasn't the best qualification for an urban policy expert. New York has, after all, seen a lot of kids from the country with a fascination for the big city. They're usually just a notch up from the type of kid who once ran away to join the circus.

True, many or most prominent New Yorkers have always come from out in the country somewhere. (That's the way it's always been in big cities.) But historically, those people got respect because New York was long a center for demanding real-world businesses, or other endeavours with real-world criteria for success. New York has since chased all those businesses out (and turned its non-business sectors into travesties). This was done under policies like those you have long positively advocated, though you are now often reduced to just whitewashing them. In any case, people from out in the country somewhere once rose to prominence in New York because they were good enough in some field of endeavor (real or not) whose products many people wanted to pay for--not because they were professional urbanists, paid by the few to help cram urban policy down the throats of the many.

You're just a counter person in the policy equivalent of a mustard showroom. Like the Maille showroom, the Manhattan Institute's operating expenses, including your salary, are just a rounding error for its sponsors.