I rarely visit my mom in Short Hills, N.J., without stopping at the Kings Super Market. The gleaming wide aisles beckon: "You must have these locally made pita chips, this gourmet hot fudge sauce." I can't think about the rye bread without salivating, especially since I live in New England, land of the bland dinner roll. And the red peppers, green grapes, and golden pineapple chunks are all perfect specimens -- huge, gorgeous, and, of course, much too expensive -- because while Kings is a superior alternate universe of freshness, it's also the hub of Short Hills high society.
Like Alice during her stay in Wonderland, the Kings shopper is confronted with confounding rules of decorum. Sweatpants and baseball caps are verboten. You must top your tennis dress with a fur coat. And leave your sunglasses on. You can't run in, even for a pint of Hä agen-Dazs Vanilla Swiss Almond or the New York Times, without running into someone you know -- like the mother of the obnoxious overachiever in your son's class. ("William is spending the summer as a youth ambassador to the Hague.") It's a calculated risk. The only other option is getting caught at the Shop-Rite across the street paying 25% less for the same canned goods.
The Kings chain is one of New Jersey's top 100 employers with about 2,700 employees and $400 million in revenue, but it has an entrepreneurial heart. A Garden State family started the company in 1936, and it stayed independent until 1988, when Britain's Marks & Spencer bought it. At this writing, Marks & Spencer is considering selling the Kings chain to New York-based Gristede's Foods Inc. Regardless, there's no other Kings like the one in Short Hills -- the universe wouldn't be big enough for two.
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