The long-running campaign by Stewart’s Shops to build bigger and better convenience stores would logically lead to increased sales for the Malta-based chain of 339 stores.
Another logical result would be decreased sales for competitors.
One such competitor is Arshad “Ali” Butt, who has operated a convenience store for 17 years on Guilderland Avenue in Rotterdam.
Ever since Stewart’s opened a new store 300 feet away from his Qik Pik in late September, his sales have suffered.
“Business is hurting because it’s right next to us,” Butt said. “All these people are starting to go over there. Even though we are thankful to those who are coming to me — they are loyal and say, ‘Ali, we are here because we know you, you’ve been here’ — it’s not right.”
Butt said he’s still seeing his regulars — customers who are used to his friendly service — but he’s missing out on a portion of customers who would stop at random. And while some neighbors have told him they’ve decided to boycott Stewart’s, it isn’t impacting the chain’s steady business or directly helping Qik Pik.
Stewart’s Spokeswoman Erica Komorske, when asked about how the new location is doing, gave the following statement: “Our new shop in Rotterdam offers an aesthetic upgrade to this corner. There was a positive need in the market and the shop is doing well with support from the community.”
Butt said more than 700 community members signed petitions urging the Rotterdam Town Board to try to prevent construction of the new shop. In one petition, residents cited its proximity to a residential area which had to be rezoned for the Stewart’s to be constructed, as well as its proximity to Qik Pik, as causes for concern.
Butt and supporters attended most Town Board meetings, starting in early 2019, to share their concerns. That’s why he said he was surprised when the board gave Stewart’s the green light despite their attempts.
“I’ve been in this country for 40 years,” the Pakistan native said. “In summer of ’83, I chose to live here. I said, ‘You know what, this is the country I was looking for.’ I chose America because liberty, independence … but I was so amazed when I had so much support and they still turned me down. I was so disappointed when I learned that they said yes to Stewart’s.”
Town Supervisor Steven Tommasone said Stewart’s initially asked to have a few parcels rezoned behind the former AC Body Works, making the partially residential area on Floral Avenue off of Guilderland Avenue suitable for them to set up shop.
“The difficult thing for any community is that you don’t want to be in a position where there’s a perception that there are people in government picking winners and losers, because that’s not what it is,” Tommasone said. “It’s not that type of a thing. It’s not that type of a decision. What happens is the property is zoned for a particular use, somebody buys it and now they can use it. If they’re using it today for a body works shop or for whatever the case may be, there’s a bunch of other uses that are allowed within that zoning classification. You can’t just go in there and try to stop them. Whether you like it or not, it’s just how it is.”
Tommasone said the Town Board will be working on an update to its comprehensive plan throughout the next year.
“There’s properties out there that today are zoned, just as an example, agricultural and at some point in your future, those properties will probably be looked at for residential development,” he said.
Tommasone said he can’t prevent individual businesses from entering areas if they aren’t causing physical harm — like impacting air or water quality — to the area.
“And the difficulty is going to be for us is to just make sure that we put zoning in different areas that affords an opportunity for businesses to come in and thrive,” he said. “And yes, there’ll be competition. And again, we can’t limit the competition.”
The decision on a similar request by Stewart’s Shops went the other way this past summer. When the company proposed a new location at the corner of Washington and Colvin avenues in Albany, the city Planning Board rejected the request, saying it would be inconsistent with the character of the neighborhood, among other reasons.
That specific shop was proposed to be located across the street from a pre-existing gas station and down the street from other convenience stores.
And the blade cuts both ways for Stewart’s Shops: Competitors have sunk millions into big new convenience stores that have doubtless siphoned revenue away from nearby Stewart’s Shops. One of the area’s newest Cumberland Farms stores was built directly across Route 146 from a next-generation Stewart’s in Guilderland.
Global Partners put the region’s first Alltown Fresh store on Erie Boulevard in Schenectady, 200 feet from the Country Farms convenience store and 600 feet from one of Stewart’s smaller stores.
Butt’s daughter Maryam Arshad, who worked at the Qik Pik for several years, said she felt the new Stewart’s store wasn’t necessary for the community, as the company has another shop on Helderberg Avenue a mile and a half away.
“My dad knows every single customer on a first-name basis,” she said. “[It’s] the reason that we still get business. … I just don’t understand the point of adding another Stewart’s a mile away. At this point, it’s not trying to be convenient for customers. It’s trying to make money; that’s what I don’t appreciate.”
Butt said he doesn’t expect any relief from the town or Stewart’s in response to his loss of business. He’s just grateful for the customers who are sticking around.
“We are so thankful to those who love me, accept me as [part of] the community,” Butt said. “I still thank the people of Rotterdam who keep me alive, even though Stewart’s is trying to kill me. We just thank God we are still alive. We’re hurting a little, that’s true, but customers are still coming in.”