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KARROT STICKS

Entrepreneur finds success with hip, healthy organic food stores in Clinton Hill & beyond

for The Brooklyn Paper
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He may be biased, but Carlos Aguila truly believes the "best smoothie in Brooklyn" can be found at Karrot, his newly opened health food store in Clinton Hill.

Aguila, who dubs himself "the hardest working health food man in Brooklyn," says the success of the store’s signature Blueberry Jubilee smoothie lies in "the whole lot of love" lavished on the drink by Rafael Infante, Karrot’s "Juiceologi­st."

Infante, the store’s manager and Aguila’s brother-in-law, makes a not-too-sweet, frothy, vividly purple drink. Whether it’s the best in Brooklyn is another matter. I’ll leave that up to more discerning smoothie slurpers.

What is beyond dispute is Aguila’s business savvy. In the span of 16 months this first-time entrepreneur opened two Karrot stores in Clinton Hill. The first he opened on Myrtle Avenue in September 2003, and the second on Grand Avenue, about six blocks from the Myrtle Avenue location, in December.

Karrot number three, triple the size of the first, is under construction on 181st Street and Cabrini Boulevard in the Bronx.

Part laid-back dude who greets each customer with a "Whaaaassss­uuup," part Donald Trump with The Donald’s gift for hyperbole and eye on the bottom line, Aguila, 44, says of the neighborhood where he lives with his wife, Florinda Infante, "Clinton Hill is fabulous. There’s a fantastic mix of ethnic groups here with a small-town community feeling."

After a 23-year career in banking, an experience Aguila describes as "a cruise ship that lures passengers with the drip-drip-drip of a pay check," Aguila had had enough of corporate life. Being his own boss appealed to him and staying in his neighborhood and walking to work seemed like a fantasy.

One day, on a trek to purchase organic foods and natural vitamins, Aquila says, "A light went off in my head. I knew that if I was looking for natural products in Clinton Hill - and not finding them - other folks were looking, too."

Aguila decided to open a health food store that carried "the best" natural and organic products. A space became available on Myrtle Avenue, Clinton Hill’s business strip, and, although the store wasn’t as expansive as Aguila envisioned, he found a way to make it work.

He stocks an extensive selection of goods.

Karrot shoppers are impressed with the inventory, which Aguila says he prices "10 to 15 percent lower than Manhattan health food stores and some stores in Brooklyn."

On Karrot’s shelves are international teas, organic and natural beauty products that include well-known companies such as Rachel Perry and Jason Natural Cosmetics. Karrot even stocks natural pet foods and animal care items. Fresh organic dairy products and eggs are also available.

"You’d be surprised how many of our customers are aware of the cruelty inflicted on animals and don’t want to support that," he says. "We’ve got lots of quick cuisine stuff, lots of low-carb breads and boxed goods for the low-carb crowd, cereals, you name it.

"We carry books from local artists, and we support the local art scene by commissioning paintings from area artists," says Aguila. Among several murals on the walls of Karrot’s Myrtle Avenue store is a Gustav Klimt-style work titled "Nourishment in the Garden of Eden" by Alex Pimienta, that features the store’s logo, a bright-orange carrot, in the swirl of a woman’s dress.

To differentiate his store’s inventory from that of bigger natural food chains, Aguila stocks products from small producers, some of which can be found only in Karrot’s shops.

"I don’t rely on our distributors to dump goods on us," says Aguila. "I actively search out quality products. I hear about suppliers through word of mouth and trade shows. Sometimes I’ll get lucky and someone will walk in the door with something great."

After striking up a conversation with Aguila, Maya Kaimal, a Clinton Hill neighbor and cookbook author, began selling her small line of curried simmer sauces under the label Maya Kaimal Fine Indian Foods ($5.45) at Karrot. [See sidebar.]

"People love what we have here, but it’s our emphasis on customer service that keeps folks happy," Aguila says. He spends several hours a day in each of the shops attending to customers.

"I hate to use the word ’customer’ because they’re so much more than that," he says. "These are the folks that support us. That’s not some rap. That’s the reality."

On a recent visit to Karrot, a customer who chatted with Aguila at the counter summed up the Myrtle Avenue store’s ambience.

"Karrot is the hip health food store," she said.

Another added, "Carlos is always really friendly. The store is so organized and clean. It’s a cool place to shop."

As far as the notion of an empire of Karrot stores goes, Aguila says, "I’m not sure how far I’ll take this. Maybe you’ll open the New York Times one day and there will be a picture of me and my crew with the caption: ’Why are Whole Foods Afraid of These People?’"

He laughs and turns to a customer, "Yo, Jenny. Whaaassssu­uup?"


Karrot (431 Myrtle Ave. between Waverly and Clinton avenues in Clinton Hill) accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover and food stamps. For information, call (718) 522-9753.

The Karrot at 283 Grand Ave. (between Clifton Place and Lafayette Avenue in Clinton Hill) accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover. For information, call (718) 789-1020.

Both stores are open Monday through Saturday, from 9 am to 8 pm, and Sunday, from 9 am to 7 pm.

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Reasonable discourse

Miguel Negron from Morningside/Harlem says:
Dear Mr. Aguila,

Your article "The Obama Revolution" was good and straight to he point. I liked it....by the way the smoothie was delicious.

Sincerely,
Miguel (sammi14_us@yahoo.com)
7/17/08
July 17, 2008, 5:18 pm

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