By Richard Juarez
Like Ralphs and Vons, Albertsons is continuing the trend of moving out of inner-city areas. Change that to ethnic communities. The Ralphs and Albertsons in downtown San Diego are doing just fine because their target shoppers are their predominantly white middle class neighbors. They are leaving City Heights, National City and Chula Vista because they have lost sales to smaller specialty markets that cater to their clients’ food preferences.
The large traditional supermarkets are set up to provide the same food products in all their stores, all over the country. Their store policies do not allow individual stores to adjust their products to meet the food preferences of the neighborhood clientele. They cannot or will not adjust because they want to be able to order the same food, have the same promotions and sales at all stores, and more easily compare store performance using the same products.
That’s why Vons killed their successful Tianguis Mexican market division. The Tianguis units did things differently. How could a Utah store be compared with an LA Tianguis that sold hominy and pinto beans as loss leaders, and had a large profit margin on tortillas and hot foods? They could add an asterisk with an explanatory note, but perhaps they prefer to keep their numbers clean. (Don’t confuse management or the stockholders with facts).
At a local Ralphs store, in an area with a large Latino population, the deli–hot foods department had a significant spike in profits after adding hot Mexican food. People would line up, not just for the entrée, but to take home the entire tray. Hot Mexican food was not even on their list, so Management killed it. Made them go back to the standard hot foods available in all their stores.
I was recently in the City Heights Albertsons, looking over their hot food offerings: Fried chicken and fried potatoes. There were a couple other fried things next to the chicken and potatoes, but I could not figure out what they were. Maybe more of the same–they looked the same. This is what they offered to the most ethnically diverse community in San Diego county, where the families of the school children speak over 30 different languages.
The population of City Heights is about 58% Latino, 11% White (non-Latino), 12% Black (U.S. and many African subgroups), 17% Asian and Pacific Islander (with many Asian subgroups), and 2.5% mixed and other. Compare that limited offering to the highly rated hot food offerings at stores like Pancho Villa and the two Murphy’s markets–all three Mexican markets in City Heights, and Northgate, which is located just outside City Heights. But even with these, it’s only Mexican food.
I spoke to a regional manager of one of the big three markets. He bemoaned the fact that the markets he supervised could not adjust their food offerings to meet the desires of the area residents. He was about to close a store because more and more of their former customers were going to other stores that did provide the desired products.
In the press (and at headquarters), the store closings are blamed on underperforming stores. Truth is, the cause is underperforming management at the corporate level. Is it any wonder the stores are losing customers? The world is changing around these stores, and they will not adjust. It’s like they are the old Detroit where mostly big gas guzzling cars were built, and our choice was which color. But what we wanted was one of those small cars we saw running around Europe in the movies. Don’t care which color. I want to save on gas. And now I want an electric car–don’t want to pay for gas at all (or very little). The successful car companies will be those that have responded to customer demand for electric cars. The old Detroit companies are now struggling to catch up.
Many people are sad the Albertsons is closing, since it is the only full-size, full-service supermarket in the central area of City Heights. Even with Albertsons, parts of City Heights meet the definition of a food desert–lower income population living more than a mile from a full-size market. With it gone, the food desert issue becomes even more critical.
I say, don’t be sad! Be glad Albertsons is finally leaving! Be glad for the opportunity to replace a store that cared little for its multi-ethnic shoppers with one that will focus on providing good food and good service to the community, food that the community prefers. To quote a comment from Ken Grimes to a previous San Diego Free Press article on the Albertsons closing, what is need now is a “culturally sensitive tenant providing healthy, affordable staples, and willing to pay a living wage to City Heights residents….”
A good start, but the issue is bigger than that. As stated, the world is changing. People are demanding more control over their lives, and that starts in the supermarket. We want to know what’s in our food. We want more detail on the labels. We prefer not to have GMOs and pesticides to the extent possible. We want to know where the food was grown–San Diego county? Arizona? Mexico? China? Korea? We want to know how the food is grown, how the beef is fed, how the chickens are raised, if the fish is wild caught or raised in an ocean pen, and how the animals are slaughtered.
We would like to shop in a market where the staff members know about the food and can answer our questions (Do you have this product? Do you know where I can get it? What do I look for in buying this product? What is the shelf life? How do I store it? What’s a good way to cook it?), or find someone who can, or even look it up for us. If I can Google it, can’t the clerk in the produce section? The market should provide nutrition information on major products–fruits, vegetables and greens, meat and fish.
We cannot talk about the replacement tenant. It will be plural, replacement tenants. There will not be another 60,000 square foot market coming in. Part of Albertsons problem was they had too big a space and too many expenses to support such a large space. But the community does deserve a full-size, full-service market. To be full-service it needs to be at least 25,000 square feet, and preferably 30,000 to 35,000 square feet. Any smaller and it will be like going to Sprouts, Trader Joes, or Murphy’s Market where you need to make another trip to another store to get the goods that didn’t fit in the smaller store.
Too big a store is a problem as well. The success of stores like Sprouts and Barons is the mid-size convenience of not having to walk so far throughout the store to pick up a few products. A big store will not be a community and culturally sensitive tenant able to build a relationship with staff and customers. And what big store cares about its impact on nearby local businesses or its suppliers?
A mid-size store allows for sufficient management level people to ensure quality control in all departments. It provides sufficient staff to allow taking the time to have a more personal connection with shoppers. A mid-size store also allows for a good size prepared foods kitchen, providing a variety of hot foods, salad and vegetable dishes, soups and sandwiches, and ethnic dishes, as well as a food court seating area.
The main tenant will be a grocery market. It is important that the secondary tenant(s) have a complimentary relationship with the grocery store. Additional food related businesses for example, ones that can coexist in the large space without the high cost of building a massive wall separating the uses. Jay Powell, former Executive Director of the City Heights Community Development Corporation said, “I like the idea we have knocked around for better part of this century, to create a mercado with restaurants and crafts, with a … (grocery) anchor inside.”
Non-complimentary uses like an exercise center will cause massive parking conflicts and drive customers away. An extra heavy traffic heavy user like Walmart taking up the entire 60,000 square foot space will damage the existing businesses in the retail center when their customers choose to stay away rather than fight the parking problems. So the impact on all nearby businesses must be taken into account in the selection of tenants.
Bottom line is, the times are a changing. There is an opportunity to do it right and bring in a market and complimentary businesses that are willing to go above and beyond what other area stores have done to serve their clientele. There is so much going on in City Heights that is about community and about working together to support the dreams and desires of residents, area employees, and business owners.
It is time that larger businesses like supermarkets did more than just exist in the community. It is time they joined others in building community, doing their part by ensuring fresh healthy foods at reasonable prices for all residents, as well as better working conditions and better pay for the staff who dedicate their lives to serving the community.
Are you ready to join in? Because now’s the time to make things happen! Let me know what you think.
Richard Juarez has had a long career in community development work in City Heights, Southeastern San Diego, Barrio Logan and San Ysidro, including comprehensive planning, redevelopment, affordable housing development, retail-residential mixed-use development, and served as chief of staff for Council District Four. He is also the author of a soon to be published novel that was serialized in the San Diego Free Press in 2013, Tío Emilio and the Secrets of the Ancestors. It is a story about deciding what you want in your life and your community, and how to make it happen by connecting to your spiritual guidance and all the powers of the Universe.