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.
John Lawrence says
Wise words. But who will oversee the placement of a new supermarket/grocery store in the old Albertsons location? Will it be sensitive to community needs or simply a market driven decision?
Anna Daniels says
John- you summed up the over-arching issue–what parties of interest will ultimately shape the decision?
Richard Juarez says
John, the decision will be made by Kimco Realty Corporation, a real estate investment trust (REIT) that owns and operates North America’s largest portfolio of neighborhood and community shopping centers. Being a nationwide corporation responsible to stockholders, and driven by stock performance, there may not be much of a track record being sensitive to community needs. But these need not be conflicting objectives. The big box corporate supermarket failed because it was not sensitive to the community’s food preferences. The little Vien Dong market a mile to the east of Albertsons far outperformed the goliath by providing the foods their shoppers wanted. Does the REIT want a multi-state corporation that will pay the rent even if the store is empty, or a store that will be there paying rent every month forever because the shoppers love it and will support it? Either way they get their money, but it has to be better for them and their other tenants to have a successful anchor tenant that grows over time with their success rather than slowly fading away as Albertsons did.
Ian Miller says
Such a great article, and this is also a great response. I get a little concerned when people talk about “who will shape the decision of who provides our food.” You do! More than ever, businesses are realizing that they’re beholden to more sophisticated and fractured/segmented customers. Whether that be offering different products, different hours, etc., they know that they have to win over consumers. The big guys aren’t set up for this for all the reasons that Richard explains (they make their money by buying in bulk and managing heavily from the top). That works fine for them in the homogenized cities and neighborhoods, but they’ll never cut it in a place like City Heights. It’s just not in their business DNA.
There is nothing preventing a group of citizens from creating their own markets to serve whatever need exists. If you want a market that provides only locally grown products, consider the City Heights Farmers Market or start a market in a nearby retail space (there’s some available on the next block over from Fairmount and University). While City Heights absolutely deserves a full-size market (and especially one that can provide bus passes and other services), there’s plenty of need for more small markets that can offer goods that are complementary to the existing markets. There’s no point in selling corn meal, flour and other staples unless you can really beat the other markets on price. But there’s every reason to offer specialty items (either targeting specific cultures in City Heights or organic and local-made products for people looking for that).
I definitely see the loss of Albertsons as a great opportunity for more diversity of food access which better reflects the diversity of City Heights.
Richard Juarez says
Ian, thanks for adding so much to this discussion. Your insights and suggestions are right on. And thanks for the email message. I will get in touch and, as you requested, get you involved.
Felicia Shaw says
What I find most compelling about your commentary is the notion that we should look at the Albertsons’ departure as an opportunity to get it right. The whole issue of food – what we eat, where it comes from, and how it is connected to community values is equally if not more important than the economic benefits behind the industry. Like art and culture, food is one of the few things that brings us all together. Our vision for the next tenant should replace the sterile corporate supermarket model with one that builds on our need to be nourished and enjoy food together. The idea of a place that not only sells fresh fruits, vegetables and meats, but allows us to learn how to cook healthy dishes, and even enjoy eating them with our neighbors sounds enticing and do-able – if those in the decision-making seats choose to listen. Our libraries learned long ago that their role isn’t just to loan out books. Libraries today are double as community centers and gathering places. Let’s set a high bar for what happens next and advocate for more creative solutions to our dilemma.
Anna Daniels says
It is clear that there has been no community uprising to keep Albertsons in that location. That being the case, I agree with Felicia– this is an opportunity to get it right.
Richard Juarez says
Felicia, great comments–exactly what many of us have been saying. I agree it’s time to set the bar higher, and bring in a market that provides fresh health foods at good prices (and local food as much as possible), a wide variety of fresh and packaged foods desired by the many ethnic groups in the community, and multi-ethnic foods of the community served hot in the food court, or for convenience, ready to take home to feed the family. A market that is willing to do the extras that will create a community focal point for all things food related including nutrition information and classes, food tastings from the many cultures in the community, and cooking classes on foods of the many cultures. And you are right, people in the community will need to advocate for this different way of doing business. The time is now.
Sylvia Martinez says
Thank you, Albertsons, for signing the 10 year lease that helped the whole complex get built. We knew you were never right for this neighborhood, but we needed your balance sheet to providing the initial bankability. Now that we are looking for a tenant, instead of a balance sheet, we can get what we want. I agree that it is a great opportunity. My only worry is that we need to work with the new owners of the complex (no longer William Jones) to make sure they don’t sell the community to the highest bidder.
The worst outcome would be a Walmart. It’s not just the parking, but the other competition it would take away from local businesses such as clothing, party supplies, and shoes. The little shops along University would really suffer.
Richard Juarez says
Good point Sylvia. I mentioned the potential impact of a Walmart on the shops in the retail center. But you are right, a Walmart would also have a major negative impact on the many little shops on University Avenue, just as they have done in so many other communities. That would be a terrible gift to the community from the new owner.
So yes, we need to work with the new owners, and there are people doing so right now. But some of them have limited objectives, such as pushing for agreements to hire locally, and to pay a living wage. Yes, important issues. But as in the discussion above, this is a much broader issue than jobs. It is about serving this multi-ethnic community better than Albertsons did, and doing so in a manner that builds community through food.
Heather Weightman says
How about a community-owned grocery cooperative? Who’s in?
Andy Cohen says
Co-ops, by and large, tend to be much more expensive (see: People’s Co-op in OB), and thus it’s not really a good fit for this neighborhood.
Richard Juarez says
Heather, I have to agree with Andy. The OB People’s Food Co-op would not be a good model in City Heights because of their higher prices, because it is a vegetarian only, and because it is a very small store with limited products. It is not an easy transition from a small store operation to a full-service mid-size store as needed in City Heights. The people at People’s Food do a great job filling the limited niche they have chosen, and are dedicated to community ownership and returning some profits to their members.
My preference is a hybrid model of community ownership, where a nonprofit organization can invest in the for-profit market (with grants) and receive a share of the profits, which they can use to fund programs and services to the community. I believe this approach, plus lower prices for all shoppers, is a more effective approach to community ownership and giving back to the people served by the market.
Ian Miller says
I like the idea of a hybrid as well. I don’t think a co-op has to be defined by OB People’s. Their prices are higher because they’re offering local/organic goods. A co-op can offer whatever they want. If City Heights wants basic staples, a co-op can offer such a product at a very competitive price.
Anne Wilson says
Thank you for writing this article, Rich. For ten years, I worked on the block opposite this store and in spite of trying to support it as a local business, found the management and service poor, and the selection uninviting. City Heights community organizations should band together and ask for a meeting with Kimco management to make sure they understand the market and don’t make a really bad decision- for City Heights and for their balance sheet. Does the City have any leverage with Kimco to influence the next tenant selection? Perhaps our next Mayor can weigh in….
What a radical idea. Something that is a win win for both the neighborhood AND the business.
Richard Juarez says
Thanks for adding to the conversation, Anne. There are people right now trying to determine what leverage the City has. As I mentioned in a response to another comment above, this nationwide real estate investment trust is driven more by shareholder returns than by community concerns. But, Kimco representatives have met with some community representatives, and likely will meet with more. Hopefully they will come to see that their objectives can be met by working to help meet community preferences.
Janice Dempsey says
Give them hell! How about a Northside type market? It has lots and lots of Hispanic food items, but also caters to other nationalities. I live in University Heights, and drove to the Albertson’s in City Heights once to buy a special type of booze, but nothing else. If I want to stop at a big (national) store, I have Vons and Ralphs that are closer to me. However, I was so impressed with the area, with the incredible redevelopment of CH. So, I’m not very happy with Albertson’s closing; I only wish they could have been able to cater to their clientele. But – Pleeze – no Walmart putting all the mom-and-pop stores out of business!
Richard Juarez says
Hi Janice. Thanks for your comments. Since the local Albertsons was not able to cater to their clientele due to corporate dictated policies, which are not going to change in the near future, I’m glad they are closing. As a result of this opportunity and all the buzz and activity around the issue, what comes after will be much better. Not Walmart!
Carolina Juarez says
Your article is so insightful with many considerations for communities everywhere. I live in Oakland and while we do have markets, large and small with Mexican and Chinese food in addition to the more standard market offerings, we still have neighborhoods that have no markets at all to serve people of limited means. Your ideas should be considered by all cities in serving all people. Good luck in San Diego with the Albertson departure dilemna.
The tone of the article seems to suggest a racist conspiracy on the part of these corporations to deprive the ethnic neighborhoods food as cheap as the people in white neighborhoods get it. It further criticizes these corporations for not tailoring their offerings to each of the multitude of ethnic factions.
Its the choice of consumers to shop for what they want and the choice of retailers to choose which locations stay open. Theres no sense in bashing Albertsons for the consumers not wanting to shop there and if you want to eat as cheap as the masses eat what they eat.
Cathy Mendonca says
“City Heights Residents Want A Grocery Store But Maybe Not El Super
Residents reeled when Albertsons announced this year it was closing its grocery store in City Heights, which many call a food desert. Now, there’s news another grocer could take its place as early as August, but the reaction to it is about the same — sour.
The replacement, El Super, is embroiled in tense union contract negotiations with workers in Los Angeles who want paid sick leave and better wages. Attention on the company has brought forward allegations its stores stock expired dairy products, meat and baby food.
“It doesn’t make me feel better that a new supermarket is going to be in City Heights when they’re not treating their workers fairly and when they could be endangering the health of everyone who either shops or works there,” said City Heights resident Cathy Mendonca. …”
Complete KPBS article: