Tuesday, March 7, 2017

To Market, To Market: Albertson's Re-Opens in San Pedro

San Pedro is like Mayberry or Peyton Place. It is similarly endowed with a unique combination of folksy charm and community rancor - both of which came into play when Albertsons reopened its doors on Western Avenue on March 1.

In 2014, Albertsons was purchased by Haggen, a grocery chain based in the Pacific Northwest. A little over a year later, Haggen filed Chapter 11, closing its Southern California outposts and laying off any former Albertsons employees who remained to work for the new company.

Albertsons' grand opening included a packed parking lot
and a brass band, courtesy of San Pedro High School.
Haggen was not successful at any of its locations in Southern California. However, its usurping of that particular Albertsons location - one of the established hubs of San Pedro on both a material and an emotional level - was met with the vehement disapproval of a community that is fiercely loyal to people and institutions that treat them well.

The lights in the store space had been inexplicably turned on for months, but I did not know about the reopening of Albertsons until a few weeks ago. While at the shopping center on Western, I finally noticed a sign on the door stating that the store would reopen at 9 a.m. on March 1 and that the first 100 shoppers would receive a free basket of groceries. I pictured something out of a "Laverne and Shirley" episode where madcap shoppers would be plowing through the market, frantically filling their shopping carts to the brim. Then I realized that "basket" probably meant those small plastic baskets that sit at the entrance. Not as much comedic potential, and I wondered if any homeless people would get in line to pick up free food.

The red carpet at Albertsons was strewn with flowers
and bargains.
Later, I learned that the store was opened at 8 a.m. due to the eagerness of early bird shoppers. I never saw the first 100 as I sauntered over from Starbucks at 8:45 with my camera in one hand and an Americano in the other - indeed, there seemed to be a number of people already walking out with their purchases and freebies.

As I neared the entrance to Albertsons, the sound of a marching band blared triumphantly across the parking lot. The San Pedro High School marching band was there to kick off the event, with parents, members of the community, and kids from Dana Middle School looking on. Speeches were made by Albertsons management and by representatives of the store's parent company, and a certificate was presented to Albertsons by the City of Los Angeles.

Rick says "cheese" - literally. The former Albertsons
employee has returned to share his expertise
in formaggio.
Unlike the other big "red carpet" event a few days prior, the reopening of Albertsons went off without a hitch. And unlike the controversies that have surrounded the former event, the celebration of the supermarket's return to a very diverse community reflected its immigrant roots. Nearly all of the department managers at Albertsons boasted Latino surnames and the high school band was a veritable spectrum of skin tones - although there were no female participatnts (except for the director!). The aisles were stocked with a global feast of exotic produce, gourmet cheeses and meats, a tempting bakery and all the other ingredients needed to honor one's Slavic/Italian/Hispanic/Nordic/Asian culinary heritage.

A number of former Albertsons/Haggen employees have returned to Albertsons on Western Avenue. I met Rick, who was preparing bite-sized samples of Parmigiano Reggiano with pear paste and serving them in the revamped deli department.

Chester Cheetah greets shoppers in the snack food aisle.
"There are a lot of new products, a lot more sanitary measures," said Rick, who was wearing a sort of snood over his full beard. "There is a lot more of high quality products that look really good - it gets you hungry."

Rick moved to Northern California for a year, then moved back to the area before Albertsons offered him a job in his former store. Some of his former co-workers were hired at Vons Pavilions or Ralphs markets in the Palos Verdes area; a number of them chose to stay at their new jobs. Still, there were many familiar faces when Rick came back to Albertsons.

"It was like coming back to school after summer break," he said. "You get to see a lot of new and old faces, everyone hugging and saying hi, catching up on what they've been doing for the last year."

Rick is the cheese specialist in the Albertsons deli, a new position for the store.

My go-to item was always the salt and vinegar chicken wings.
"We want to educate customers and introduce them to more gourmet cheeses," he said. "We're going to try that out and see if it works."

While San Pedro is known for its deep love of history, as was shown with Albertsons' closing nearly two years ago, nothing should be considered forever. Still, Rick is optimistic. 

"I like to learn things so anything I learn from this experience I can take somewhere else, or stay in this company and move forward," he said.

Another Haggen in Lomita that closed last year is now being turned into an international market, with food from Asia and the Middle East. When I was growing up, my parents had to go all the way to Gardena to buy our huge bag of rice, dried anchovies, Kikkoman soy sauce, and other Asian-y staples. So it's great that there are more ethnic markets popping up in the South Bay. But we still need that friendly neighborhood market where everyone shops and where we can celebrate the good old U.S. of A. - with chicken wings, tabouli, Italian cookies, nopales, and fig spread, all under one
fluorescen-lighted sky.

The L.A. Business Journal

The Daily Breeze

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