Almost 30 million Americans live a mile or more away from a supermarket. That may not sound very far, but for the five million plus who don’t have cars, that distance can mean the difference between eating a healthy meal and getting fast food.
That’s how it is for residents of San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley neighborhood. But change is on the way. The district is slated to get its first supermarket in three decades.
Estella Moran lives in the neighborhood. She comes to a small store on Leland Avenue when she just needs one or two items, but she normally tries to avoid doing so.
“Only because sometimes the convenience stores like this, they do jack up the prices on things that we need just because of the convenience,” she says.
Moran is one of several Visitacion Valley residents who wishes there were a closer, bigger store.
“The main thing we need: big supermarket,” says Nancy Ha.
“I think we’d all like to have a grocery store closer,” agrees Toni Zernick.
But there are a few reasons one hasn’t opened sooner in Visitacion Valley. The neighborhood has a high poverty rate and a lot of ethnic diversity. Economists say either one makes it hard for markets to make money. So sometimes the city has to step in and sweeten the deal.
“Each operator is very different than the other,” says Crezia Tano, of San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. “There is no standard cookie cutter package that you can put in front of an operator.”
Tano’s office can arrange incentives, like pro bono construction work, to bring grocery stores to certain neighborhoods. A few years ago, she says, the city worked to bring one to Third Street in Bayview, not far from Visitacion Valley. The British-owned Fresh & Easy went for it.
“I think that from the outside looking in, it’s easy to say that it was an underperforming site for them,” Tano says, and she has a theory why. “When a community is so used to not having a grocery store, it takes time to change those shopping habits.”
Others think Fresh & Easy didn’t cater to the tastes of the multiethnic community. But Bayview resident Tavis Landry thinks the failure had more to do with the store’s lack of economic awareness.
“When they first opened they weren’t taking the system, the EBT system – the food stamp system,” Landry explains. “A lot of the people in these communities are using that system, and it’s just hard to get groceries if you are not accepting that type of payment.”
Last summer, Fresh & Easy announced it was selling off all of its U.S. stores, except for some it would just close. The Bayview store was on the shutdown list since it still wasn’t performing after about three years. Fresh & Easy didn’t respond to my inquiries about why. In fact, most supermarkets wouldn’t talk with me about why they don’t do business in certain neighborhoods. But one did.
“I don’t know why they don’t want to because we do want to,” says Melissa Porter, president of marketing for the Berkeley-based discount store, Grocery Outlet.
The company is opening a new branch in Visitacion Valley, and Porter says they’ve got a strategy.
“They’ll begin to customize their offering to suit this particular community,” she says. “So for instance, if there are Asian vegetables that we need to be carrying, then he’ll have the ability to bring those into this market.”
Custom stocking is important. More than half of Visitacion Valley residents are Asian American.
Nancy Ha says she’s willing to give the Grocery Outlet a try.
“We’ll try all to see the difference,” says Ha. “Like maybe the price [will be] affordable.”
Toni Zernick says, “I think I’ll go and check it out and see what’s there, and see what works with me and my family.”
Tiffany Reid, though, is not interested. She says she doesn’t think the food there is fresh enough for her.
“They’re all about quantity not quality to me,” says Reid.
Grocery Outlet’s Melissa Porter is confident they’ll get customers.
“Grocery Outlet in the past several years has opened three stores in places where a conventional market for whatever reason doesn’t want to go in there,” Porter says. “And Grocery Outlets have been extremely successful in these areas.”
We’ll find out if that goes for Visitacion Valley, too. Its store is slated to open this May.