Monday, November 24, 2008

Saluting the Troops Through Shopping

No, I don't mean the Bush dictum to "go out and shop" as a way of keeping the home fires burning. You're probably aware that while our service men and women, including the National Guard, are in harms way on our behalf, they and their families frequently have a tough time making ends meet at home. As do those who are retired from the services. One of the benefits devised to help has been the system of commissaries that offers foodstuff and other essentials at discounted prices. Only the families of active and retired military, including the National Guard and reservists, can shop at these commissaries, so unless you're part of this family it probably hasn't been on your radar.

In San Diego, we have the largest commissary in the world. The non-profit Naval Base San Diego Commissary on 32nd St., near downtown, opened on April 20, 2007 to serve a customer base of 267,000. Today, the average number of transactions is 4,000 a day, with much more on paydays. More numbers? The building itself is more 127,000 square feet, with 75,000 of this making up the sales floor. The Commissary's 18 aisles are wide, at least a third larger than conventional markets (but no more directional shopping arrows). There are more than 800 linear feet of frozen food. There are 29 cash registers. Think of it as a very large Costco in terms of size but focusing almost exclusively on food.

I accompanied Lisa Schmidt of A Blog About Food in early October after she commented on Twitter about the amazing buys she found there. "Price is number one, with the extreme best deals being in milk and dairy, the meat department and spices," she said. "These can be up to half off (and more when referring to spices) what I pay in civilian stores."

In fact, store director William Vick said that a family of four could save over $3,000 a year shopping at the Commissary. All commissaries sell products at cost plus a five percent surcharge, which is used to build new stores and modernize existing ones.

The other reason Schmidt shops at the Commissary is selection. "Sometimes they have foods available that are not usually found in this region of the country. Like I found some dumplings in the frozen food section that I'd only seen in Kentucky."

In October I jokingly asked if I could send her a shopping list and instead she very kindly invited me to tag along with her so I could see the place. I couldn't buy anything, of course, but I did get a wonderful new friend out of it and a great opportunity to see a place usually out of bounds to civilians. Following that trip, Vick took me on a more formal tour of the Commissary. Ironically, although he manages a team of 190 employees, he can't shop there either, having been with the Air Force for a tour of duty but not long enough to take retirement. So, for those of you who have no military affiliation, here's a peek at a place you might not ever be able to visit or at least shop at. And, for those who have access to the Commissary but somehow don't make it there to shop, here, perhaps, is a little incentive, especially going into Thanksgiving and the holidays.

The store itself is a an enormous stucco structure that's not much to look at from the outside. But inside is a mighty food emporium that is clean and bright, thanks to skylights and automated lighting that adjusts to the natural light, an energy cost savings that Vick enthusiastically bragged about.

At the entrance is a massive produce section, almost 11,000 square feet in size. Vick explained that they try to get as much of the produce as they can from local sources, using Coast Produce Company in Los Angeles.

You'll see the variety of everything you'd expect to find in a civilian supermarket in Southern California only in tremendous quantity. Plus, since the Commissary has a large Asian customer base as well as customers who have been based in Asia and enjoy Asian cuisine, there are displays of more exotic produce that you'd usually find in Asian markets, like taro root, long beans and banana hearts. And, a considerable amount of Hispanic products to appeal to their many Hispanic shoppers or those who like Hispanic cuisine.

Also in the produce section is an interactive computer kiosk. Given the enormity of the store, the management decided to set up a screen that allows customers to place an order in the deli department (on the opposite end of the Commissary) so that it would be ready for pick up before they check out.

About 5,000 orders monthly are placed through the kiosk. Allison Chase, a regular customer, loves this service and has been encouraging her friends to take advantage of it, too.

Vick is also proud of the organics sections that he's established in produce, dairy and packaged goods. However, he acknowledges that organic produce is limited because the shoppers here are naturally price conscious.

Nevertheless the options are there. In the packaged organics aisles, you'll find cereals, breads, juices, soups, snacks, beans, condiments, raw whole flax seeds, cookies and candy bars. There are selections in gluten-free and soy products. Red Mill products are here as are other familiar brands. In the refrigerated section are eggs, juices, dairy, frozen foods, and, of course, produce.

Without venturing too far, you'll also enjoy cooking demonstrations at a booth in the produce section outfitted with a stove, sink and prep area. The morning I was visiting, chef Valerie Salatino was making an "Italian paella" using a variety of products sold at the store.

Vick took me over to the Seafood section and there I noticed something interesting that I haven't seen in the markets I shop at. Digital price labels. According to Vick there are about 5,000 of these throughout the store.

The technology allows prices to be updated automatically, eliminating a lot of time spent manually switching out prices and enhancing the accuracy of price changes. As you can see, among the seafood products sold at the Commissary are those by San Diego-based Anthonys Fish Grotto.

The New England clam chowder is just one of a whole case of Anthonys products that include prepared or semi-prepared seafood meals. Across from the seafood case is another large case of what Vick describes as dinner kits.

These dinner kits do very well, said Vick. For those who prefer to put together a meal on their own is a large meat and poultry department. The Commissary orders up to 800 cases a week of Foster Farms chicken. The meats are all cut in-house daily by a full staff of butchers. In keeping with the cost-consciousness of their customers, the meats are USDA choice and select. No prime here. But, you can find bison, whole beef loins and a wide variety of pork and lamb.

The Value Aisle is like a trip to a membership store. Some three truckloads of products are displayed, many of which are club packs and now mostly holiday oriented.

Nearby is an aisle filled with various ethnic foods from around the world. There are shelves upon shelves of packaged German foods.

And, because of the large Asian customer base, there's naturally a large selection of Asian products, ranging from Japanese and Chinese to Korean, Thai and Filipino.

At the far end of the Commissary is a large bakery and deli. There are full selections of meats and cheeses, rotisserie chicken and breads and cakes.

In this same part of the Commissary is a 1,500-square-foot store-within-a-store concept called the Grab N Go. Vick acknowledged that this is still a work in progress. The idea was to have a place close to the exit where service people--probably single and not interested in a big shopping trip--could run in for the necessities, like milk, bread, eggs, soda and snacks. There are even 10, 15-minute parking stalls to allow people to run in and get what they need, along with eight self-checkout registers. Currently, the space is taken up with health foods but Vick anticipates that with the new single sailor housing quarters going up across the street, that the Grab N Go concept will once again be a go.

Alongside this little store is also a sushi counter, with two sushi chefs whipping up their creations for those looking for a bite for lunch or dinner.

And, if you have a special occasion, like a wedding or big birthday, you can special order cakes from Red Ribbon, a local Filipino bakery that also provides less lofty baked goods for parties or other gatherings.

The 32nd St. Commissary is located at 2525 Callagan Highway, Building 3629. Again, it is limited to active and retired military.

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  1. Wow- really cool! I've always wondered what it was like inside. I had no idea it was the largest!

  2. Caron, you did a GREAT job on this piece! There were things you pointed out in your research that even "I" hadn't noticed on my many trips there. The store director must have been very informative! I am happy that I have the privilege to shop there and that my husband's 23 years of service to our country has some benefits. Thanks again for a great article!

  3. Great post! My dad is retired Air Force so I think I could shop there if I took him with me - we go to the MCRD for xmas shopping, etc. I didn't know it was so huge!

  4. We used to shop at the old commisary on 32nd St. w/ my mother. I remember the directional arrows on the floor that we had to follow -- there was no carefree cart pushing in that place! I'm amazed at how different the new one is now.

  5. Kelly, I've heard about those directional arrows. No, they aren't there now. Feel free to shop against the traffic ;)

  6. The Miramar commissary is closer so that's the one I always shop at. I try to do most of my shopping at the commissary and the Military exchanges due to the fact that what I spend does aid military families.

    The one on Miramar is no way near as big as the one on 32nd St. But it's still pretty nice. I might just have to stop by to shop for Christmas dinner! Great write-up

  7. Great post, Caron! I always shop at Miramar since it's closer but I have been to the huge 32nd St one. It's enormous!! After living overseas for four years and doing the majority of my shopping at the commissary, I really thought I'd avoid it as much as possible when I got back to the states. But I've found that the prices can't be beat and in many cases, the selection is better than a traditional grocery store. I'm now learning to enjoy shopping at the commissary (as long as it's not near payday) and I have to say that it's a really great benefit!

  8. I was just talking to a Zeer member about this exact commissary in San Diego -- he's a member of it and was telling me how HUGE it is. Very cool -I had heard of commissaries but it's rare that I speak to people who are members so it's nice to see what it's like. I thought it would be much more... I don't know, militaryesque -- this has organic and everything. -- what an interesting piece!

    Shannon S.
    Community Manager,
    Buy Better Groceries