Tuesday, March 15, 2016

That Smart & Final Extra

Like many neighborhoods around San Diego, my community, Tierrasanta, has been living for months with the discomfort brought on by the Haggen debacle. We started out with an Albertsons, which, by my reading of posts on the community website NextDoor, was generally beloved. Then it became Haggen--and was fairly quickly despised. And then, of course, Haggen went bankrupt. In the auction that followed Tierrasanta became slated for a Smart & Final Extra, which was also highly debated on NextDoor. While we waited for that store to open, we were left with a tiny Vons with its equally tiny parking lot and an even smaller local market called Primo Foods.

Now I've never been a huge supermarket fan, so the absence of Albertsons/Haggen didn't affect me too much. I tend to roam between Sprouts, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and farmers markets. But I carefully watched the very emotional discourse on NextDoor, as neighbors argued alternately that the presence of Smart & Final Extra would sink local property values, that with its bulk foods wasn't an appropriate store for a residential community, and that it was amazing, fabulous, wonderful as experienced by others who had shopped at them in other cities or read about their plans.

Smart & Final Extra opened in Tierrasanta on March 9 and I stopped by. I had no expectations. I'd been to the regular Smart & Final in Clairemont only a few times over the years. It would never have occurred to me to shop there for regular grocery items. I had read a promising piece about the Coronado Extra that opened recently, so perhaps it would be a good thing and Tierrasanta wasn't being dissed because we didn't get a Gelson's, something neighbors were a bit upset about.

Smart & Final describes the chain as a "warehouse-like supermarket chain for produce, meats & packaged foods, plus discounts on bulk items." What I found was your basic commodity-stocked  market.

Yes, there's a produce department and a small organic department within that.

The signs clearly read that they buy from local growers. I took that to heart when I picked up some cluster tomatoes. After all, they were sitting on a bin that shouted local. But when I looked at the labels, it showed that the tomatoes were from Mexico. Yeah, you could argue that Mexico is local, but c'mon.

On the other hand, one of the shockers in the produce department given its limited real estate, was that fresh garbanzo beans, usually found at Mexican markets, were for sale. Yeah, they're from Mexico, too.

My pendulum kept swinging back and forth like this as I went through Smart & Final Extra. No deli counter, butcher, or fresh bakery. I suddenly had an urge for Thomas' English Muffins so I cruised by the bread aisle (also hoping against hope that perhaps they would also carry Bread & Cie products like many local markets). The bread aisle was fully commoditized and had that distinctive bread-in-plastic-bags aroma. Yes, they had the muffins, but only the original variety, not the sourdough I wanted. But if you want Original Thomas' English Muffins, they have stacks and stacks of them--enough for the whole neighborhood!

I was happy and relieved to see they carry the organic milk I like and that they have organic, cage-free eggs.

And Bob's Red Mill products.

But how much shredded or cubed cheddar does a family need all at once?

Hurray! They sell Meyer's products!

And also 50-pound containers with a variety of lards and shortenings. I guess Tierrasantans can't have too much donut fry shortening.

Or too much red food coloring. Or iodized salt packets.

I did end up picking up some things--milk, eggs, the garbanzo beans, onions, some sad old garlic heads, the English muffins. When I went to check out I saw that each register aisle was named for a Tierrasanta street. Strange but I suppose it will make community shoppers smile. Unfortunately, it felt like the most local thing about the market.

My sense is that the store and its products will evolve as it settles in and locals make their needs and desires heard. However, I find it to be a chain confused about its identity and ours. I can certainly see that large families would need some products in bulk. But this is a residential community with few local businesses that require a gallon of food coloring or 50 pounds of beef shortening. So, the "warehouse without membership" tagline is overselling things quite a lot. It's no Costco. I think the residents here would be better served with produce that really is from local farmers, a butcher and deli counter with quality products, a bakery--or at least fresh baked goods from local bakeries, and less emphasis on commodity products in general.

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