I was disappointed and more than a little distressed to learn that the supermarket chain Fresh & Easy might be on its last legs. Since moving to Downtown Los Angeles, I’ve been doing virtually all my shopping at their locations in either Glassell Park northeast of Downtown or on Central Avenue just south of Interstate 10. While I was once an ardent Trader Joe’s enthusiast, I found myself preferring F&E’s more relaxed vibe. Both chains have similar selections and shopping at a TJ’s in Los Angeles is a stressful nightmare, and that’s just the parking lot.
But alas, all is not well for Fresh & Easy, the American outpost of British grocery giant Tesco that was started in Southern California five years ago. Tesco announced yesterday that the head of Fresh & Easy will resign immediately and that they are launching a “strategic review” of their American operations and that it was “likely, though not certain” that the world’s second-largest retailer would cease US operations entirely. The only glimmer of hope is that Tesco has intimated that it is talking to partners to either take over controlling interest in Fresh & Easy or buy the company entirely. I’d like for that to happen, because not only is Fresh & Easy a great, inexpensive grocery store, they were also doing great things in the communities they served.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, Ralphs supermarket had just returned to Downtown LA with much fanfare as the first full-service (non-Asian) grocery store in Downtown in fifty years. This event, as well as attempts to limit new fast-food locations opening in South and East LA, spawned a discussion about “food deserts,” a debate that dominated the KPCC airwaves for what seemed like months. Never mind that the “food desert” idea in terms of its effects on obesity has since been largely discredited, in early 2008 it was an unassailable fact that a lack of supermarkets selling healthful food options in lower-income areas played huge roles in the obesity rates of lower-income communities. Ipso facto, we need to strong arm major chain supermarkets into opening locations in these communities.
But, as someone who had followed the Fresh & Easy saga from the beginning, I saw this more as political posturing than actually working to solve the problem of obesity in underserved communities, largely due to the fact that here was Tesco, the Wal-Mart of Europe, entering the US-market and deliberately targeting “food deserts” for their first locations. The first Fresh & Easy stores opened in some pretty meth-y pockets of the Inland Empire and their first Los Angeles locations were in Glassell Park (a working-class Latino neighborhood) and in stretches of the deep San Fernando Valley. And of course there’s their more recent store that they opened literally in South Central. Here was a grocery behemoth not just opening stores in these underserved areas but also stocking them with inexpensive, fresh, and healthful food which, while never having as strong an organic-focus as Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, still offered a wider range of organic options at lower prices than Ralphs, Albertsons, or Vons. But there was nary a mention of this development by those seeking to force more well-known American supermarkets into their neighborhoods by hook or crook, which is, of course, a failing of Tesco’s marketing as much as anything.
Fresh & Easy always had its problems, ranging from an over-emphasis on pre-made heat-at-home meals, an over-reliance on unfamiliar store-branded products, and (although I prefer this option) only having self check-out lines. And while I’ll keep my opinions on grocery worker unions to myself, I know that the UFCW is taking issue with Fresh & Easy’s lack of unionized stores. But it was providing a high-quality (and often less expensive) alternative to Trader Joe’s and giving something meaningful and helpful to its communities. The stores also grew and adapted to their neighborhoods, adding bakeries at some locations and expanding their selections of organic meats, Asian, and Central American ingredients at others. It was heartening to see the Glassell Park and South LA locations do relatively well while stores in more affluent areas like Pasadena and Pleasanton foundered. Clearly, targeting these communities with a quality, affordable product was working, or at least beginning to work.
I hope Fresh & Easy doesn’t go away completely, even if Tesco is no longer the owner. It really was the grocery chain for the 21st century and the next-best thing to a locally-owned, neighborhood market, despite its mistakes and flaws.