Fresh & Easy supermarkets could close

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imageFor many shoppers around LA, “Thank you for shopping at Fresh & Easy” has become a familiar sound.

British supermarket chain Tesco started opening Fresh & Easy neighborhood markets in California, Arizona and Nevada in 2007. In LA, the chain has opened stores in several under-served neighborhoods.

“I used to go to Food 4 Less to buy my meats, but now I come here because, heck, it’s good. The meat, the chicken, here it’s tender, over there it’s hard. I couldn’t even eat the meat over there anymore,” said Manny Castro, a regular at the Fresh & Easy on East Adams and Central in South LA. Fresh & Easy also has locations in Huntington Park and Compton and had proposed a store in Crenshaw which never opened because of building restrictions in the neighborhood.

In these neighborhoods, convenience stores and discount grocers abound, but big stores like Ralph’s, Vons or Albertson’s are scarce. Public policy experts refer to areas like South LA, where access to fresh produce is limited, as “food deserts.” For many, Fresh & Easy offered a nice oasis.

Richard Cuevas shops at the East Adams Fresh & Easy several times a week. “It’s one of my favorite stores actually, the quality of all their stuff that they carry is fresh, I like it. Actually the name really goes for it–it’s fresh and easy,” he said.

In five years, Tesco opened 199 Fresh and Easy markets in the US. Now all of those stores could close. Philip Clarke, CEO of Tesco said Wednesday, “It’s likely, but not certain, that our presence in America will come to an end.”

Tesco has 500,000 employees in 14 different countries but business in the USA has not be going well.

Manny Castro says of the East Adams Boulevard Fresh & Easy, “This one’s been dead.”

Fresh & Easy already closed seven locations in California earlier this year. Now, Castro hopes his Fresh & Easy isn’t going anywhere. “This is the best store in the neighborhood, better than going to the market. The parking, everything, you know, it’s perfect,” he said.

It is not clear yet whether Tesco will sell their American stores or just close them down.

Grocery store workers rally for Fresh & Easy employees

imageOutside the Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market in Eagle Rock, 60 labor activists and grocery store employees lined up on the sidewalk to rally today against unsafe working conditions and alleged union-breaking tactics at the store.

Before the rally, a union field organizer handed out picket signs and arranged participants to make sure the Fresh & Easy sign would in the background for media coverage.

Rabbi Jonathan Klein addressed the crowd by recalling a speech made by Martin Luther King Jr., in which King voiced support for a labor movement in Memphis the day before he was killed on April 4, 1968.

“We’re here to talk about Fresh & Easy and its commitment to the rights of workers to organize, just as Dr. King spoke about sanitation workers just shy of half a century ago,” said Klein, a member of Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice.

Organizers used the 43rd anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. to highlight safety problems at the store and efforts of store workers to unionize.

Activists held up signs to passing cars and handed out stickers for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents employees in the food industry and helped arrange the rally.

The Fresh & Easy grocery store chain has a total of 171 stores with one that opened last year in South Los Angeles. The stores are a subsidiary of British company Tesco.

Fresh & Easy employees came forward to explain why they participated. Mike Acuna pointed to a camera above the doors of the store and said it has been used to monitor for union activity. But he said he was not afraid of being fired.

“We workers want to be out there and express our right to unionize because we feel that’s the only way that we can create change in the company,” said Acuna. “I know I have a right to stand here.”

Acuna, a 34-year-old Highland Park resident, said he was injured on the job when he pulled his back while unloading cases of groceries. He claimed the store last year began requiring employees to unload 65 boxes per hour, a marked increase.

On March 26, 2010, Acuna said 21 employees signed a petition for better health and safety conditions and presented it to the management. Employees claim the company retaliated when the employees’ hours were reduced and four employees were terminated.

A new manager was transferred to the store along with six other employees. Acuna said injuries increased, with 17 occurring since the petition was signed and four workers advised to get back surgery. The employees claimed the company would not meet to discuss health and safety conditions.

Fresh & Easy spokesman Brendan Wonnacott said he would not comment on specific claims of injuries and retaliation.

“Punishing union supporters is against the law,” said Wonnacott. “Obviously that would not be the case here.”

Wonnacott said the UFCW and employees who are trying to organize the Fresh & Easy staff did not follow the rules for forming a union set by the National Labor Relations Board. He referred specifically to the rule which requires employees to vote on unionization by a secret ballot which does not show how a person voted.

“All along, since we opened our first door, we have maintained that the choice to join the union is the choice that can only be made by employees,” said Wonnacott. “It’s their democratic right to do so.”

The spokesman added that the company has an open door policy which allows all employees to discuss concerns with management freely.

“From what we hear in stores, all 171 that we have opened, people are very happy with the setup as it is,” Wonnacott said. “If there are concerns people are more than welcome to come and address them.”

image“To me that open door policy is not really in force,” responded Acuna. “I feel like it’s not open to freely say what you want. I feel like whatever you say can be used against you.”

Acuna said employees in the Eagle Rock store chose not to use a secret ballot because they felt the company was maneuvering to make the vote fail. He claimed six employees were brought in from other stores to throw off the pro-union majority.

Carlos Juarez, a 37-year-old Fresh & Easy employee, who also was injured on the job, held up a flier created and distributed by the store to customers. The flyer stated that protesters at a recent rally were not employees of the store.

“And that’s a lie,” said Juarez. “We’re here. This is a decision that we made.”

The two employees said that they just want the store to be a better place to work, but added the pay could also be better. Acuna and Juarez said they make the highest salary for staff members, pulling in $10.90 per hour.

Acuna said the company has been busy opening new stores in Northern California.

“If they have money to do that, then they have money to help their employees,” said Acuna.

Spokesman Brendan Wonnacott said that the company opened 16 stores in 2011. Figures provided by Tesco show the company’s sales in the U.S. were up 38 percent in the third quarter of last year.

As the rally wrapped up, the crowd chanted “Si se puede,” Spanish for “Yes, it can be done.”

Afterward Acuna said his plan is to present to the corporate office a strategy to improve health and safety conditions at the stores.

“We want this company to succeed,” Acuna said. “And the only way they’re going to be able to make that happen is to make their employees happy and theyíre not making that.”

The fight for Fresh & Easy in South Los Angeles goes to City Hall

South L.A. residents may agree that more fresh food grocery stores are needed in the area, but some are concerned that a proposed Fresh & Easy on Crenshaw Boulevard and 52nd Street is defying the rules.

Winnifred Jackson, President of Hyde Park Organizational Partnership for Empowerment (HOPE), says the proposed Fresh & Easy is flagrantly ignoring the requirements of the Crenshaw Corridor Specific Plan. The plan came into effect in November 2004 as a way of ensuring “a balance of commercial land uses,” and cohesion between residential and commercial space. In an open letter to City Watch, Jackson explained the resistance to the proposed Fresh & Easy:

“Fresh & Easy has refused to comply with the pedestrian oriented design standards of our Crenshaw Corridor Specific Plan, as they would be required to do in any Westside community,” wrote Jackson.
“Instead of respecting our Crenshaw community’s Specific Plan and treating us like equals, Fresh & Easy has sought to divide our community, mischaracterize HOPE’s position, and make residents fear standing by our community’s basic planning standards.”

On Wednesday morning City Hall will host a hearing to address the proposed Fresh & Easy on Crenshaw Boulevard and 52nd Street, following an appeal against the development plans submitted by HOPE.

City Council Hearing on Fresh & Easy’s Proposal for a Neighborhood Market in South LA
Wednesday, December 8th 2010, 10:00 AM
Council Chambers City Hall Room #340
200 N. Spring Street, Los Angeles 90012

Residents who support the Fresh & Easy proposal as it stands can join the Community Health Councils counter-appeal. A bus service will be offered from CHC headquarters to City Hall and Back on Wednesday morning. RSVP to Tanishia Wright with Community Health Councils at tanishia[at] or 323.295.9372 x225.

Urban economics: the mystery of industrial vacancy in South Los Angeles

This story was developed by Eddie North-Hager of Leimert Park Beat and funded by View the original project on

Austin Beutner, the first deputy mayor of Los Angeles and the city’s economy chief, noted the irony: Fresh & Easy has opened up three inner-city grocery stores while Safeway, based in Pleasanton, and Trader Joe’s, with headquarters in Monrovia, watch on the sidelines.

“It takes a company from the U.K. to see the opportunity in the L.A. marketplace,” said Beutner, referring to Tesco, the British parent company of Fresh & Easy.

To Brendan Wonnacott, communications manager for the neighborhood market chain, said it was just good business to open grocery stores at South Central Avenue and Adams Boulevard in South Los Angeles, in Glassell Park in northeast Los Angeles and in Compton.

“The stores make money. Some of them are among our top performers,” Wonnacott said. “The bottom line: it made sense.”

The south portion of Los Angeles encompasses about 40 square mile and is home to nearly a million people. Yet it’s essentially bereft of many of the retailers that others around the city take for granted.

Innocuous numbers perhaps. But taking density into the equation, South L.A.’s annual income earned per acre is somewhere around four times higher than for the city as a whole: $350,000 a year per acre on average, compared with $91,000 per acre citywide.

The vacancy rate for office properties during the first quarter of 2004 for South Los Angeles was 5 percent, compared to 16.1 percent for Los Angeles County. For industrial space, the vacancy rate for South L.A. was only 1.2 percent compared to 3.3 percent for L.A. County.

The 2004 figures were the latest available.

The facts will surprise you

“The results are surprising,” wrote Jack Kyser, author of the report that included the vacancy rate findings. “The South Los Angeles area’s low vacancy rates do indicate a healthy ‘demand’ for space in the area.”

And though South Los Angeles residents account for 32 percent of the city’s total population, only about 28 percent of the city’s crime occurred within the area – meaning the amount of crime in South L.A. is less than its proportionate share when evaluating by population size.

“Crime rates in South L.A., therefore, are disproportionately low, which is in sharp contrast to many perceptions,” noted the South Los Angeles Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, which defines South Los Angeles as including Wilmington and San Pedro.

The document, prepared for the city of Los Angeles went on: “Many neighborhoods within South L.A. endure long-standing negative images of high crime rates and must begin economic development programs and activities with an effort to correct misperceptions.”

The current director of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, Nancy Sidhu, said these numbers must be pushed out.

“Safety and security” are important, Sidhu said. “The media is reporting and the people are reading about cops and robbers and killings and they are calling out South L.A. a lot.”

“If the numbers are coming down, accentuate the positive. It’s time to call out that set of facts. Who’s been out telling them this about South L.A.?”

Who indeed. Crime in all of Los Angeles is at a rate that hasn’t been seen in 50 years.

In 1992 approximately 1,200 people were murdered in Los Angeles and nearly 600 in 2001. Last year that number plummeted to 314. Boston, Phoenix, Ariz., and Omaha, Neb., have similar numbers per capita.

There are dozens of reports and studies over the past decade that research the economic plight of South Los Angeles. Sometimes the numbers are bad, such as unemployment and the Census-derived median income, which has been criticized. But most of the numbers were average. Some were good.

The reports stated the facts but didn’t always analyze the numbers, often not providing the context to show whether they were good, bad or indifferent.

Ignore the numbers, listen to your gut

The numbers all retailers pay close attention to are the total number of households and household income.

Retailers also commonly cite two other barriers to investing in inner-city neighborhoods: land availability and evidence of market demand for a particular business.

That’s in general. In urban areas the recipe changes, according to anonymous interviews the nonprofit Social Compact conducted for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

“All interviewees agree that, in urban areas, determining a site’s suitability involves not only income or the number of households per se. … (That is) in addition to social characteristics such as home ownership, educational attainment and average household size, as well as physical characteristics concerning traffic, access, visibility and nearby competitors.”

And don’t forget the gut instinct. The study, “Inside Site Selections: Retailers’ Search for Strategic Business Locations,” confirmed that locations depend, “in large part, on retailers’ intuition and experience in particular markets and the field.”

A number of researchers have found that banks and supermarkets opt to not locate in poorer zip codes, leading the authors to conclude “retail locational decision may hinge on facts in addition to an area’s market potential.”

What sealed the deal for Fresh & Easy was a bus tour where the executives got out, talked to people and visited a dry cleaner, Wonnacott said.

Go with what you know

Personal experience is key, Ken Lombard agrees. Lombard knows more than most about investing in the inner city because he’s been doing it for 18 years, first with retired Lakers star Magic Johnson’s host of businesses and now as president of Capri Urban Investors, which owns the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza.

People who are not from South Los Angeles cannot make a “60,000-foot look” from an airplane and decide to invest in South L.A.

“You have to get them in the car and drive through the neighborhoods – Leimert Park, Ladera Heights, View Park, Inglewood,” Lombard said. “They walk away with an entirely different perception.”

For Keyshawn Johnson, the former USC and retired NFL wide receiver, it wasn’t a difficult decision to invest in South L.A.

“It is his neighborhood; it’s where he’s from,” said Jerome Stanley, Johnson’s lawyer and business partner. “He believes the area is underserved and rich in opportunities.”

Johnson was an investor in Chesterfield Square, an early foray into the L.A. inner city that attracted a Home Depot, IHOP and a Starbucks, on the corner of South Western and West Slauson avenues. Stanley said it’s natural for people with money to invest in the areas they know. And rare is the case where the inner-city investor is the lead on a large project and decides where the money goes.

“Where does capital come from? The source already has an affiliation from a certain area,” Stanley said. “So it makes sense.”

One solution, Stanley said, is a campaign by the city to show investors where a retail presence would work, both by the numbers and the location.

“You have to make people aware it makes sense,” Stanley said. “To a degree that is a subsidy. When you show them land, now they save the money because they don’t have to look for the land.”

Carson Mayor Jim Dear knows all too well the importance of shepherding the deal in an area considered urban or ethnic. He believes his middle-class city of 90,000 can support sit-down restaurants, movie theaters and more but since there’s a dearth of options, they all drive to other nearby cities to spend most of their money. And the retailers know it.

Despite a regional mall with a Target, Sears and an Ikea, restaurants like Red Lobster told him that to keep their Lakewood and Torrance locations thriving, they weren’t planning on opening in Carson. “They didn’t want to pirate their customers,” Dear said.

A chance encounter at a charity benefit with Magic Johnson led to seven Starbucks opening in Carson. And a face-to-face during the International Council of Shopping Centers convention in Las Vegas led to a Chili’s restaurant.

The Chili’s was Carson’s first sit-down restaurant in 17 years and it ranks as one of the chain’s top five performers out of 800 restaurants. Despite the success, the city has only managed to attract two small area restaurants in the five years since.

The bright side of South L.A.

Inglewood’s Century Boulevard is a bustling thoroughfare of big-box stores and restaurants. Compton has a Target and T.G.I. Friday’s. Plans are in the early stages for a Target and a Fresh & Easy on Crenshaw Boulevard.

“It’s not as much as I’d like to see, but it’s the beginning of a track record and a story,” Lombard said. “We are not moving farther way, we are moving closer.”

And the table is set for Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza to renovate the old Magic Johnson movie theater and have a national chain run it again, which Lombard recently announced. The movie house, the only one for miles around, opened to great fanfare 15 years ago. But sorely needed technical updating and remodeling when it was closed in May.

“Doing deals in urban locations is not easy,” Lombard said. “But I like to look at the brighter side.”

The partnership with Rave Motion Pictures was months in the works and many in the community worried that the delay in finding a replacement operator meant the theater would not re-open.

“We could have stayed with the existing operator, but we opted to say no and continue with the commitment that the residents of this community have the finest entertainment experience,” Lombard said. “There were risks.

“But most developers don’t understand the sophistication of this customer base. L.A. is a mobile city. If you don’t provide the best experience, they will drive to a location that will.”

There is a much larger benefit than pure convenience in having these amenities close to residents who would patronize them. Jobs are created. It’s better for the environment. The money spent locally has a better chance of staying locally.

“Local private amenities such as grocery stores, restaurants, banking facilities and other retail services, can also have important quality of life implications for neighborhood residents,” according to “Bodegas or Bagel Shops: Neighborhood Differences in Retail and Household Services.”

Clint Rosemond of the Leimert Park building improvement district was succinct in his assessment.

“People in this community are hungry for places to spend money locally.”

Fresh and Easy market opens in South L.A.

South Los Angeles has far fewer grocery stores than other areas of Los Angeles, making it tough for some residents to find healthy food in their neighborhoods.

That’s one of the reasons why lines stretched around the block Wednesday morning for the grand opening of a Fresh & Easy market at the intersection of Adams Boulevard and Central Avenue (appearances by Councilmember Jan Perry and the Jefferson High School Marching Band probably didn’t hurt, either).

And while the store was full of shoppers, the parking garage was nearly empty, giving a clue to why neighborhood groceries are so needed. Many residents seemed relieved to have an option closer to home.

The location is one of four stores being opened in California today by Fresh & Easy, the West Coast supermarket chain owned by Tesco. At about 10,000 square feet, it’s smaller than many supermarkets, and also has 80 affordable housing units built above it.

“This was actually one of the first sites we identified in Los Angeles, well over two years ago, so it’s been moving along,” said Roberto Munoz, the store’s director for neighborhood affairs.

The market is also employing some residents. It held a hiring event at a local YMCA in January where hundreds of people showed up, Munoz said, and is now employing about 20 of them.

Watch a video story about the Fresh & Easy opening from ATVN

New life coming to old Crenshaw Ford site