Grocery Strife Is Good Deal for Independents

Times Staff Writer

Everett Barker can see how the supermarket strike is affecting his independent market just by glancing at the dairy case.

He's out of buttermilk.

"It's something I wouldn't have expected before the strike," said Barker, vice president of operations for Wholesome Choice, an Irvine grocery store that opened in July hoping to appeal to the city's large Iranian and Chinese populations.

The strike against Vons and Pavilions and the lockout at Ralphs and Albertsons yielded an unanticipated bonus: an initial 35% boost in customers, many of them non-Iranians and non-Chinese who came because they didn't want to cross a picket line and are now returning after finding Wholesome Choice to be more than an ethnic specialty store.

With Thanksgiving looming, this demographic shift has forced Barker to quickly adjust his product line, stocking up on pies, yams, pumpkins and items that appeal to the "baking consumer" -- such as buttermilk, which flew off the shelf.

The supermarket strike, now in its seventh week, has boosted business for mom-and-pop markets and neighborhood grocers across Orange County by as much as 50%, according to California Independent Grocers & Convenience Stores, a nonprofit trade group. Many are hiring out-of-work strikers, extending hours, increasing boosting inventories and broadening their offerings to handle the demand.

"It's a good time for independent grocers to shine and take advantage of a new customer base," said Auday Arabo, president of the grocery trade group, which has 500 merchant members in Orange, San Diego and Imperial counties.

For decades, supermarket chains have been turning the neighborhood grocer into a fond memory. Those that survive do so because owners find a niche: top-quality meat, fresher produce, ethnic staples.

At Fred's Market in San Clemente, the recipe for longevity has been attentive customer service and cheap beer. "We sell a lot of beer," said Flo Smith, 64, who started as a stocker at her father's market when it opened in 1959. Fred Gunning, 96, still comes by most days, but Smith runs the place.

"We've gotten a little busier since the strike," Smith said. "There's only one Ralphs on this whole end of town.... A lot of the people who are coming in say they won't cross a picket line." Some come in just to use the ATM -- and end up buying something.

Smith doesn't know whether she'll retain any of these new customers once the strike is over, but Fred's Market does have its enticements: no long lines, and clerks who know regular customers by their first names. Smith stocks anchovies at the request of a single customer.

Sammy Han, manager of El Toro Gourmet Meats in Lake Forest, is hoping to hook some of his new customers after they get a taste of his butchers' handiwork, including perfectly trimmed, $25-a-pound filet mignons. Business is up 50% at the specialty market since the strike began.

"I was expecting it," Han said of the surge. So he ordered more stock, and employees have been working longer hours. "The product we sell is different than what you can get at a supermarket. It's more expensive. But once they taste our meat...."

At Jimenez Market in Santa Ana, owner Cesar Jimenez stocks his shelves with the tastes of his Latino clientele in mind: pickled pigs feet, religious candles, cactus. In the window, specials are advertised in Spanish. Most customers live within walking distance.

The strike has been good for business. More cars in the parking lot indicate people are driving in from other neighborhoods. And more than a few are non-Latinos whom Jimenez has never seen before.

"It's surprising," he said. "But we know it's because they don't want to cross the lines."

Customer Carmen Diaz, 34, said she usually buys her groceries at a Ralphs three miles away in Orange.

"But we don't want to get involved in what seems like a problem," she said of the picket lines. "We want to support workers, to support what they are doing because it's really no different from us. We are also working people."

Arabo, of the independent grocers association, says that if the strike lingers through the holidays, it may begin to change the shopping habits of some people permanently.

"People are creatures of habit, and once they create a shopping routine, they don't change easily -- unless something like a strike throws a monkey wrench into their thinking," he said.

Or expands their thinking.

The strike forced Newport Beach resident Tom Lafleur, 52, to seek alternatives -- Trader Joe's, the Asian grocery chains, markets in Little Saigon.

The experience has changed more than Lafleur's shopping habits -- its has altered his eating habits as well.

"I've got some kind of tea here that I've never tried before," he said, reaching into his shopping cart at Irvine's Wholesome Choice. "And there's this bread -- it's Persian, I guess.... I like the variety, trying different things that I never have had before, things you probably couldn't buy at the supermarket."

Times staff writer Jennifer Mena contributed to this report.

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