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Must Reads: On Catalina Island, one of L.A.’s unofficial ‘food deserts’ parties over a humble Vons

After more than 20 years of waiting, shoppers on Catalina have a new Vons.

When 22-year-old Blanca Alvarez comes back home to Catalina after four years at Columbia University in New York City, her first planned stop is the island’s new supermarket.

All year, family and friends sent the recent graduate photos, texts and videos from the Vons — treating it the way tourists from the mainland might sunbathing at the Descanso Beach Club or staring at the island’s famous buffaloes.

Located on the edge of downtown Avalon, Catalina’s only city, the Vons — not exactly a trendy and hip staple of Southern California’s grocer ecosystem — has become an unlikely phenomenon.

Zachary Reitz, who has vacationed on Catalina Island since he was a child, holds his 3-year-old son Jace Reitz as he weighs fruit at the new Vons Avalon Market. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
John King, who headed the campaign to bring a bigger Vons to the island wears one of his campaign T-shirts that reads "I Want my Bacon on Beacon" (Beacon is one of the streets where the Vons is located). (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Left, Zachary Reitz, who has vacationed on Catalina Island since he was a child, holds his 3-year-old son Jace Reitz as he weighs fruit at the new Vons Avalon Market. Right, John King, who headed the campaign to bring a bigger Vons to the island wears one of his campaign T-shirts that reads "I Want my Bacon on Beacon" (Beacon is one of the streets where the Vons is located). (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

With stunning views and sparkling waters, “The Island of Romance” is not a government-designated “food desert,” a term for neglected, poor neighborhoods where affordable and fresh food is hard to find. But for decades, many of the island’s roughly 4,000 residents had to travel “over town” — Avalon-speak for the mainland — to buy many of their needs.

“People tell me how they just wander the aisles, like, stunned at how much there is. It’s a really, really, really big deal,” Alvarez said of the new Vons. “It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I realized the magnitude of options ‘over town’… Now, it’s going to be insane.”

Catalina’s charm has long distracted outsiders from the fact most restaurants are geared toward luring tourists. An a la carte lunchtime lobster taco at Maggie's Blue Rose, just steps away from the pier, is $11.50. Land to grow crops is nonexistent, since most of undeveloped Catalina is either overseen by the nonprofit Catalina Island Conservancy or owned by the Catalina Island Company.

The Catalina Vons’ grand opening in January was by far the most-attended debut in the chain’s 113-year history. Hundreds of people saw a ribbon-cutting ceremony, speeches by politicians and a song performed by preschoolers that thanked “the food” they were about to try and “the friends we have today.” Once the doors opened, adults cried or high-fived each other; children ran through the the aisles with such joy that teachers asked their students the following day at school to tone it down next time.

“People tell me how they just wander the aisles, like, stunned at how much there is. It’s a really, really, really big deal.”

Blanca Alvarez, Avalon resident

Prior to the opening of the Vons, many of the island’s roughly 4,000 residents had to travel “over town” — Avalonian-speak for the mainland — to buy many of their needs. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Avalon resident Rhonda Talsky looks through the wine selection at the new Vons Market on Catalina Island. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Avalon resident Kristin Ingram, with Watson, fills her cart after shopping at the new Vons Avalon Market. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Top, prior to the opening of the Vons, many of the island’s roughly 4,000 residents had to travel “over town” — Avalonian-speak for the mainland — to buy many of their needs. Left, Avalon resident Rhonda Talsky looks through the wine selection at the new Vons Market on Catalina Island. Right, Avalon resident Kristin Ingram, with Watson, fills her cart after shopping at the new Vons Avalon Market. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Vons has essentially functioned as Avalon’s nutritional lifeline since 1942 in the form of two stores — now closed —that were much smaller than the new 23,000-square-foot market.

“You didn’t shop at old Vons,” said Julie Perlins Lee, executive director of the Catalina Island Museum, who has lived on the island for two years. “You made a game plan for getting in, grabbed what you needed and got out as fast as possible. There were hours you just avoided it altogether.”

“The aisles were so small that you couldn’t fit a twin stroller in one,” said Rick McFadden, the assistant manager at the new Vons. “There was even a certain way around the store that people walked. If you were going upstream, we knew you weren’t from here.”

Avalonians had to regularly visit the mainland and return with suitcases and boxes filled with groceries that they couldn’t get on the island or that were overpriced. Every three months, Alvarez accompanied her mother to the Costco in Signal Hill to “buy tons and tons of things.”

AVALON CATALINA ISLAND, CA - APRIL 16, 2019 - Sign at Crescent and Catalina Ave overlooking the Har
Directional sign at Crescent and Catalina Avenues overlooking the harbor points the direction of the new Vons Market. Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

“By the time produce would be at [the old Vons], it would already be bad,” she said. “Strawberries already had mold on it. A lot of the mangoes were dark green or not edible. It was just two days that you could eat them, and they’d get completely bad.”

The parking lot of the new supermarket has only one regular-sized space; the rest are striped to accommodate golf carts, the island’s preferred mode of transportation. The exterior was built to reflect the bucolic aesthetics of Avalon; the front is designed in the Craftsman style and a side wall features freshly planted bougainvillea.

And, in a reflection of the city’s Latino-majority population, the in-store bakery makes its own Mexican pastries — pastel de tres leches is the store’s top-selling cake.

“Would we put that in Manhattan Beach? Probably not,” said Bob Erickson, a district manager for Albertson’s, Von’s corporate parent. (German chocolate cake is the top seller in that coastal community). “But this was lacking here.”

His enthusiasm belies the challenge Vons endured to build their still smaller-than-average Avalon outpost. Most supermarkets don’t face 25-year roadblocks like government audits, California’s recent epic drought, town halls, the Great Recession and even the state Attorney General.

“This one cost the same as two regular ones, even though it’s smaller,” Erickson said. “But this one is worth it.”

Other independent mom-and-pop grocers operated in Avalon until the last one closed in 1998. Vons took over the spot, a former YMCA basketball gym, to complement its original island location.

The two other Vons combined totaled just about 14,000 square feet, 9,000 square feet smaller than the new one. That is still much smaller than the average Vons, which is about 43,000 square feet.

Executives began to plan for a new, larger Avalon store shortly after Erickson became district manager in 1994. He remembers seeing artist’s renderings back then — along with an 18-month construction plan.

“Well, every time we were getting something ready to go,” he said with a laugh, “we had to take a time-out.”

“There was even a certain way around the store that people walked. If you were going upstream, we knew you weren’t from here.”

Rick McFadden – assistant manager at Vons

Shoppers fill the aisles in the spacious new Vons Avalon Market located on Catalina Island. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The scarcity of land on Catalina for development stymied their efforts for years. Then in 2005, the California attorney general’s office accused Vons of violating federal antitrust laws, alleging the chain held a monopoly over the island.

The company admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to reimburse the attorney general $25,000 for their “investigatory costs” and give $60,000 to the city “to be used for the benefit of consumers who purchased Grocery Store products in Avalon,” according to a judgment. Vons also submitted to a consent decree in which they agreed to give up the newer branch to any competitor that wanted it.

No one bit.

The two-Vons setup continued through the Great Recession, until Albertson’s finally submitted plans for a new project in 2014, buying property that once housed a nursery. Critics fought the proposal, contending that such a large building would ruin Avalon’s feel. Residents flooded city council meetings in protest.

Councilmember Richard Hernandez and three other island residents sent letters to the California Public Utilities Commission asking them to audit the store’s proposal to get water from Catalina’s heavily rationed reserves (Hernandez did not return a request for comment). An anti-Vons slogan referring to the street where the Vons now stands was coined: “No Bacon on Beacon.”

Other Avalonians pushed back. One was John King, who moved to Catalina in 2001 and whose wife has celiac disease. The couple had to regularly ship in food, which became increasingly expensive.

“We’d need gluten-free bread,” he said, “and you’d turn around and say, ‘Darn, it’s not around.’”

The former marketing executive printed red T-shirts with the slogan “I Want My Bacon on Beacon” and saw more than 500 people wear them to a City Council meeting.

“Old-time island people have something of a notion that things should never change,” King said. “It’s nostalgic to them. But when you live here day to day, it’s not fun at all.”

The larger store was finally approved by the City Council in 2017, with Hernandez casting the lone “no” vote. Construction was finished within a year this past December.

Mayor Ann Marshall declared it a victory for Avalon.

“I know more people will shop locally,” she said. “That brings more revenue to the city.”

On a recent Friday, the Vons hummed with shoppers. Families pushed carts loaded with produce and frozen pizzas; blue-collar workers in neon-colored sweatshirts and stained jeans ladled Italian wedding soup into 32-ounce deli cups. A couple looked through bouquets of roses and baby’s breath in a corner devoted to flowers; at the old locations, the only floral arrangements available were on two rolling racks.

Still, not everyone is impressed. Cookie Sampson, 84, has lived her entire life on the island and thinks the store is beautiful. But she thinks it’s better suited to the mainland. For “over town.” She’s not crazy about the prices, either. A dollar hike in Oroweat rye bread makes it difficult for people like her who live on fixed incomes, she complained.

“But it’s like that everywhere,” Sampson said. “If you want to be here, you just go with the flow and accept it.”

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