Around Town: Gelson's opens store in La Cañada

Last week’s E-ticket was the Gelson’s La Cañada grand opening in Plaza de La Cañada. By 9 a.m. there was a line around the store. The crowds continued throughout the day, with shopper parking as far as one block away.

You could almost feel the spirit of Bernie Gelson. In an 2005 interview with the Daily News, Jack Brown, then chair of the Stater Brothers groceries, explained that Bernie Gelson was a people person. “Bernie saw the customers as guests in his home. It was his way of life.”

In that spirit, the La Cañada store was well-staffed for the opening day crowds. A clerk named Sara cheerfully took me on a tour of the store’s kosher products. Gelson’s will be the second store in town to stock kosher poultry. The first, of course, is our beloved Trader Joe’s, which sells kosher poultry and beef.

Corporate management was omnipresent and equally cheerful. Tim Redmond, senior director of Store Operations, drove out from Simi Valley. “Gelson’s is very happy to be in La Cañada,” he told me.

Bernie Gelson would have liked the opening day party. Gelson’s has humble yet idealistic roots. Jake and Lena Gelson were a Jewish couple who escaped Russia to the U.S. in 1907. They settled in Sioux City, Iowa and ran a small grocery. Their three children were born in Sioux City, Dorothy, Bernard and Eugene.

During the Depression, the family moved to Monterey Park. The kids graduated from Alhambra High School. In the census, Dorothy listed her occupation as saleslady. Everyone else was a grocer. In 1945, after the death of his father, Bernie enlisted in the U.S. Army.

After the war, the two sons, Bernie and Eugene, opened a small grocery store in Tujunga. They later moved the grocery to North Hollywood. In 1951, the brothers began a new venture. They decided to open an upscale, high-quality market at Victory Boulevard and Hollywood Way in Burbank. They named the market Gelson’s. Eventually, they expanded to three stores and sold the chain to the Arden group. Bernie continued to operate Gelson’s as a wholly-owned subsidiary until 1988.

Everyone has a story to tell, even a grocery store.

Last week, on opening day, many of the early-evening customers appeared to be refugees from the failed Pasadena Paseo Colorado venture. Gelson’s had been at the Paseo for 13 years until it closed last spring. The store’s closure was a sequella of parking lot issues. The city of Pasadena owns the Paseo parking. The Pasadena Department of Public Works contracted out management of the Paseo parking. The result? Poor staffing, leaky roofs and exit delays, which turns off the customers. Gelson’s Pasadena did not have easy access.

Back in La Cañada, at the grand opening, I finally found a parking spot, around the corner on Rinetti Lane.

The new store has the potential to be a one-stop shopping experience. Besides the Aaron kosher chicken, the ready-to-eat section sells Waldorf salad, there’s pretty good sushi around the aisle, $50 bottles of Silver Oak (2008), and three kinds of Intelligentsia coffee. Right there, one trip to Gelson’s saved me four other trips, to Trader Joe’s for chicken and mayo, to Intelligentsia in Pasadena for the coffee, the Lotte Market for apples and to Fish King in Glendale for the sushi and Silver Oak Cabernet.

On the other hand, despite the warm welcome from Gelson’s staff, and despite the inspiring Gelson family history, I am reluctant to skip my regular route. The Trader Joe’s checker tells me stories about the vegetables at Super King. The sushi chef at Fish King knows his craft, and the owners at Lotte Market are pretty cool.

It’s what they call a dilemma.

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ANITA SUSAN BRENNER is a longtime La Cañada Flintridge resident and an attorney with Law Offices of Torres and Brenner in Pasadena. Email her at anitasusan.brenner@yahoo.com and follow her on Twitter @anitabrenner.

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