Last March I wrote about the announced sale of Safeway to Cerberus Capital Management, taking the public company private. I wrote that I was not optimistic about what that would do to the stores in which we shop, and shortly thereafter I commented on Facebook that I was not happy with the look of my local store in the transition period.
I spent some time in Safeway recently, shortly after the sale of the company had closed. As my Facebook comment suggested, the condition of my local store in the time between the announcement of the sale and the deal closing after final FTC approval was indeed not encouraging. Endcaps looked junky and there were times when whole sections of the freezer aisle were empty because the local store couldn’t spend the money to get it fixed.
After the transaction was complete, however, the shopping experience became been much better. The store was clean, pleasant, and well-stocked. Yes, there were empty spots here and there, but for the most part the store looked good and there was plenty of merchandise. All the freezer sections were fully functional. The produce looked good.
And while on one hand, I dislike the idea of the chain being owned by a capital management firm, on the other hand, they don’t have to keep shareholders happy quarter to quarter to quarter. That can in fact be a positive.
We’ll see how it goes.
Terry and I were in Rocca’s Market the other day and Tom, co-owner, was at the checkstand. I told him that I had spoken to his brother, co-owner Dan, about the loss of Poppy their fishmonger and was wondering if that wold affect the quality of their fish supply. Dan had told me that there was no change: the fish was coming from the same distributor, it was just that it was being delivered rather than Poppy going up to San Francisco and picking it up.
I told Tom that to listen to Poppy, he was up at the wharf waiting on the dock for the fishing boats to come in and buying directly from the fishermen. Tom smiled and nodded in agreement. “He is a character. God loves characters,” Tom said. Then he added, “How does it go? God created people because he loves stories.”
That is indeed how it goes. It is, in fact, an old Hasidic saying: “God created humankind because he loves stories.”
If that is the criterion, God no doubt really appreciates Poppy.
That is as it should be.
I wrote last week that our fishmonger, Poppy, had left Rocca’s Market where he had been since 2012. We knew him first, as I wrote, when he had his own shop up the road in Morgan Hill. I was concerned as to whether there would be a reduction in the quality of the seafood with his departure.
As it turns out there is no change. Rocca’s was buying the fish from a distributor, but Poppy was driving up to San Francisco to get it himself. Now the distributor delivers the fish to the store. That’s it. Nothing else is different. I learned this from co-owner Dan Rocca last week when I was there on my regular visit on Friday.
See, the thing is that Poppy wanted you to think that he was driving up to The City and meeting the fishing boats as they returned to the Wharf. That was the impression he gave when he had his own shop, and he did nothing to disabuse his customers of that impression when he was at Rocca’s.
He was buying from a distributor all along.
But when you’re an entrepreneur it’s all about perception, isn’t it?
Terry and I were at Rocca’s Market the day after Thanksgiving getting our meat supply for the next week. The seafood selection was a bit light due to the holiday. I made an offhand comment to the effect of, “You mean Mike didn’t go up to the Wharf on Thanksgiving?” Jim, the new guy in the meat department, told us that our fish guy, Mike “Poppy” Castelan, was no longer there. He had taken a job as a salesman for a seafood wholesaler.
We loved his seafood shop when he was up in Morgan Hill and were sorry when he closed it. We were delighted when he joined Rocca’s in 2012. I’m sure that he was not making the kind of money he needed working at Rocca’s a few days a week. We will miss him, and we will miss the quality assurance that he brought to Rocca’s seafood counter. It remains to be seen what that will be like now that they’re simply buying from a supplier. But a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do, and we wish him the best.
I was in Rocca’s Market last week for an off-cycle midweek run. Dan Rocca had his thumb bandaged up. He was working the cash register so when I was checking out I asked him what happened. He said he thought he had dislocated it and was trying to figure out what to do about it.
On Friday I went in for my usual weekly visit. Dan wasn’t there but his brother Tom was working the cash register. I asked him if Dan had is thumb looked after. He told me that he had. It was a sprain, but nothing serious or chronic. Tom said that he learned a long time ago that a Rocca can’t afford to be sick or injured. I said that that was what happens when you own your own business. He said it was more like the business owned them.
And yet they keep on keeping on. You have to admire that.
I have long avoided Walmart for a number of reasons. They have a history of paying their employees poorly, and they squeeze everything they can out of their suppliers. On the other hand, they are undertaking a significant investment in solar energy, and they are engaged in an initiative to sell organic produce, which could give a boost to organic farmers and bring down prices for consumers.
And when one receives notice of a job layoff one reassess one’s priorities. Especially when one’s favorite allegedly upscale regional grocery chain is not known for its low prices and when the store isn’t really offering anything special.
Last week Terry and I swallowed our pride last week and went in to our local Walmart. It was good to have Terry along because she does a much better job of paying attention to prices than I do. On item after item Terry was impressed at how much lower their prices were than elsewhere. Our total bill was $36.30. Terry estimated that same purchase at our allegedly upscale regional grocery chain would be $50.00.
As Terry said, “I guess we’re going to stop being snobs.”
I have written quite a bit about Rocca’s, our family owned, independent market. I can’t imagine going back to the supermarket and buying pre-packaged meats. Not when I can go to Rocca’s and get exactly the size or weight or quantity that I need.
It goes beyond that, though. A few months ago, perhaps it was just before Easter, I went in looking for tri-tip. They had it in a variety of marinades, but not the one I wanted. Tom, co-owner and responsible for the meat department, was right there, though he wasn’t the one helping me. He said “I can fix that for you,” and after verifying that I wasn’t going to cook it until the next day, set me up with what I wanted.
Last Thursday I went in for a number of things for the 4th and for the weekend. They did not, however, have any country sausage. Poppy, our fish monger was helping me, but Dan K, the sausage guy, was right there and said, “I can make you some if you can hang for a few minutes.” Well, certainly. Obviously he couldn’t make it in the small amount that I usually buy, so now I have enough to take us through mid-August. But that’s fine. That’s why we have a freezer and our FoodSaver.
When I say that I really appreciate Rocca’s I mean it.
On a side note, the dairy product line that Rocca’s sells is a brand called Producer’s. It’s very common to see that brand in independent markets and restaurants in much of the northern half of California, when you get away from the chains. The only problem is that when I see that brand I can’t help but think about a certain Mel Brooks musical. You know the one I mean: “Springtime for Hitler and Germany, Winter for Poland and France…”
OK, enough of that.
I’ve written before about Victoria’s, our local, family owned Mexican restaurant. We generally go there for lunch on Tuesday or Wednesday. That’s because on Tuesday they serve tortilla soup and on Wednesday they serve albondigas soup, both of which Terry loves. For some time now Donald “Elvis,” our local highly regarded Elvis impersonator, restaurant co-owner, and the one in charge of operations there, has been working Tuesday and Wednesday lunch. Before that though, his aunt Carmen handled those shifts. They both know our standard order.
Some weeks back, it was kind of slow and Don was sitting at the table out in front talking to Carmen. We came up and Don started to get up, but Carmen said, “Just write up their ticket. They can take it back to the kitchen themselves.” So Don did.
How’s that for being considered almost part of the family? Later Don came by our table and said, “Only Carmen would do that.”
A week ago today Terry strained her hamstring. She wasn’t able to put any weight on it. (She’s doing much better now, by the way.) On Wednesday she still wasn’t able to be out and about, so I went to Victoria’s to get takeout. They were totally sold out that day, and when Don came by and patted me on the shoulder he asked, “Where’s your wife?” I said, “She has a strained hamstring. I need the usual to go.” He said, “You got it.”
When he brought out the order he said, “I put a couple of extra meatballs in the soup and gave you some extra chips and salsa. Tell her I hope she’s feeling better.”
Now how is that for being considered almost a part of the family?
Terry and I have been having lunch at our local Mexican restaurant, Victoria’s, for several years now. The quality has always been consistent. We always know what to expect.
Newer ventures don’t always find it so easy to maintain consistent quality. When our new South Asian restaurant, Pineapple Village, opened Terry and I went there on their second day. We both really enjoyed the lunch bento plate. Both the taste and the presentation impressed us. As they became more popular and the lunch hour became busier, they had difficulty keeping up. On my most recent visit, when I went by myself, I had a long wait for my bento plate, and when it arrived the presentation was sloppy and the flavor not what I experienced on our first visit.
A while back a burger place called Roadhouse Jack’s went in to the space previously occupied by Arby’s. We went there a few times and really enjoyed it. On our visit a few months ago we decided that it was our burger place of choice. Our most recent visit was different. First we had a very long wait for our order. It turns out that they needed to fry a new batch of chips for my chips and guacamole. It was nice to have fresh chips, but they could have given us a heads up. Then my mushroom burger had a stale bun and was very chintzy with the mushrooms. Not acceptable.
Maintaining quality isn’t easy.
I learned today that the San Jose Repertory Theatre is shutting down. I first heard the news on a KQED-FM local news segment. I then saw the official statement of Facebook. Eerily, as of this afternoon, the Web site is fully up and running, promoting the next play that was due to open June 19.
This is sad news for Terry and me. We didn’t attend often, but always had a marvelous time when we did. We would check in to the Fairmont, have dinner, see the show, enjoy a late evening in our room, and then get room service breakfast the next morning before heading home. We will still do that at the end of August when we see Wicked courtesy of Nederlander’s Broadway San Jose, but it is a different experience to attend a locally produced play.
What a variety of shows we have seen. There was the serious, intense Splitting Infinity. We saw Two Pianos Four Hands, which was intelligent and witty. It also had a more serious side, however, exploring the experience of living a life centered around music, from childhood through trying to make a living as an adult by that means. The Marvelous Wonderettes was a kick which employed a couple of unusual devices, though mostly an excuse to perform fifties and sixties pop. All of the shows were time well spent.
We will miss the Rep.