Tuesday, May 8, 2012
The Disappearing Independent Grocer
The other day I was setting up an appointment in my former newspaper town, and the other person suggested a coffee shop in one of the shopping centers, right next to the Super Max. Super Max? For a minute I drew a blank, then the penny dropped. Lambert’s.
You’d have to be of a certain age to remember Lambert’s grocery store, which was sold after the principal owner’s death about a quarter of a century ago. It changed its name to Fairway then, and later became Super Max. There may have been another iteration or two in between; I don’t remember, but I do remember Lambert’s very well.
When I began working in Watsonville in 1972, Lambert’s was one of several locally owned independent grocery stores. There were also Heights, owned by the Brandon family; Daylite, owned by the Wongs; Happy Burro, Freedom Food Center, Bi-Rite and others.
There weren’t, in fact, many chain stores. Lucky had a store in the Crestview Center and Albertson’s came along a few years later. Safeway came into town in the early 1960s but couldn’t make a go of it; they sold the building to the newspaper, and I worked in that building for nearly two decades. Now the newspaper has moved to another location and there’s a Grocery Outlet bargain market in the old Safeway building. Full circle.
All those family-owned stores are gone now, but at the time they offered a diversity of supermarket culture that you don’t get from the chains today. A lot of people thought Lambert’s had the best meat section in town, and I remember taking my recently widowed mother-in-law there to buy provisions for a Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner.
It’s next to impossible for an independent grocery store to make it these days, and there generally have to be special circumstances. We have one in our town, Deluxe Foods of Aptos, and do most of our shopping there. Terrific store that it is, it nonetheless benefits from the fortunate circumstance of being one of only two supermarkets serving an unincorporated town of about thirty thousand souls.
The other supermarket in town is a singularly dreadful Safeway that is depressing in every aspect of its operation. It must be a pleasure to compete against that store, and the next nearest super is five miles away. An independent grocer pretty much needs that kind of market niche to make it these days.
Forty years ago, those independent grocers played a major role in paying my wages. They all bought a page or a page and a half of advertising in the newspaper every Wednesday, which, for reasons unknown, was food day. Bud O’Brien, then the wire editor, once said that the biggest news in the paper on any given Wednesday probably wasn’t anything we put on the front page; it was the price of hamburger at Lambert’s.
As the locally owned grocery stores gave way to the chains, the ads in the paper gave way to pre-printed inserts, which weren’t nearly as profitable. Shopping habits changed as well. The wife isn’t staying at home comparing the prices in the ads in Wednesday’s paper; she probably has a job, and her husband may well be doing the grocery shopping. The disappearing independent grocery store mirrors a disappearing way of life on several levels. Back in the seventies, I thought that way of life would go on forever. I probably won’t make that mistake again.