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RETAIL VIEW: San Diego offers mix of chains and independents

The San Diego retail supermarket scene, like the community itself, is very diverse and offers a wide range of options for both the discerning and the discount shopper.

The San Diego marketplace stretches from the California-Mexico border north to the Camp Pendelton Marine Base in Oceanside, and at least 30 miles east to new housing developments. The area south of downtown San Diego is heavily populated with Hispanics, while North County is dotted with high-end suburban communities. There are many ethnic markets, independents and chainstores that serve the various communities.

The major chainstore names are Vons (owned by Safeway), Ralph's (owned by Kroger) and Albertson's (owned by Supervalu). Stater Bros., an independent headquartered east of Los Angeles, has ventured south with about a dozen stores in San Diego County, but they are all in the north end of the county. Trader Joe's, with its unique brand of retailing, is also in San Diego County with stores in many different areas - mostly on the higher end of the spectrum.

Henry's Marketplace was possibly the largest independent in San Diego with its roots dating to the 1940s. In 1999, the Boney family, descendants of founder Henry Boney, sold the chain to Wild Oats, which now operates two dozen stores under the "Henry's" name in the area.

Whole Foods has a presence in the community and upscale Bristol Farms (owned by Supervalu) made its first move into San Diego earlier this year. There are also many individually owned retail markets in San Diego with niche followings. And lastly, many of the communities in San Diego County, especially in North County, have opened farmers' markets in town squares, which do a thriving business one day a week. There is one on Coronado Island on Tuesday afternoon, and one in the Gas Lamp Quarter near the convention center on Sunday morning.

For this story, The Produce News asked a number of locals to steer Fresh Summit attendees who want to visit what the city has to offer in terms of produce and floral departments in the right direction.

Phil Henry of Henry Avocado said there is a Ralph's Supermarket within walking distance of the convention center site (near Horton Plaza), which should be able to give anyone a glimpse of how that retailer caters to its produce customers.

As a resident of North County, Mr. Henry said that he could not vouch for that particular store, "but it's worth a look considering how close it is [to the convention center]." He also did not know a specific location for a Vons or Albertsons in the area, but again said that the interested conventioneer should be able to find one in relative close proximity to downtown San Diego.

Tim Chelling, vice president of communications for Western Growers Association and a longtime San Diego-area resident, said that Coronado Island has both a Vons and an Albertson's, but noted that the Vons is not one of the newer Life Style stores that parent company Safeway has been touting. "[The Vons] is actually an older store and more representative of produce retailing in the 1980s," said Mr. Chelling.

Amanda Grillo of Deminski, Van Valkenburg & Associates, a Southern California food broker, suggested that a trip to Boney's in Oceanside would be worth the drive. As suggested above, the Boney name is synonymous with independent retailing in San Diego County. This store is in the Boney family, and Ms. Grillo said that it does $100,000 in produce per week. "It does an amazing job and really does stand out. They build huge displays and the customers really enjoy shopping there."

Mr. Chelling of Western Growers said there is also a Boney's in Coronado that would be much closer to the San Diego Convention Center and is a very good store though it probably does not do the volume of business that Ms. Grillo was estimating for the Oceanside store.

Tom Reedy of TR Tropicals, a flower grower-shipper in Vista, CA, said that the newly opened Bristol Farms in La Jolla "is an awesome store. The whole store is amazing, and they do a great job with their produce and floral departments."

If one visits the Bristol Farms in La Jolla, Patrick Lucy of Del Rey Avocado in Fallbrook said that the Whole Foods Market in that neighborhood is worth a visit. Whole Foods, of course, has made its name with organic and natural foods, and the affluent La Jolla is a perfect community for those typically higher-priced offerings.

Dale New of Cal-Tropic Producers Inc. in Fallbrook said that he doesn't get down to San Diego very often, "but my son shops at a Henry's in Point Loma off of Rosecrans, which is pretty close to the convention center, and he says it does a very good job." Like others, Mr. New said that the Bristol Farms in La Jolla is worth the trip.

Isabel Freeland of Coast Citrus in San Diego pointed to the Henry's Marketplace in Chula Vista as a great example of Southern California produce retailing. "There is nothing magical about the store or the produce department, but it is an excellent store that does a lot of business. They are very friendly. I like to go and just watch them do business. It is something to see."

She said that the Ralph's store near the convention center is interesting as it caters to a very different crowd. The store has lots of take-home offerings rather than large bulk displays. While in that area, Ms. Freeland said that Horton Plaza itself has a small market that does a nice job with produce. For those looking to see how Whole Foods does it, she suggested one of that chain's stores at the University Town Center.

Ms. Freeland said that San Diego has lots of independent markets catering to the Hispanic and Asian communities. Most are one-store operations, she said, but noted that there is a chain of Asian-focused stores called Seafood City that does a good job for that community. She said there are a few stores relatively close to the convention center that could be visited fairly easily, including one in National City and one in San Diego. Representative of Latin- focused stores is the small Foodland chain with outlets in National City and El Cajon.

San Diego does have a public transportation system led by the trolley, which goes both south and east from the convention center. It can put one into a variety of neighborhoods allowing for a sampling of the local supermarket scene.