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Monday, June 20, 2011

Previewing San Francisco's New Fresh & Easy Markets

Posted By on Mon, Jun 20, 2011 at 2:54 PM

click to enlarge Fresh & Easy's prepared salads are attractively packaged. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • Fresh & Easy's prepared salads are attractively packaged.

Wednesday, June 22, is opening day for the Richmond District Fresh & Easy, a Britain-based grocery chain spreading across California with the speed of kudzu vines in Georgia.

Owned by Tesco, Fresh & Easy opened 160 stores in Southern California, Arizona, and Nevada in the space of five years, and has now headed north, reportedly opening 13 stores in the Bay Area. The Richmond store (375 32nd Ave. at Clement) is San Francisco's first; a second location at Third and Carroll is scheduled to launch August 24, and a third at Silver and Goettingen should follow at a later date. A F&E representative just confirmed to SFoodie that the company is planning to move into the former DeLano's on South Van Ness and 23rd St., but can't estimate an opening date.

So what is the store going to be like? SFoodie drove to Pacifica last week to check out Fresh & Easy.

click to enlarge The Pacifica Fresh & Easy store's exterior. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • The Pacifica Fresh & Easy store's exterior.

Fresh & Easy occupies a different niche than the grocery stores to which Bay Area shoppers are accustomed. It's oriented toward convenience, value, and healthfulness -- think Trader Joe's without the gourmet and organic-living aspirations, with a design sensibility reminiscent of Target and hundreds of half- or fully prepared meals. According to this fascinating 2007 feature in The Economist, before invading tackling America, store planners spent two weeks embedded with 60 American families to try to find out how we cook and what kinds of foods we might want.

Fresh & Easy's microwaveable "steamer" meals, most under $5. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • Fresh & Easy's microwaveable "steamer" meals, most under $5.
And what we want is quick, fresh, and relatively healthful prepared foods. The reason the chain is blasting out new stores is that it has established a central commissary in Stockton, where it prepares salads, dips, baked goods, and whole meals.

"All Fresh & Easy products contain no artificial colors, no artificial flavors, no added trans fats, no high-fructose corn syrup," trumpet signs around the store, and the meals are refrigerated -- not frozen -- with expiration dates set within a day or two. SFoodie can't say that the salmon with honey-mustard sauce, baby spinach, and roasted potatoes that we tried was to our taste, but we're DIY cooks -- it was better than half of the frozen meals we've tried.

The rest of the shelves are stocked with a mix of mainstream and proprietary brands -- we'd estimate 40 percent of the merchandise is Fresh & Easy -- and while there's a small produce section (again, think Trader Joe's), all of it is prepackaged and much of it is cut up for steaming, roasting, or sauteing.

The strangest thing is that SFoodie had a hard time identifying the store's intended market. The flavors and labels in the dishes aren't terribly aspirational, as at Whole Foods (think organic lemongrass-spiked coconut water), and there was no talk of sourcing and very little certified organic food. But the products also weren't salted and sugared up. According to the Economist piece, Fresh & Easy likes to simultaneously open in both lower-income urban areas like Bayview and higher-income suburban areas such as Pacifica and Danville, confounding expectations and appealing, therefore, to more of us. SFoodie is curious, even a little eager, to see how it does here.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie, and like us on Facebook.
Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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Jonathan Kauffman


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