Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Whine, Whine, Whine

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published February 3, 2016] ©2016

The loss of both Jonathan’s and the Haggen-Albertsons supermarkets couldn’t have been more clearly felt than during Christmas week. There was no good will among men. No parking either. 

I had hoped to do my last Christmas food shopping on the Tuesday before Christmas. But as soon as I pulled into the La Jolla Vons lot from Fay, I found myself trapped in a hopeless gridlock. I honestly thought it was possible that I could spend the day there, ultimately abandoning my car and taking the bus home. It took me more than an hour just to get myself out the other side of the lot, having never actually bought any groceries. 

It’s not, of course, like we don’t have other options. Trader Joe’s has loads of fun stuff, so long as you don’t mind having exactly two choices of fish pre-packaged in sizes you don’t want, and are OK with buying a whole bag of carrots when you need just one. Want a deli sandwich? Not happening. Go on a Sunday afternoon? Lines are literally all the way to the back of the store. 

At the small Sprouts store, you can get that deli sandwich (or for me, fresh sliced cold cuts) if you’ve got a half hour to wait for it. Every day seems to be somebody’s first day. Need paper or cleaning products? Not there. Looking for a specific brand name? Nope!

The Vons in Pacific Beach is a blessedly full service store but their parking situation is only one sigma better than downtown La Jolla because of all the other businesses in that mall that it services. 

Now, I fully admit that this is a first world problem. But this will not keep me from whining about it anyway. Is it too much to ask for a perfect grocery shopping experience that includes everything I could want in one stop with convenient parking?  I think not. 

In my 43 years here, I’ve frequented all the local markets in their various incarnations but my go-to store was usually Albertsons. Though smaller than Vons, it made getting in and out of there that much faster, and I liked the shorter lines and easy angled parking.  I always felt like I was taking my life in my hands in the La Jolla Vons parking lot where the local Beemerati drive like it’s a speedway that is coincidentally contiguous to a supermarket.

Without Jonathan’s and Albertsons, Vons perpetually feels like a mall on Christmas Eve. Too many cars, too few spaces. Too many of us oldies trying to navigate (badly) out of perpendicular parking spots. 

In January 2015, the Washington State-based Haggen chain acquired some 83 Albertsons stores in Southern California, including the one in La Jolla. Alas, it all went sour pretty quickly. While the layout was more spacious-looking, the prices were significantly higher. When my backyard lemon tree couldn’t keep up with demand, I couldn’t bring myself to pay $.99 for lemons when they’re $.33 each at Trader Joe’s (never mind stealable in the middle of the night from my neighbor’s back yard). I mean, this is lemon country, folks.  One could only assume they were growing them in hot houses at their Pacific Northwest headquarters. 

Only months after the store opened, articles starting appearing in the paper. Haggen was shortening hours, laying off employees. Pretty soon a visit to the local Haggen started feeling like an Eastern European supermarket experience in time of famine. The entire milk case was empty one week, along with the eggs, cheese, and sour cream. Sometimes juices were non-existent or the meat case was virtually meatless. Even bread was in short supply. I had planned to make a chicken marsala for dinner one night and could get the marsala, but not the chicken.  

Sporadic deliveries became the norm. I decided to adopt the shopping strategy that I used while we lived in Europe in 2005 and 2006.  You don’t go with a menu in mind; you just buy whatever happens to be there and make something with it. Requires creativity and flexibility, and a tolerance for the occasionally inedible meal. In Europe, I didn’t know the language and had no idea what I was buying most of the time anyway. I discovered, for example, that those cold cuts we’d been having for lunch were actually horse. That package of cut up chicken parts turned out to be rabbit.  Here, at least, I actually recognized the products. 

Then came the announcement that didn’t surprise anyone who had been shopping at the store: Haggen had declared bankruptcy and was closing all 83 emporia in Southern California. Sadly, this had to be the fastest food fail in supermarket history. 

A Gelson’s supermarket is rumored to be opening at the Haggen/Albertson/Lucky/AlphaBeta location in late March. Just so we’re clear: Don’t even THINK of messing with the angled parking.


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