Commentary: In Praise of the new Grocery Outlet

By David Watts Barton, Sacramentopress.com, August 24, 2010

Grocery stores aren’t as cool as bars.

But what a difference a grocery makes. Neighborhoods that thrive – neighborhoods where people live – need grocery stores. Grocery stores may not be sexy, but they keep us alive.

The opening last week of a Midtown Grocery Outlet selling fresh produce, prepared foods and many of the staples of the run-down convenience stores that dot the Grid, is a big deal to those of us who live here.

The fact that their prices are roughly half that of the nearby Safeway is a significant bonus.

For anyone who wants Sacramento’s Central City to thrive, the opening of the Grocery Outlet in the old grocery at 17th Street and Capitol Avenue is unalloyed good news. A couple of visits there in the last week have been very encouraging.

Rick’s Uptown Market, like Compton’s before it, was drab and often understocked, and ultimately, not very useful unless you were looking for a quick “forty.”

By contrast, the new Grocery Outlet – which is NOT, despite the name, one of those big, sprawling superstores offering canned goods of questionable quality – really feels like a neighborhood market.

The produce looks good, there’s quite a cheese and meat selection, there are “grab ‘n’ go” prepared foods that look pretty good, a good selection of wine – and the staff is friendly and plentiful. The place is just crammed full of stuff, but feels efficient at the same time.

And many of the items are half the price of other options – even convenience stores.

This was painful for me my first visit – I had just slapped down $4.39 for a bag of Oroweat whole wheat hamburger buns at Safeway, only to find the very same item (no, not expired) at the GO for $1.99 – but that’s the kind of pain I can tolerate. Needless to say, my loyalty, at least regarding hamburger buns, has shifted. Permanently.

Midtown and especially downtown are blessed with farmers markets galore – on Sunday, two on Tuesday, on Wednesday and at other times. But that schedule highlights the farmers markets’ limitations – you have about 20 hours per week (five or six hours per market) to get to them. Otherwise, you just have to wait. Farmers markets are no substitute for a store that fits into our contemporary hours – for example, 7 in the morning till 9 at night at the GO.

I live about 14 blocks from the new Midtown Grocery Outlet, which is now the only grocery even close to downtown, and I will shop there. I like Safeway, I like Trader Joe’s, and the Co-op is worth an occasional visit. But the GO is the only one I don’t need to get in my car to visit. And that is a good thing.

It’s a small thing, a grocery store. People all over the world take the small neighborhood market for granted – I’m thinking about everywhere from neighborhood London to sub-Saharan Morocco, from urban Bangkok to suburban Mexico City – but those of us who have lived in neighborhoods with insufficient groceries know their value.

There are naysayers – always, naysayers – who will nit pick this one for entertainment, arguing all sorts of nonsense about “corporate” this and “local” that, finding fault wherever they can. That’s what they do. But the new GO is locally owned and operated, and the building looks better than it has in a long, long time.

So I, for one, welcome Grocery Outlet into Midtown. I’d be happy to lose 10 new bars and restaurants for one store like the new GO. But I don’t have to: We get ‘em all!