Seeing nature on the roadside didn’t happen too often growing up in the city, so moving to a rural town on California’s Central Coast took some adjusting. In Orange County, I could see the hospital where I was born from my bedroom, hear the constant hum of freeway traffic and walk to the mall or movie theater.
Now I can see the iconic Morro Rock from my living room window and hear the crashing waves of the Pacific. The equivalent of going to the movies in Los Osos consists of driving to the grocery store to rent a Blu-ray at the Redbox kiosk. Strangely, or maybe conveniently, when I moved to Los Osos 13 years ago, there were two grocery stores located only a couple blocks away from each other. Because front-row parking was pretty much guaranteed at the smaller of the two grocery stores, I chose to frequent the smaller one. Sadly, this store, Vons, no longer exists.
Vons was not a perfect store, but this is where I found myself shopping until Haggen took over for a brief spell. Some upgrades were made to outdated fixtures, the aisles were mopped and the new green-and-white sign alerted citizens of the change from Vons to Haggen. Other than that, it didn’t feel like the Vons store had changed much physically, and most of the old staff stayed on, but all the previous customers noticed the steep climb in prices once Haggen took over. Perhaps Haggen did not create enough buzz or offer enough incentives to grab any new customers or keep the old Vons ones.
Change is inevitable, but Los Osos is not known for readily welcoming it. Some of the 14,000 odd citizens (and I use the term “odd” loosely) fought against a wastewater plant for 30 years. Even McDonald’s struggled to get a drive-through in Los Osos and finally gave up trying to tap into the Los Osos market.
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Luckily, to help with the difficulty of change, most of the Vons crew stayed on with Haggen, and recent conversations with these longtime employees were reminiscent of better days.
Prior to becoming a mother, I never felt the need for grocery store conversations with people I didn’t know. My mom was not a fan of our local grocery store in Orange County. The employees never learned her first name after she shopped at the same store for over 20 years, and I inherited her disdain for small talk. You’d never hear my introvert mom talking with strangers about her sister’s friend’s ex-cousin who just got married in Seattle and what the ringbearer dog wore. To her, shopping was all about business — buy the food and get the heck out. This also became my mantra as a mother of two young boys because at some point the children will self-destruct.
Despite living in a small town with friendly grocery store employees, I managed to limit chit chat during my shopping trips until 2006, when my first son was born. It was hard to remain incognito carrying a 6-month-old baby wearing prescription eye glasses. The tiny metal-frame glasses magnified his already large and inquisitive blue eyes. He looked so distinguished and smart (he really was!) that anyone near me couldn’t resist commenting. The most common question was, “How did you know he needed glasses?” because everyone knows a 6-month-old can’t talk — let alone read a standard eye chart. I managed to captivate those in line with my pediatric ophthalmologist stories many times.
Eventually, after a few years of being asked about my son’s glasses, I smiled a bit more (the effects of motherhood and sleep deprivation faded), and I finally felt like contributing to the small talk at my local grocery store. I knew the associates by their names (it helped that they wore name tags) and I actually started chatting with them. It was hard not to spill the beans when friendly cashiers, like Billy, asked one of his classic phrases, “What do you have going on today?” Or, “How was your weekend?”
Sadly, since Haggen closed, Billy can no longer ask these questions of Los Osos customers.
About a week before Haggen’s closing, I dropped in — the sign twirlers were enticing me with their news of up to 70 percent off. What frugal mother doesn’t love a good deal? However, stepping inside I experienced the opposite of thrill. I spotted a handwritten note on a chalkboard. It was a message from the employees thanking all its loyal customers for their years of shopping. Basically, it was the employees’ way of saying, “Thanks for trying. We know it wasn’t your fault some of us lost our jobs.”
My 8-year-old and 6-year-old sons wanted to know where to place the blame for Vons leaving and the Haggen store closing. They didn’t quite understand why the government had anything to do with the location of grocery stores. I tried explaining that I didn’t think Haggen’s marketing plan took into account the input from their local employees who had been running the former Vons store for a solid decade with a loyal following of locals. When my kids learned that Haggen was going out of business, they eagerly asked, “Can Vons come back?” I tried to explain that it was too late for that.
My almost-9-year-old son is no longer noticed as the cute little kid in the grocery store wearing glasses. He gains his attention by punching his younger brother in the arm and causing sibling mayhem. My babies have grown into boys. They are typically at school when I do my shopping, so there are no more cute conversations about nearsighted babies to help me break the ice with fellow shoppers. Soon, I may never talk to another person when grocery shopping. I still need groceries — that will never change — but the way I get groceries may be changing. The word online is that Amazon drones may be delivering to our doors sooner than later.
Until the drones come knocking, you may find me shopping at Ralphs — the last of the grocery stores in town. Today, I bought watermelon for 24 cents a pound, scored a carton of discounted yogurt and met the cashier Craig. I learned that he was dyslexic. He explained this to me as he was trying to figure out the correct numerical code for the baby bok choy I wanted to purchase. I chimed in that my dad was dyslexic, too.
We all have our struggles in life, but somehow we manage. It helps to have the support of those around us. I broke down in tears in Vons more than a few times as a frazzled sleep-deprived young mother, but the doors are closed on that chapter in my life, and I’m moving forward. I’ll keep going back to Ralphs for now. I don’t have another option for shopping local — sorry, Billy.
Too often, life’s focus becomes about the business of getting from point A to B as quickly as possible. I wish Haggen would have slowed down and focused on building relationships in its Los Osos store. It seems it jumped in with its price hikes without any regard for what former loyal customers had been paying for items. I’m sure there were many other factors that led to Haggen’s closing. It just took this scenario to remind me that life should be more about relationships and not just business. One can only hope Haggen learned its lesson as well.