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British food it's not

RETAIL

Shoppers find Fresh & Easy a blend of Trader Joe's and Ralphs

November 09, 2007|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer

Maybe Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market can compete after all.

Parking lots were full and cash-register lines long at the six stores that British grocery giant Tesco opened in Southern California on Thursday. Some people showed up two hours before front doors were unlocked. In Anaheim, hecklers interrupted a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

"Just open the store and let us in," one impatient shopper shouted. "We've been waiting 30 years for this."

To find out whether the wait was worth it, The Times sent staffers to four of the new markets and asked Evan Kleiman, host of "Good Food" on KCRW-FM (89.9) and owner-chef of Angeli Caffe in Los Angeles, and Donna Barasch, a Villa Park gastronome whose cookbook collection numbers more than 250, to visit two.

They found Fresh & Easy to be a blend of Trader Joe's and Ralphs.

"I would definitely go back," Kleiman said after returning home from the Fresh & Easy in Glassell Park, where she spent $75 on bread, cheese, ahi tuna, shrimp dumplings, cleaning supplies and more.

Said Barasch, who toured the market in Anaheim: "If there were one nearby, I would take my mom there every week."

Kleiman and Barasch -- along with the Times staffers and many of the customers they interviewed -- gave the markets high marks for:

* interior design, because of wide aisles, clearly written signs, bright lighting and an uncluttered feel.

"I like the nice atmosphere," said shopper Sakinna Hamdan, appraising the Arcadia market. "It doesn't overwhelm you like other stores."

* product selection, including Spanish meats, such as jamon serrano and sliced chorizo, and cheeses from around the world.

"This is the first time I've had decent ricotta outside Bellwether Farms from up north or Italy," Kleiman said.

* prepared foods, including single-serving offerings of Greek salad, chicken fajitas and macaroni and cheese.

* convenience -- for instance, nearly all the produce is packaged in plastic bags or net sacks. (But that was a negative for Barasch. "If I want one tomato, I want to be able to buy one tomato," she said.)

* neat presentation of fresh-looking fruits and vegetables. "The apples and pears are beautiful," said Upland store shopper Lauren Ramos, whose husband works for Trader Joe's.

* unexpectedly low prices on items, including a 6-ounce tube of Total Advance Clean Colgate toothpaste selling for $2.47.

Fresh & Easy even sells an Australian answer to Trader Joe's illustrious Two Buck Chuck -- Big Kahuna Cabernet Shiraz, for $1.99.

The Fresh & Easy model is simple: The markets are relatively small, at about 10,000 square feet per store, and the advertising campaign includes references to environmentally friendly packaging and food free of artificial colors, flavors and trans fats. Stores are stocked with big names and in-house brands and offer more prepared entrees and side dishes than typical supermarkets.

Some industry watchers have said that Fresh & Easy might change the Southland's grocery-shopping landscape, if only because Tesco plans to open dozens more markets in the region by next year. (The six stores that debuted Thursday are in Anaheim, Arcadia, Hemet, Glassell Park, Upland and West Covina.)

As it is, traditional grocers are beefing up organic and gourmet options and are trying to make the food-shopping experience more pleasant and faster.

A British retailer it may be, but Tesco didn't make a big deal out of that. There were no bangers or mash at the Fresh & Easy stores The Times visited. The most British offering might have been from the former empire -- Indian chicken makhani -- although farmhouse Cheddar and Huntsman cheeses were on display.

For serious foodies who cook from scratch, Fresh & Easy might not do the trick. But for Donia Garcia, a working mother who lives near the Anaheim store, the prepackaged meals could be godsends. "It's going to make my life easier," she said.

Thursday's shopping experiences probably weren't typical. Tesco executives strolled the aisles, shaking hands and directing traffic.

"When the suits go away," said Jeanne Gordon of Mount Washington, "it'll be a nice place to shop."

Kleiman cautioned against making firm decisions right now, when floors aren't scuffed and none of the shopping carts is out of alignment yet.

"It's hard to separate the newness from the niceness," she said.

--

alana.semuels@latimes.com

Times staff writers Roger Vincent, Peter Pae, Daniel Costello, Mary MacVean and Charles Perry contributed to this report.

--

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Comparing prices

A random sampling of products at the Fresh & Easy store in Eagle Rock and a Vons store in Echo Park:

4 rolls of Angel Soft toilet paper

Fresh & Easy: $1.18

Vons: $1.49

Colgate 6-ounce Total Advanced Clean toothpaste

Fresh & Easy: $2.97

Vons: $4.29

White rice, store brand, 28-ounce bag

Fresh & Easy: $2.54

Vons: $3.72

Sliced wheat bread, 16 ounces

Fresh & Easy: $1.61

Vons: $0.99

Instant oatmeal, store brand, 8 packets

Fresh & Easy: $1.79

Vons: $3.59

Doritos, 12.5-ounce bag

Fresh & Easy: $2.65

Vons: $3.49, or two for $5 with Vons card

1% milk, 1 gallon

Fresh & Easy: $3.48 (store brand)

Vons: $3.99 (Westwood brand), $5.99 (Vons organic brand)

Feta cheese, 8 ounces

Fresh & Easy: $3.78 (Mt. Vikos brand)

Vons: $4.99 (Athenos brand)

Whole pineapple

Fresh & Easy: $2.98

Vons: $3.99

Oreos, 18-ounce package

Fresh & Easy: $2.89

Vons: $3.49 (with Vons card)

Lays Classic potato chips, 13-ounce bag

Fresh & Easy: $2.65

Vons: $3.49, or buy one, get one for $1.66

-- Alana Semuels

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