The British owner of the new Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market grocery chain had to contend with uninvited guests Monday, when about 100 activists from a coalition of community groups protested outside a meeting with investors.
Tesco, Fresh & Easy's parent company, had hosted U.S. and British institutional investors and money managers at a Santa Monica hotel to update them on plans for the chain, which began opening stores in Southern California this month.
The stores debuted to crowds of curious and excited shoppers, many of them welcoming the stores to their neighborhoods and cheering the chain's convenient locations and selection of fresh and prepared foods.
The Alliance for Healthy and Responsible Grocery Stores, which comprises 25 community groups, was protesting Fresh & Easy's refusal to meet to discuss a proposed "community benefits agreement." It sought to bind the food retailer to certain wage levels, affordable health benefits and greenhouse gas reduction.
The coalition also has questioned Fresh & Easy's commitment to open stores in under-served and low-income neighborhoods.
"Financial analysts and investors from all over the world have been gathered here by Tesco so that they can tell them how profitable Fresh & Easy will be," said Elliott Petty, a retail policy analyst at the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. "However, we are also here to educate -- and make absolutely certain that those men and women understand that Fresh & Easy will face incredible resistance if they continue to refuse to engage this community."
Tesco, the world's third-largest retailer, is spending $2 billion to build hundreds of small grocery stores in Southern California and the Southwest.
It has opened eight Trader Joe's-size stores in Southern California and plans to open one in Lakewood and another in Laguna Hills on Wednesday. It doesn't accept coupons and has no plans for a club card program.
And it does not have a union workforce, which was a big reason behind the protest. At the rally, Maria Elena Durazo, head of the 800,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, protested Fresh & Easy's refusal to meet with labor and community groups.
"Tesco, remember everywhere you go, we are going to be there. We are not going to give up until you treat our community with respect," she said.
Fresh & Easy has no plans to meet with the community groups or labor officials, said Brendan Wonnacott, a spokesman for the chain. "Any outside representation will be up to our employees," he said.
Despite the criticism from the coalition, he said, Fresh & Easy remains committed to opening stores "in all neighborhoods" and is building a Compton location. He said that the chain had identified 18 store sites in Los Angeles where it would like to build and that some were in low-income areas.