Grocery Outlet will fill downtown Fresno space once occupied by Fresh & Easy

The Fresno BeeJanuary 17, 2014 

Grocery Outlet stores carry meat, vegetables and other foods. The Berkeley-based company in putting a store in at R and Tulare streets in Fresno.

MARK CROSSE — Fresno Bee Staff Photo Buy Photo

The empty Fresh & Easy store in downtown Fresno soon will have new life as a Grocery Outlet.

The store will open this summer and be a little different than the other Grocery Outlets in Fresno. It's welcome news to downtown residents and workers who say they're happy to see the building rented. But some add they're hesitant to say they will become regular customers.

Fresno City Council Member Oliver Baines said constituents have been asking if and when such a store would return to the spot.

"To not have a grocery store there was obviously a huge inconvenience for the community," he said.

The city has watched the high-profile spot, at the corner of R and Tulare streets, since the Old Fresno Hofbrau was torn down after its owners moved their business to Idaho. Local real estate broker Scott Negri bought and developed the property and leased it to Fresh & Easy, which opened there in 2009.

The store was one of three in the Valley to close when the chain was sold to a new owner, its former parent company saying Fresh and Easy didn't make enough money to keep going.

Now discounter Grocery Outlet plans to open there, probably in early June.

Grocery Outlet has three stores in Fresno and one in Clovis — half of them new stores that opened during a recent expansion.

They carry meat, vegetables and other foods, and the company boasts about its beer and wine selection on its website.

The stores offer deep discounts by buying surplus and overstock food from suppliers. But customers may not find everything on their regular shopping lists, and the Grocery Outlet does not accept coupons.

One challenge Grocery Outlet will face downtown is the huge variety of potential customers. Downtown has thousands of workers who may use the store as a place to pick up milk or eggs on the way home. Downtown residents who may do all their shopping there range from low-income people to higher-paid professionals living in newly developed lofts and townhomes nearby.

"I'm just hoping they're going to be able to work with the neighborhood," said Tricia Hill, who manages a nearby Starbucks and lives at condominiums within walking distance of the store. She is a vegetarian who has done her shopping at Trader Joe's since Fresh & Easy closed.

Grocery Outlet is up for the challenge, said Bill Coyle, the Berkeley-based company's vice president of real estate.

The company has a similar location in midtown Sacramento in a high-profile area that sees an influx of office workers during the day, he said. Like the Fresno store, it serves both residents and workers.

The Grocery Outlet in Sacramento is about the same size as the future one in Fresno, and is sandwiched between multistory offices and a residential area. The store sells $3 salads and $5 sandwiches at its "grab-n-go" section, and has small produce and meat counters that have the basic offerings. In addition to the discount candy and paper towels, the store features the occasional reduced- prices bin of rugs and display of crockpots.

The new Fresno store also will have the "grab-n-go" section of pre-made sandwiches and other lunchtime items, Coyle said. The store is a little smaller, at 15,000 square feet, than the average Grocery Outlet at about 20,000 square feet, he said.

Grocery Outlets are independently operated, often by couples who are encouraged to get active in the community. They are given the freedom to customize their stores, Coyle said.

"There is flexibility for the operator to cater their offering to the demographic makeup and the needs and wants of the people who frequent the store," he said.

In addition to discount groceries, the operators make deals with suppliers, which is why some stores carry local wine, for example.

Some stores have NOSH sections — short for natural, organic, specialty and healthy. The operators will decide if the downtown store will have such a section. The operators haven't been chosen yet, he said.

The store will be an alternative to the limited shopping options downtown. The area has a Smart & Final, though some residents with small families avoid the bulk retailer. And there is a FoodMaxx at Fresno and B streets, though some downtown residents such as Jason Millar say it "can get a little seedy." He and others supplement their shopping with trips to the downtown CVS and 7-Eleven.

Millar is a downtown supporter who says the more businesses that locate in Fresno, the better. He and his girlfriend have lived in the Iron Bird lofts on Fulton Street for more than a year and she works near the new store.

"She likes to go grocery shopping right after work," he said. "If she has to run and get meat and milk, she's going to do that right there."

But Millar may not frequent the Grocery Outlet as much: "Normally I would say yes, but the honest truth is from where I'm located, it's really fast and easy to get to that FoodMaxx."

And others say learning that Grocery Outlet would take over the space was "bittersweet," such as Chase Schwarzwalter, who lives in the new Fulton Village development near Amador Street. He is happy to learn the building won't be empty, but "it is a shame to see a discount grocery store going into an area that is trying so hard to revitalize and re-brand itself."

Learning that it may provide healthier and quicker items made him more likely to check the store out, he said.

Grocery Outlet has hired an architect to rework the inside of the store. It will keep the clock and mosaic mural by local artist Stan Bitters on the outside of the building.

"There is flexibility for the operator to cater their offering to the demographic makeup and the needs and wants of the people who frequent the store." — Bill Coyle, Grocery Outlet's vice president of real estate

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6431, or @BethanyClough on Twitter.

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