Updated 10:30 a.m.: Three Fresh & Easy stores in Fresno and Clovis opened at 10 a.m. this morning.
A line of customers stretched around the building at the downtown store at Tulare and R streets.
The Cedar and Nees avenues store in Fresno also opened today, along with the Shaw and Willow store in Clovis. Fresh & Easy stores at Shaw and West avenues in Fresno and in Reedley are scheduled to open next month.
Employees gave away food samples and free canvas bags to the first customers.
The cheese ravioli is in the cooler and beer is on the shelf as three area Fresh & Easy stores prepare to open at 10 a.m. today.
These are the first of the company's store openings in the Fresno-Clovis area.
Many aspects of the stores will be unfamiliar to local shoppers, who have watched the company's progress in opening stores through months of delay.
Stores scheduled to open today include the downtown Fresno location at Tulare and R streets, Cedar and Nees avenues in Fresno and the Shaw and Willow avenues store in Clovis.
The store at Shaw and West avenues in Fresno is scheduled to open Feb. 3, and the Reedley location will open Feb. 24.
The Fresh & Easy chain is owned by British grocery giant Tesco and has been debuting its small-store format in Western states in recent years.
Among store features that may be new to Fresno shoppers are Fresh & Easy's checkout stands. Customers are expected to scan and bag their products at every checkstand. There are no cashiers, but an employee is available to help customers.
That took some customers by surprise when the Lemoore Fresh & Easy opened last month, said the city's planning director, Holly Smyth.
"Some people aren't used to the all-automated checking and bagging," she said. "The Valley is still newer to that, versus Southern California or Northern California where it's much more prevalent."
The stores have prime parking spaces out front set aside for shoppers with small children, or who have hybrid vehicles.
Freshly prepared foods are the chain's top sellers and it touts them as setting it apart from the competition.
Burritos, clam chowder and teriyaki chicken and rice dishes will be shipped in daily from Riverside, where the food is prepared, said spokesman Brendan Wonnacott.
"This is by far the most popular part of the store," he said. "From day one, we've had a huge demand for these type of products."
Fresno State marketing professor Bill Rice describes Fresh & Easy as "a step below" Whole Foods and the locally owned Bentley's Fresh Market, which closed late last year.
"It's trying to fit that person who would like to eat healthier, but not pay the extravagant costs," he said. "It has a good shot of making it."
The opening of the stores comes two years after the company first acknowledged interest in the area. Work on stores went stagnant in spring of 2009 as the company slowed its rollout in Central and Northern California due to the economy.
The delay left some customers wondering what was happening. Potential customers like Luke Moritz of Fresno have been watching and waiting ever since.
"I was a little curious as to why they were sitting there empty," he said.
In all, the company has announced plans to open 12 stores in Fresno, Clovis, Reedley and Lemoore. And Wonnacott said more are in the works.