Last weekend, I drove up to Long Beach to spend time with Chris G./not on LJ because he's a douche. We did a number of different things that included (but were not limited to) Mike Watt nostalgia tourism in Pedro (including the "African American Gift Shop" at Ports o' Call Village, complete with an American flag-with-marijuana-leaf in the front window), being stuck in heinous Saturday traffic, watching a Powell/Pressberger movie for two hours until capitulating to my shaky knowledge of the Boer War's failure to inform me as to what the hell was going on, snaking up Mulholland Drive after dark with vast panoramas of LA in the distance, attending a wildly mismarketed bar night called BEAR BAR in Long Beach (saved only by the appearance of Paul, Thilo, and Chris. V), enduring mild food poisoning at Portillo (which, I'm sorry to say, I failed to appreciate on any level), discovering to my pleasure that STRAIGHT TO HELL is apparently still in publication, taking time to smell a bunch of perfume at Nordstrom, and other delights.
This included trips to 1 out of every 3 fresh&easy™ locations in the world, mostly entirely by accident. I was excited to see them for the first time, and then we wound up going AGAIN and AGAIN - with Judge in Arcadia, and then with the lovely poppychirpy in Anaheim.
Some random things to note about the stores:
- The staff is freshly trained, fairly inexperienced, very friendly, and on the whole delightful. I threw down customer service challenges twice just for the hell of it, and they pretty much failed on both counts, but that's fine. One: Although they sell wine, unlike Trader Joe's or BevMo, they break down and recycle case packaging immediately, which makes it impossible to buy a case (you ever try putting twelve heavy glass bottles of plonk in plastic bags? No fun). The solution to this problem would be 1, have cardboard six-pack containers available á la Safeway. 2, sell reusable 6-pack tote bags á la Waitrose, Coles, et al. 3, don't break down empty cases and have them stacked somewhere for reuse á la BevMo and Trader Joe's. I eventually social engineered my way into going back to the wine aisle, opening an unopened box of wine they sell by the case, taking the box, and putting the wine on the shelve. This made them extremely anxious, but at least they didn't stop me. Two: I was charged sales tax on salt, and asked why. They thought I was joking. A NCR rep joked about it having something to do with Gandhi, which was amusing, but no one could figure out why I was charged sales tax on salt. They offered to get a manager, but that took too long, so I left.
- Tesco, their parent company, is (I think - I'm not sure what my source is, and I could be misremembering) the largest retailer of wine in the UK (if not the world). Perhaps due to this, there is an entire aisle of wine in every store, which is a lot of shelf space. They have a wide variety of own-label wines, ranging from the $1.99 Big Kahuna (in cab/merlot and chardonnay, made in Australia, and much more beautifully packaged than Two Buck Chuck) to sub-$15 Napa cabernet and merlot. I did buy a case of different own-label wine and intend to review it soon. I didn't go with the high end stuff, but rather the low end stuff: $2.99 Argentine rosé, $5.99 Bordeaux, that kind of thing. I was delighted to see that nearly everything was in screwcap. Curiously, they had some highfalutin' European wines among the selection there ($21.99 Chablis, $26.99 Champagne, $17.99 Sancerre) - it was as if they were replicating a European wine buying experience instead of freely adapting to more typical West Coast American wine shopping, which seems (to me, at least) to generally be more about locally produced and/or New World wines rather than the standard European workhorses. Sadly they didn't have any German rieslings save for Saint M, which is really a Washington riesling made in Germany, and as such doesn't count, but I digress.</i>
- Private label goods looked on the whole to be a nice mix between Trader Joe's and Aldi. Design was uniformly clean if not oh-my-God I MUST BY THIS NOW beautiful like Marks and Spencer. Labels were easy to read, but surprisingly English only (I would have expected Spanish on the other side, or something). There is a lot of peculiar white space left over on some boxes, and everything seems designed to be helpful from the front facing view only; when I was putting away pancake mix and crackers at home yesterday, I noticed that there's usually nothing on the sides of the box to give you a clue as to what it is, which is not very helpful in a small house.
- The product mix generally seems to be American, American, exotic import. For example, there is yellow mustard (think French's), brown mustard (think Gulden), and then tiny imported French wholegrain mustard in a cute little glass jar. 79 cents, 79 cents, $2.59 or so. On the whole, I think they're overdoing it with the European stuff. All of the private label shampoo, pillow spray, etc. was made in the UK. The olive oil was either Italian or French - what, no Californian? Curiously, though, the maple syrup was from Vermont and not Canada (and they have it with vanilla bean mix in with it, which was intriguing).
- Coffee selection was minimal, but good. I think they had about twelves kinds, plus typical American brands like Folger's. Packaging was in bags, not cans. Most was ground, a few were whole bean, and they had decaf too. I picked up the Guatemalan dark roast whole bean coffee and it was shockingly good - for $5.49/12 oz. Definitely better than any supermarket coffee, a little bit better than Trader Joe's, more conveniently packaged, and it was frankly better than the somewhat stale Peet's holiday blend coffee I picked up at their Fashion Island store last week. If you're a coffee drinker, I think you may have a new place to shop. It'll be interesting to see if this was a one-time-only experience, though - I fear that ultimately the coffee will go stale fairly quickly on the shelf so it might not taste as good next time. We'll see.
- There's also a small selection of booze, which is well thought out (Tanqueray, Hornitos tequila, decent Scotch, soda water) but lacking in a couple of things I'd really like to see (tonic water comes to mind). Pricing was eminently reasonable. I don't remember there being a beer section at all, but I think they had a few.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables were delivered in packaged exactly as they are in Europe: they are not sold loose (save for bananas) but rather in shrink-wrapped plastic trays or by the shrink-wrapped piece. I love this style, but I'm not sure everyone will. Quality looked great.
- Lots and lots of fresh fruit pre-sliced and delicious-looking. Pricing is not cheap, but probably good value. They also had lots of fresh juices, including some awful looking green crap that I bought and promptly forgot to drink. Chris, I'm sorry but I left it in your apartment somewhere. I hope you find it before it starts rotting.
- I didn't see anything in the way of artisan bread, which was a disappointment. I only remember seeing Wonder-style sliced bread, albeit whole wheat and potentially organic.
- In the "give me a fucking break" department: "hybrid only" parking spaces out front. That's just lame - a real turn-off. I can cut the "families with children only" parking spaces some slack, but not "hybrids only." I hope they get rid of that pronto.
- I didn't get a chance to buy any refrigerated or frozen goods due to the long distance between these stores and my home, but the frozen dinners looked very promising. The fresh meals, etc. were mostly sold out so I have no idea what they were like. Chris said the mac and cheese was delicious, though.
- Back in Euro-land, they had a lovely selection of delicious European things like Parma ham, jamon serrano, Spanish chorizo, gourmet olives, manchego cheese, and so on and so forth. It's kind of a weird mix: the jamon serrano is right above the fresh&easy brand beef bologna, which is next to the Oscar Meyer chicken and pork bologna, which is right next to the prosciutto di Parma. Something for everyone, I reckon? They also had at least eight different blue cheeses, from Stilton to Gorgonzola to expensive American artisanal cheeses I didn't recognize. Oh, and OMG they had quince paste AND cute little terrines of delicious livery things from France. The pâté was much more expensive than Trader Joe's, though, but it did look more appealing (in tiny black plastic terrines with consommé or gelée or whatever it's called on top).
- Finally, checkouts were either self-service or regular, and very quick. You can't pay with AmEx, but they do have an ATM in the store.
So, that's it for now. I had their $5.99 organic almond butter on toast for breakfast and it was above-par (nicely nutty and not too salty, better than anything I ever had from Whole Foods); I'm looking forward to cracking open some of the wines and reviewing them on a wine blog that'll hopefully be going public soon (details to come!). I'm also looking forward to stocking my freezer with single serving gourmet pizza and that kind of stuff. Sadly there won't be one near my house in San Diego, but Point Loma isn't too far away!