Everywhere you look in the greater L.A. area these days, it seems likes there's a lime and olive-green sign telling you that there's a Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market coming soon. The new market chain, owned by British giant Tesco, is like the love child of Trader Joe's and Whole Foods that looks like a culinary Ikea. It's smaller than your average megamart, with wide, dimly lighted aisles stocked with house brand goods in simply designed, often recycled packaging: Organic Maple syrup and Organic Fair Trade coffee, snack foods free of trans fats, artificial colors or flavors and even preservatives, whenever possible. Their eggs are cage free and the meat is raised in the U.S. without the use of hormones or antibiotics. And the stores are LEED Volume Green Building certified, in addition to a number of other environmentally conscientious initiatives.
So who is this new kid on every block? In an era where people are realizing the far-reaching implications of their food choices, how different is Fresh & Easy from Ralphs (owned by Krogers) or Vons (owned by Safeway) or everyone's beloved Trader Joe's?
The answer, on the surface, is: not so much. Fresh & Easy is a small supermarket owned by a multi-national, corporate behemoth. They aim to provide consumers a store that's easy to get to that fills all of the consumers' food shopping needs. They advertise high quality and low prices and provide lots of prepared foods for busy people.
But while those are big similarities, there are some small differences. What sets Fresh & Easy apart from other markets isn't revolutionary—it's far from the undoing of the industrial food chain—but it's another step in the mainstreaming of a set of values that marries social and environmental impact into a corporate structure.
Fresh & Easy's motto is making wholesome food accessible and affordable to everyone, without the usual asterisk next to "everyone." Plenty of Fresh & Easy stores are opening in more affluent neighborhoods, but they've also opened stores in places like the City of Compton, lower-income areas traditionally under-served by the likes of Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. Perhaps most notable, is the recent ground-breaking at the chain's much talked about store in South Los Angeles, particularly apropos following the recent fast food ban. Opening stores in under-served, low-income areas isn't out some sense of altruism. The company's business model focuses on opening a lot of small (10,000-square foot stores) in a variety of different neighborhoods, and finding ones where there are few alternative markets, makes economic sense. This should mean that they will invest in them the same and offer the same quality products available at all of their stores—a boon in neighborhoods where some say it's easier to buy gun than a banana.
Fresh & Easy also aims to hire from the communities where the stores are located. According to Roberto Muñoz, Neighborhood Affairs and Communications Manager for Fresh & Easy, currently half of the company's Southern California employees live within four miles of the store where they work. With all employees working more than 20 hours eligible for a comprehensive benefit package that includes health, vision and dental (and all employees are said to have the opportunity to work at least 20 hours) and entry-level jobs starting at $10 per hour, jobs at Fresh & Easy are highly sought after. The company reported receiving 10,000 applications for store level employment in the last month alone. Not a small feat in an era of strikes and other labor disputes between grocery workers and the big chains.
Fresh & Easy aims to keep their prices low by simplifying operations. They make all of their prepared foods daily in a centralized location in Riverside, California, delivering them to the individual stores. They stock their shelves with what they call "display-ready packaging" that allows them to replenish items a case at a time instead of an item at a time. They barcode all of their produce (apples are in four-packs, like at Trader Joe's), which allows them to date stamp everything for freshness, ease of stocking and assists with being able to trace the food back to its source. And they don't offer 15 different brands of one thing. Often you'll find the top name brand and the Fresh & Easy brand of something, and that's it. By minimizing choices while maintaining quality, they are able to pass those savings on to consumers. You'll find plenty of organic options at Fresh & Easy's stores, too, but organics are limited to when they can offer them at prices that are comparable to conventional items.
What About the Food?
This is where things get really complicated. How different Fresh & Easy's food is really depends on what you're comparing it too. Is it as local or fresh or transparent as the fruits and vegetables you buy at your area farmers' markets? No. But if you buy conventional produce from other mega-marts, it's probably not that different and, in some cases it might be better. Fresh & Easy says they source more than 60% of their produce from California, not a particularly difficult feat in a state that grows much of the country's fresh fruits and vegetables. Still, it's "local" if you're shopping at one of their California locations. And they say they try to buy from family-owned farms whenever possible. The date stamps on all of the produce helps assure freshness, too.
Their house-packaged foods are free of trans fats, artificial colors and flavors and preservatives (whenever possible). Compared to the slew of chemical-laden products on many grocers' shelves, this is a step in the right direction, making it easier for people to make quicker, healthier food choices.
Moreover, hormone- and antibiotic-free meats, rBST-free milk and cage free eggs are the company's standard, not the added-value (read: more expensive) options you find at most supermarkets. At a time when people are counting their pennies, this is surely a step in the right direction.
And even though they've tried to keep things simple, they still have plenty of variety to keep shoppers satisfied. Their Nature's Nosh line of afternoon snacks are tasty, and many of their stores have a decent wine selection, with a number of wines bottled especially for them.
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