‘I had strong feelings for my Ralphs’: A supermarket love story

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I have a life-long affinity for markets. Before I was born and then when I was a small child, mom-and-pop grocery stores supported all my relatives. My paternal grandfather owned a small market in Chicago where his sons, my father and two uncles worked with him. My maternal grandfather owned Witmer Quality Market in Los Angeles where his two sons (more of my uncles) worked alongside him. Today that store has morphed into La Estrella Market, mirroring the ethnic change in the neighborhood just east of downtown.

But I grew up and markets grew bigger. The Ralphs market at Ventura and Hazeltine in Sherman Oaks was my go-to grocery store for 42 years until it was demolished in 2012. That Ralphs and I went way back–to the moment in 1970 when the moving trucks dropped off my belongings at my new house and I had to stock my kitchen. For most of the time since, I was a working mom with no time to shop at more than one store. If Ralphs didn’t stock it, we didn’t eat it.

The big advantage of shopping at one store is that your place’s floor plan becomes permanently etched in your memory. My shopping lists were arranged to match the store’s aisles. I knew where even the most rarified items were shelved: marrow bones and scones, custard and mustard, fennel bulbs and light bulbs. Of course, every few years they would remodel and I’d have to learn a new floor plan all over again. But I always did–and I could have won any of those Food Network grocery store competitions.

I had strong feelings for my Ralphs. This was the market where each of my children rode around in the shopping cart, greeting neighbors and nursery school classmates, bargaining for Ding-Dongs and other unhealthy food choices. I stopped by the Ralphs on the afternoon of the Northridge earthquake in 1994 to buy a carton of milk and see how the place had fared. The floor was littered with broken glass bottles and covered with acoustic tiles that had fallen from the high ceiling; the wreckage told me just how powerful the quake had been. I worried about the checkers who I knew by name and wondered how long they would be out of work. It felt as though my own home had been damaged. Fortunately, after a few weeks, they were back to business as usual.

The trouble with loving a supermarket is that it can’t love you back. By contrast, mom-and-pop stores often extended credit to loyal customers in hard times, a tradition we see today only in vintage movies. One day a few years ago, I calculated that, after about four decades of shopping, I was about to spend my $250,000th dollar at Ralphs. Figure an average of $125 per week for a family of 5, for 52 weeks, for 40 years, and you get a quarter million dollars.

My paternal grandfather owned a dry goods and grocery store in Chicago. The babies are my father & his twin with store employees in 1915. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)
My father grew up working in his father’s stores. Here he is with my grandfather and uncle, dressed for work, about 1934. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Of course, the store didn’t acknowledge my extreme loyalty on this milestone, or on any other occasion. They didn’t even bother to ask my opinion in 2012 when they said they wanted community input about the idea of building a new, expanded Ralphs on the same site to meet the needs of the neighborhood. And they could have found me–by 2012, every item I purchased had a barcode to scan, and I was using a customer loyalty card for discounts, so they knew who I was.

But they didn’t ask me, so they went ahead and tore down a perfectly good market. MY market. For 22 months, during demolition and construction of a new super-sized Ralphs, the place was closed. I was left to stumble through other markets, unable to find familiar brands, disoriented and cranky. My favorite ice cream was nowhere to be found.

The expanded Ralphs opened just before Passover last year–good timing since the new market has a 1,500-square-foot kosher foods section. That section, like so much of the new place, is astonishing. I never realized that nearly every food and household item has a kosher version. Kosher ramen noodles with imitation chicken flavor? Kosher soap? Who knew?

Let me say first there are other improvements. The place is bigger and grander and offers more selections. The sushi counter features a gorgeous display of incredibly fresh fish, and the sushi chefs will create anything you ask for. One other plus is that all parking is covered so your car won’t be superheated on hot Valley days. Many of the reviews on Yelp and other online services are rapturous about the new place.

My maternal grandfather also owned a grocery store. My Uncle Ben in front of Witmer Quality Market, Los Angeles, about 1945. Note the building’s brick trim above his head.
GoogleMaps street view of the same location in 2011, now La Estrella Market. Note the brick trim on either side of the entrance matching the photo from 66 years ago.
GoogleMaps street view of the same location in 2011, now La Estrella Market. Note the brick trim on either side of the entrance matching the photo from 66 years ago. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But is bigger really better? Not when it comes to grocery stores. The new Ralphs is so gigantic and impersonal that no one knows your name or recognizes you. For me, the only familiar face from the old market is Angel in the produce department, still helping pick perfect melons.

The ceiling is that bare industrial style. The aisles are narrow and deep as canyons–not good for claustrophobia. If there is signage telling you where departments are located, you can’t see it over the aisles or from the entrance. I’ve yet to find the pharmacy and only found the bakery case last week. The dairy case is maddeningly far from the entrance, diagonally across the store in the furthest corner, a zig-zag trip away from the entrance. There’s no way to make a quick stop here for just a carton of milk.

The grand entry lobby is filled with enormous bright lights that burn wastefully all night. The check stands are located along the west side of the market next to a wall of windows without shades. The hapless clerks are sweltering in the afternoon sun and customers are so blinded by the glare that they hardly know how much they are paying or if a child in their cart is one they came in with.

All these problems could have been avoided if they had just asked me first.

Ralphs shopper Carol Gray wishes our freeway car pool lanes were for native Angelenos like herself who remember the good old days without traffic. She wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.