A&E

Ambitious Piazza's remodel keeps a focus on customers

South Palo Alto grocery store expands cheese, wine, freezer, hot-food sections

Keep it local and listen to your customers. That's what John Piazza Sr. of Piazza's Fine Foods, which has a newly expanded store in south Palo Alto, taught his sons about staying competitive in the grocery business. It's never been the easiest way to make a living and is now even more treacherous, with big-box discounters on one flank, supermarket chains on the other and farmers' markets nipping at the heart of what family-owned groceries provide: a sense of community.

At nearby Alma Plaza, the similarly specialty-oriented Miki's Farm Fresh Market closed in April after a six-month struggle. It is to become a Grocery Outlet, a chain store offering name-brand products at steep discounts. Piazza's other close competitors range in size and flavor from Mountain View's compact indoor-outdoor Milk Pail, crammed full of cheese and specialty products, to the new 64,000-square-foot upscale Safeway at San Antonio Center.

Piazza's Fine Foods forged ahead with its ambitious Palo Alto expansion, taking over the next-door dental offices for a total of 20,000 square feet. Finishing touches should be completed sometime in September. A recent tour highlighted the changes, which aim straight at shoppers' new attitudes about foods from kombucha to kosher. As John Piazza Jr. says, "People are very aware of what they're eating today."

Right away, entering Piazza's is more like walking into a farmers' market than a supermarket. You see cantaloupes, not candies or carpet cleaners. Handsome wooden bins of fruit and vegetables accompany visitors from the parking lot into the store, and a cheerful, non-accusatory sign reminds you about bringing shopping bags, in case you've left yours in the car.

Gluten-free products are peppered throughout the store, starting at the front window with a tempting display from Zest Bakery of San Carlos: fresh-baked muffins, cookies and bread. Back in the freezer section is a large selection of gluten-free desserts. But if you're looking for a gluten-free waffle, it's with the other waffles. Instead of stuffing all the products for this increasingly popular diet into one area, Piazza's puts them where regular shoppers would look.

The same theory of "integration" governs the produce section, where organic and just plain natural avocadoes live peacefully together. This way, items can be added and subtracted more easily, depending on what is selling rather than filling a section.

Piazza's has always been known for its produce department. A buyer goes to the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market every morning, and now the shelves have room for more from local farmers as well. Cascading "bump out" displays are easy to reach. From top to bottom, you might be looking at leeks, carrots, spinach, broccolini and fava beans. Cut fruit is a big seller.

The new Piazza's layout has loosened a choke point where people scrutinizing meat and fish used to back into shoppers reading wine labels. Now the wine bottles extend in an elegant S-curve, doubling the volume. Even more growth has gone into beer. Including sizes and varieties, there are now 850 choices, from a six-pack of Corona to a bottle of Simtra Triple Pale Ale.

Freezer space has increased by a third. Now there's room for chocolate-covered bananas and organic ice creams made from goat milk or agave nectar, but also perennial favorites Ben & Jerry's and Dreyer's. Piazza's is committed to an eclectic mix. Amy's Kitchen Light & Lean Quinoa and Black Bean dinners line up next to frozen pizzas from California Pizza Kitchen and DiGiorno, and ravioli from landmark La Villa Deli in San Jose.

Sparkling new floors, some in bright red-and-cream diamonds, shine under soft LED lighting. Now you can walk through to the restroom without navigating through arugula and radishes. The restroom is clearly visible behind the yogurt selection, which has doubled. Hummus and tofu also occupy more space, as do refrigerated vegetarian and non-dairy products. Almond milk is very big.

Wheels of cheese pile up like tires in front of the new cheese-cutting station, a hub of about 500 varieties. And the meat department features sausages made in-house by a longtime employee, and a half-dozen marinated meats ready for grilling.

Gary Piazza oversees the food service, adding a burrito bar, an extensive display of gleaming sushi made in-house and hot foods that rotate as the day goes on, from breakfast eggs and French toast to dinner entrees.

Piazza's is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day but Saturday, when it closes at 9 p.m., but it is staffed 24 hours a day, every day. Between the two stores and commissary there are 200 employees. John Piazza Jr., who heads up the corporate side, says: "We like friendly people over experience. We can train them. We hire people who will stay." Indeed, many have been with Piazza's for decades.

A previous remodel eliminated a lot of conventional grocery items, bringing Seventh Generation paper towels into spaces previously owned by Brawny. Solid supermarket shelves gave way to adjustable metal, called "metro" in the trade, to accommodate more items and a changing mix. The new Piazza's still carries Lunchables, but now only about 25 percent of the products are conventional grocery items.

Behind the scenes is a floral room, where flowers are cut and bouquets arranged, and storage for "re-packs," the items waiting for space on shelves.

The remodel adds some outdoor tables next to the building, steering clear of the parking lot. The Piazzas are very aware of the importance of a big, easy-to-navigate parking lot.

As John and Rick take a visitor through the store, they quickly rearrange anything out of order. Their father clearly taught from experience, which ranged from fruit cart to big box.

John Piazza Sr. came to the United States from Sicily when he was 12. He grew up in San Francisco, peddled fruit with his siblings and set up his first store, the size of a garage. After serving in the Army during World War II, he opened a grocery and produce department in San Francisco's Appel & Dietrich Fine Food Market. Later he went to work for Brentwood Markets, became district manager and opened the company's first Pak N Save. When Safeway bought the Brentwood chain, the smaller markets were spun off. The Piazzas bought the Charleston Shopping Center store in 1987, and 10 years later they bought a Petrini's Market in San Mateo.

John Piazza Sr. died last September, three days short of his 89th birthday. His wife of 70 years, Dolores, still lives near Gunn High School.

Tall and handsome, John Sr. was the face of the store. He worked up to three months before his death. His sons clearly miss him, but have absorbed his lessons and are passing them along to their own children, many of whom also work in the Palo Alto or San Mateo store, and grandchildren.

As Rick Piazza put it, "Dad would not put up with us not getting along."

Info: Piazza's Fine Foods is in the Charleston Center at 3922 Middlefield Road in south Palo Alto. Go to piazzasfinefoods.com or call 650-494-1629.

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