New grocer aims to satisfy downtown
Neighborhood has high hopes for revamp of longtime Castro Street market
After several failed attempts to bring a new grocery store downtown, city officials and downtown residents may be surprised to see their wish may come true by happenstance.
In early October, the Mountain View Market at 340 Castro Street was purchased by Sunnyvale residents Juan and Ann Origel, who want to transform the struggling Asian market into a popular neighborhood grocery store. While working in beverage sales over the years, Juan noticed in his calls to the market that, while once one of the busiest on the Peninsula, it was struggling to compete with the new Ranch 99 on Grant Road. The owners were motivated to sell, and the Origels, who have worked in food retail most of their adult lives, mortgaged their house to buy it. It seemed like a fitting move for the couple, who met while working at Mountain View's Lucky's and were engaged at downtown's Eagle Park.
"It's really kind of providential and very much a win-win situation," said downtown resident Max Hauser, who wrote an article about the new owners for the Old Mountain View neighborhood Association. OMVNA members have been actively seeking a "neighborhood serving" grocery store downtown for years. After talking to them, "I think the Origels have exactly the right idea," Hauser said.
The Origels say they aim to keep existing customers with an Asian food section, but most of the market will receive a remodel more in line with a neighborhood grocer, perhaps a Whole Foods or Trader Joes meets JJ&F or Zanottos. They say they definitely want a deli to bring in lunchtime customers, and tables and chairs by the front window where people can eat.
The Origels say they want suggestions for the store, which can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Something really striking about the Origels is they say, 'We have some general ideas but we want to know what the neighborhood wants,'" Hauser said. "With this kind of openness, in this kind of community, it seems to me that Old Mountain View could get an even better match than if a major supermarket had decided to open up in the Bryant garage."
Residents of downtown, also known as the Old Mountain View Neighborhood, made it evident how serious they were about a new grocery store downtown in 2005. They staged a candlelight vigil when the City Council chose Longs Drugs over a grocery store proposal from Zanottos as the tenant of the new garage at California and Bryant. The San Jose-based grocer would have required a subsidy from the city.
Many of the downtown's environmentally minded residents see a new downtown grocery store as a necessity to reduce car trips out of the city's center.
Julie Lovins, a downtown resident who has spearheaded the hunt for a new grocery store, told the City Council in 2010, "We cannot afford not to have a reasonably full-service grocery store downtown."
'Won't happen overnight'
With the market losing money since the day they bought it, the Origels are working as fast as they can to turn it around. Some visible changes are that the Origels have begun selling pumpkins and have put in a new selection of wine and beer, while combing through the existing inventory to remove items that haven't been selling.
"We're going to be having a fire sale here soon," Juan said.
They are going to be replacing the open refrigeration in the store soon, which will hopefully warm up the store's chilly temperature. They are also hoping to receive some money from the city's program to improve building facades downtown.
But the Origels hope the neighborhood will be patient as the process "won't happen overnight," Ann said.
"The place seems to be a little different each time I visit," Hauser said. "Rome wasn't built in a day."
Change in plans for city?
Bringing a grocery store downtown has long been a goal for the City Council, which requested proposals from developers in 2009 for a new grocery store on a city-owned parking lot across from the garage at Bryant and California streets. The council rejected two proposals in January of 2010, again saying the proposals required too much of a subsidy.
Economic development manager Ellis Berns said the new store is potentially viable according to a downtown grocery store feasibility study that will be presented on Nov. 8 to the City Council.
The study of the Bryant Street property "came to the conclusion that it is a very difficult site to have a full service grocery store," Berns said. "It could probably support more of a 3,000- to 10,000-square-foot market that has a very strong deli-carryout" operation.
The Mountain View market, which is right around 10,000 square feet, could potentially be successful depending on what the owners decide to do with it, Berns said.
"If the new owners are able to fulfill the needs of the community and the neighborhood that's great," said council member Margaret Abe-Koga, who lives near the market. "We still have that property on Bryant though. We have to bring that back (onto the council agenda) to decide what we want to do with that."
The new store may be most likely have the support of the two libertarians on the council, Tom Means and John Inks.
"This is great," said Means in an email. "I like how people are solving this problem and not special interest groups."
The downtown neighborhood has not been shy about making suggestions on the OMVNA email list, from wanting to keep the Asian mangoes to a desire for "fresh loaf of crusty bread."
Abe-Koga said the former market has some good products too. It could be "the best of the old and the new." She added that "prepackaged meals" and salad and soup bar would be great idea.
The Origels say the community has "set the bar pretty high" for the store, but Hauser reminded its potential customers that they have a role to play too.
"If the neighborhood wants a good grocery store they have to put their money where their mouth is," Hauser said. "If they want a certain kind of grocery store the most concrete way they can support it is to go and shop there."
Email Daniel DeBolt at email@example.com