A crowded market
Michael "Miki" Werness gestured to the stretch of empty, black countertops in the middle of the produce section at Miki's Farm Fresh Market in Palo Alto.
"You'll probably find 24 feet of mushrooms. Any mushroom you could want," he said on Oct. 10, shortly before the store's soft opening. The official grand opening is set for Thursday, Nov. 1.
Workers scurried to arrange cheese displays, set up the deli section and stock shelves of dry goods at the new grocery store at Alma Plaza in Palo Alto.
Werness grabbed some rice cakes — gluten-free and vegan-friendly —and rattled off the low price his buyers were able to get them for. Ditto the bottles of Looza fruit nectar, which lined shelves under the countertops like wallflowers waiting for the dance.
It's been seven years since Albertsons closed at 3445 Alma St., precipitating a much-discussed search for another neighborhood market. Some residents clamored for a Trader Joe's. Others speculated that JJ&F Market would move in from the College Terrace neighborhood.
Instead, Werness, a veteran of the Bay Area grocery scene, signed the lease with property owner McNellis Partners to open the independent store. At 17,000 square feet, Miki's Farm Fresh Market will be nearly 4,000 square feet larger than Albertsons. But unlike its predecessor, Miki's is aiming for a different niche: organic and specialty foods but with price points low enough to keep the family household on budget.
Werness rebuffs rumors that Miki's will cater to the cost-is-no-object yuppie crowd. Instead, the market will offer both the exotic and the basic: In the mustard section, gourmet brands sit alongside French's. Organic sugar nestles next to bags of C&H.
"I like being different," the white-haired Werness, 65, said, a grin on his face.
Though he's worked at popular Berkeley grocery stores for the past two decades, Werness' ties to Palo Alto stretch back to the 1970s. When he was 27, the Saratoga native managed the old Brentwood Market at Charleston Shopping Center, which has since been replaced by Piazza's Fine Foods. In fact, he was hired by the late John Piazza Sr., who was Brentwood's district supervisor.
"He was my mentor when it came to groceries," Werness said of Piazza.
Werness entered the field as a teenager, rising from a Purity Market bagger who earned $3.65 an hour to — most recently — manager of Monterey Market in Berkeley. His father was also in the business.
Miki's is not Werness' first stab at owning and operating a grocery store. Twenty years ago, he and a partner opened a warehouse supermarket in Oroville along the lines of Food 4 Less. But there were too many factors of running a business that he overlooked, he said, recalling the rough experience. After two-and-a-half years, he got out.
But his dream didn't die. A lover of food and cooking, he continued to learn all aspects of the business, working for years at the Berkeley Bowl and Monterey Market, waiting for the opportunity to try again. Over time, he got to know people with whom he worked well. Many of them are now department heads in his new store. And food vendors he's worked with over the years are now supplying Miki's, he said.
Mike Myers, the store's director of meat operations and a former employee at Berkeley Bowl, has followed Werness to Palo Alto. He's worked in markets for more than 40 years.
"This is what's fun — developing it and seeing it through," Myers said, waxing rhapsodic over grass-fed beef from Uruguay, organic pork from Chico and the ranchers with whom he has developed good relations. "At our age, we're not in it to get wealthy."
Some people might wonder about opening a grocery store in an area that, frankly, already has plenty to offer. From the 55,000-square-foot Whole Foods in Los Altos to the enduring Milk Pail Market in Mountain View to the just-opened Sprouts in the San Antonio Shopping Center, there are more than a dozen markets within 5 square miles.
But looking at the numbers, and Palo Alto's income per household, Werness believes the area can sustain his store as well.
"There's a real interest in organics (here). People care about what they feed their families," he said.
In addition, he said, he thinks his market will appeal to residents in a university town.
"They cook. They read. They travel," he said. "Socially, they do more things around food," like invite their book clubs over for a meal. And, they seek out unique tastes, he added.
As the name of the store suggests, produce will have a starring role in the market, taking up the biggest portion of the floor space, he noted. In search of farm freshness, his buyers go to markets in South City, San Francisco and the East Bay to pick out fruits and vegetables.
"They look at the produce. They cut the produce," he said.
From his work in Berkeley, Werness said he's learned the importance of organic foods, of treating farmers right and of getting to know his customers. It'll take some time to feel out what Palo Altans in particular want to buy, but Werness pledges to look into special requests and give attentive customer service.
On a fast-paced tour of the store recently, he explained the various sections, some already filled with food, some not: grab-and-go dinners, such as the ubiquitous rotisserie chickens, a large selection of Asian spices, a cheese counter, desserts in glass cases, a deli, a juice bar, a beer and wine section, bulk foods and more.
He is also creating a private label, Miki's Farm Fresh Market, that will offer everything from biscotti to salsa to coffee beans.
Still, with just 17,000 square feet of space, Werness knows he has to choose which products to emphasize and which to scale back on.
"I'm not trying to be everything to everyone," Werness said, adding that he won't be offering ties, hats or coffee pots. "I want to sell food."
There are a few shelves of pharmaceutical goods, a small display for greeting cards, and a rack with hammers and wrenches. But, he said, "I'm not going crazy with lightbulbs," pointing to just two varieties on the shelf.
It's been two decades since Oroville. An older and wiser Werness walked around his store like a host preparing for a party, greeting and directing his staff. A deliveryman who apparently knew Werness from Berkeley hailed him with a hearty handshake.
"I was wondering where you were!" the deliverer said, smiling.
With his staff of more than 60 people hired, the grocery veteran seems prepared to have his dream come true.
"We're ready to rock and roll in Palo Alto," he said. "This isn't like work. This is fun."
—Jocelyn Dong is the editor of the Voice's sister paper, the Palo Alto Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org