After 45 years in Mountain View, the popular Milk Pail Market will be closing its doors permanently. Renowned for its cheese, croissants and crowded aisles, the San Antonio grocer persevered amid intense competition with a loyal customer base, but its owner says the hardships of running a small business were becoming too great.
In Tuesday interview, Rasmussen said he had accepted a buyout for his store property at the corner of San Antonio Road and California Street and would be closing in the next few months, likely in July. He did not disclose the buyer or the purchase price.
“The wave of development in Silicon Valley has brought many changes. It was inevitable that one day we, too, would be part of that change,” Rasmussen wrote. “Although the closure of the Milk Pail will be bittersweet, we leave with fond memories and immense gratitude for the community that built us.”
Explaining his decision, Rasmussen said it was becoming more challenging to maintain a business that is open year-round, especially amid tighter sales and competition. Today, there are at least five chain supermarkets within a one-block radius of the Milk Pail.
In recent years, the Milk Pail seemed to be Mountain View's version of the David and Goliath story. Beginning in 2013, Rasmussen was the lone holdout on that side of the San Antonio shopping center, refusing to sell his small corner lot even as the development firm Merlone Geier restricted the market's access to parking and rebuilt everything around it. The plucky grocer’s battle with the corporate developer became a local cause celebre, drawing crowds to City Hall, demanding that the Milk Pail be saved.
The Milk Pail emerged from that feud with a promise of parking and an outpouring of community support, but its business still suffered. Rasmussen said the intense nearby construction impeded access to his store and sometimes sent dust in the air. His customers went elsewhere, and Rasmussen said his business had suffered roughly a 40 percent drop in sales from just five years earlier.
Today the rustic, old-style Milk Pail stands in stark contrast to the multi-story offices occupied by Facebook and a luxury megaplex crowding its sides. For a period last year, the Milk Pail employees attempted to co-opt the sudden influx of tech offices by changing up their inventory, offering ready-to-eat sandwiches and salads.
It was an idea that didn't pan out, in part because Facebook employees received free meals from their employer. City officials had pressured the tech company to patronize local businesses, but a debit-card payment system used by the company only included nearby restaurants, not grocery stores.
Rasmussen said the growing presence of well-heeled tech workers has been a difficult force to reckon with as his business struggled. Relocating would have been a possibility years ago, but today the cost of commercial real estate made it prohibitive. A grocery store would never have the capital to compete, he said.
"When you have millenials earning $240,000 a year, and your employees are earning a little more than one-tenth of that, it's extrordinarily hard to co-exist," Rasmussen said. "The disparity in Mountain View these days is unbelievable."
Staffing has also remained a persistent challenge for the Milk Pail. Like many employers, Rasmussen said he has had difficulties finding regular service workers amid the high cost of living in Mountain View. For years, Rasmussen’s brother-in-law James Liu worked as store manager, but he died unexpectedly in 2014. In recent years, Rasmussen’s 20-year-old daughter, Kai, has stepped in to take over management duties at the store.
About two weeks ago, Rasmussen said he notified the Milk Pail's 38 employees of his plans to close the store. He said reaction was mixed: some were shocked while others said they had sensed the writing was on the wall.
Rasmussen said he remains open to the idea of continuing the Milk Pail by handing off the business to younger hands. So far, no one has stepped forward, he said, certainly no one with the resources to reopen the store in a new location.
"I'd be open to collaborating if that was a real possibility, but it's not going to happen on the premises we're on now," he said.
The Milk Pail site will likely be replaced by an office building. Last year, Mountain View officials approved an initial proposal for an eight-story, 250,000 square-foot office building at the corner site in order to secure needed funding to build a new elementary school.