On June 22, Fresh & Easy, a Britain-based grocery chain spreading across California with the speed of kudzu vines in Georgia, opened its first San Francisco store at 375 32nd Ave. (at Clement). Owned by Tesco, Fresh & Easy has opened 160 stores in Southern California, Arizona, and Nevada in five years and has now headed north, reportedly launching 13 more in the Bay Area. The Richmond District store will soon be followed by one at Third and Carroll streets on Aug. 24; stores at Silver and Goettingen and South Van Ness and 23rd St. should follow at a later date.
As SFoodie discovered when we checked out the Pacifica store several days before the Richmond location's grand opening, Fresh & Easy occupies a different niche than the grocery stores to which Bay Area shoppers are accustomed. It's oriented toward convenience, value, and healthfulness — think Trader Joe's without the gourmet and organic-living aspirations, with a design sensibility reminiscent of Target and hundreds of half- or fully prepared meals. According to a 2007 feature in The Economist, before invading America, store planners spent two weeks embedded with 60 American families to find out how we cook and what kinds of foods we might want.
What we want, it seems, is quick, fresh, and healthful prepared foods. The reason the chain is blasting out new stores so quickly is that it has established a central commissary in Stockton, where it prepares salads, dips, baked goods, and whole meals. The meals are refrigerated — not frozen — with expiration dates set within a day or two. SFoodie can't say that the salmon with honey-mustard sauce, baby spinach, and roasted potatoes that we tried was to our taste, but we're DIY cooks.
The rest of the shelves are stocked with a mix of mainstream and proprietary brands. The flavors and labels in the dishes aren't terribly aspirational, as at Whole Foods (think organic lemongrass-spiked coconut water), and there is no talk of sourcing and very little certified organic food. But the products also aren't salted and sugared up. According to the Economist piece, Fresh & Easy likes to simultaneously open in lower-income urban areas like the Bayview and higher-income suburban areas such as Pacifica and Danville, confounding expectations and appealing, therefore, to more of us. SFoodie is curious to see how it does here.