Noe Valley Voice December-January 2004

Bell Gets Some Fast Food Advice from Friends

By Corrie M. Anders

Noe Valley residents who shop at Bell Market on 24th Street can expect to see improved customer service, a cleaner parking lot, and store shelves stocked with a wider variety of quality products.

At least that's the promise a Bell Market executive made after a Nov. 19 meeting with Noe Valley residents, who urged the store to make some changes to accommodate Noe Valley's tastes and lifestyles.

The gathering was organized by a group of Noe Valley boosters that included several members of the residents association Friends of Noe Valley. Debra Niemann, current president of Friends, said she and four other residents shared the results of a recent neighborhood survey with Chris O'Leary, group vice president for sales and marketing of Ralphs' Northern California division. Bell is part of Ralphs Grocery, a unit of the national Kroger Co. chain.

High on Noe Valley's wish list for Bell, said Niemann, was a wider choice of organic foods, more fresh fish selections, and top-quality convenience food in the store's deli so that busy residents could pick up their evening meals on their way home from work.

Residents Want a Mixed Bag

Niemann said the group told O'Leary that because of the lack of choice at Bell, "a lot of people shop outside the neighborhood." She and others offered receipts that showed they spent anywhere from $125 to $200 a week at other grocery stores, such as Safeway, Tower Market, Rainbow Grocery, and Trader Joe's.

They also handed O'Leary some lists of specific foods and products they'd like to see at Bell--"everything from blue cheese to organic frozen lasagna to organic pre-cooked chickens," said Niemann.

Because organic foods can be "horribly expensive," she said, residents want a mix of excellent organic goods and less costly but top-brand non-organics.

"You have to do both to meet the needs of the neighborhood," said Niemann, adding that "we made it clear we don't want a Whole Foods store...just a better-quality market."

The clamor for organic food has been rising ever since Real Food Company, located just across from Bell Market, shut its doors for remodeling in August 2003. A year and four months later, work has yet to begin at the once favored destination for organic food shoppers in the neighborhood. Last December, Real Food's absence led to the establishment of a Saturday-morning farmers' market in the Noe Valley Ministry parking lot on 24th Street near Vicksburg Street.

Fried Chicken and Hot Tamales

Reached just after the meeting, O'Leary told the Voice that Bell Market already carried a number of organic products before Real Food closed--and subsequently added Clover milk and other items. A few days before Thanksgiving, the store appeared well stocked with organic fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains, as well as organically farmed free-range chickens, eggs, and dairy products.

"We still have a ways to go," said O'Leary, vowing that "we are going to do a better job of identifying foods and items customers want, and we're bringing them in."

O'Leary also pledged to improve deli operations. The deli currently has an array of cold-cut meats and 27 types of cold salads, though the hot foods are not exactly gourmet fare: fried chicken breasts, fried chicken wings, fried potato wedges, corndogs, and tamales.

But Bell is a relatively small supermarket, and the cramped space prevents it from being able to install cooking equipment for "all the types of takeaway foods that we'd like to offer," O'Leary said in the store's defense.

He noted that Ralphs plans to remodel--and possibly enlarge--the 13,000-square-foot store in two to three years. At that time, O'Leary said, Bell will consider the neighborhood's desire for a full-service deli selling restaurant-quality prepared foods.

More Visible Butchers

O'Leary said the meeting with neighborhood residents clearly indicated that Bell needs to do more to let shoppers know about the store's products, as well as about promotions and customer services the store offers.

On any given day, for example, three to five butchers are on duty, O'Leary pointed out. But because space is limited in the meat counter area, butchers perform their production work in an upstairs cold-storage room that is out of public view.

"We're going to make sure we have someone down on the floor more often than we do now," said O'Leary.

He said Bell plans to start providing sampling areas where customers can taste slices of organic fruits and cheeses. The store also plans to hang a photograph of 24th Street store manager Tim Arrivas--as well as those of meat, deli, and other managers--as the person to see "who is going to get something done," said O'Leary.

Wine and Pet Promotions

In addition, the executive said the store plans to refocus attention on in-house promotions, including two that target wine buyers and pet owners.

Many residents do "a lot of entertaining and buy a lot of wine," says O'Leary. But "I don't think our customers knew we had a wine program" that provides a 10 percent discount on the purchase of six bottles of wine.

He said Bell also has a promotion aimed at animal lovers: For every $100 spent on pet food, the store rebates $9 to the customer and donates $1 to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

Bell's customers should also find that the parking lot in front of the store has been spiffed up, O'Leary said. And while it may not seem apparent during peak shopping hours, Bell has banned employee cars from the parking lot in order to create more space for shoppers.

A Customer Suggestion Box

In response to a request from the residents, Bell will be putting up a suggestion box at the store, O'Leary said.

For Niemann and friends, that's great news. "We were very pleased to meet with him [O'Leary]. He was very receptive. The response to us has been great," she said. "What impressed me most was that within 24 hours of our sending an e-mail [asking for the meeting], we heard back from senior management at Kroger."

She added that the group will be meeting with store representatives again in January, "to follow up."