Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Fresh and Easy Way - The British are Coming!

Fresh and Easy Brand

T1 and I have been anticipating the arrival of Fresh and Easy Neighborhood Market. The concept market, operated under the UK parent company and gigantic supermarket chain Tesco, is designed with the intent to bring fresh, quality, affordable food to urban areas that at present lack a similar resource.

The last time I visited England, I made it a point (as any good foody would) to check out the markets. I noted how the display shelves all seemed to be accessible and within easy reach, the packaging was clearly marked and everything was well lit. The shelves were in order and though not over flowing with inventory, conveyed a sense of confidence that product is fresh and will be replenished if depleted and will always be available. In contrast, I've been to supermarkets here at home that are organized chaos, perhaps by design. An overabundance of choice, brands competing for position and sale tags everywhere creates a sense of urgency to buy now, buy a lot and get the deal before the next guy beats you to it.

In the stores I visited in the UK, there seemed to be more of a choice when it comes to prepared food and heat-and-eat meals. In a Safeway market I visited, toward the rear of the store next to the butchers counter where you would usually find the deli here in the States, there was a takeaway meal counter where you could pick up an Indian dinner for four, already packaged up, hot and ready to serve. They also had Chinese meals as well as kabob, ribs, roasted chickens and other hot items. Every item seemed to be priced within the range of a fast food meal, but the quality and variety was superior to anything you can get at a drive-thru chain. Perhaps because in England they cleverly limit the allowable number of golden arches per square mile they tend to eat more at home. Just a thought. Of course, then again I'm seeing things through the eyes of someone who lives in Los Angeles, birthplace of the drive-thru. Another difference I noticed was the produce in the UK markets was generally sourced from the eastern hemisphere; green beans from Kenya, Avocados from Israel. Produce here is usually from the western hemisphere; Mexico or South America. I wonder where Fresh and Easy sources their produce from.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we happened to be in the area of a recently opened Fresh and Easy so we decided to stop in for a look. The location we visited was in Manhattan Beach, not exactly a disenfranchised inner city part of town. On the contrary, Manhattan Beach is about as upscale as you can get for Los Angeles with million dollar beach front homes, a thriving retail environment and lots of well paying jobs close at hand. Can Fresh and Easy survive in a market with a swanky new Whole Foods and a Bristol Farms less than a half mile away on the same avenue? From the outside, this location had all the appeal of a big box store; non-descript architecture and limited signage. But hey, if it keeps prices down, I'm all for the no frills approach to shopping. We parked right in front of the entrance and ventured in.

A Few Bits

Once inside, we were pleasantly surprised. The displays reminded me of the stores in England. Nice lighting, organized, easy to see and reach refrigerated cases and open wire shelving in lieu of the crowded, closed-in bookcase style shelving you usually see in the supermarket. I commented to T1 that it almost felt like an IKEA for food because of the way it was organized and the way things were labeled.

One thing that stood out was the nice display of a variety of heat-and-eat meals. If you have a busy schedule and still need to put hot food on the table for your family, Fresh and Easy has the answer. Because it was the day before Thanksgiving, they even had fresh turkeys, turkey halves and breasts in their refrigerated cases, all pre-seasoned and ready to pop in the oven. All the fresh prepared items were designed with convenience in mind. They even offer suggestions on cards scattered among the display cases like, "add chicken breast to stir fry veggie mix and add sauce for a quick dinner" making it even easier to come up with a wholesome home cooked meal.

The highlight of Fresh and Easy in my opinion are the prices. In part, they are able to keep costs down by offering Fresh and Easy brand items alongside familiar name brands as well as keeping overhead low by offering self checkout counters and charging a few cents for bags (isn't it about time we shop with reusable bags anyway?). Their savings are then passed along to the consumer. Make the consumer happy and he/she then turns into a repeat customer - good business model at work.

Cool Graphics

Oak Smoked Cheddar from The Isle of Man

Because we had already stocked up for the holiday weekend, we really didn't need to do much shopping but I picked up a few things just to try them out, plus I liked the graphics of their store brand. And as for where Fresh and Easy sources their products, most of their fresh stuff is local, some is imported and their store brand items are probably packaged or labeled here in the States at the same processors the major brand names get their products from. If we had a Fresh and Easy in our neighborhood, I'd be sure to shop there more often. Check them out when you get a chance. Fresh and Easy Neighborhood Market.

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