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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

ADVENTURES CLOSE TO HOME: The Great Monrovia Grocery Trail

When we moved to this area a bit over 20 years ago, Monrovia had your average grocery stores...big union-staffed stores like Ralphs, Pavilions (owned by Vons at the time), Albertsons, and a recently closed Lucky's along with King Ranch, a family-owned supermarket geared to the Hispanic market.

The city considered itself more than average at the time, recently redoing it's main street (Myrtle Avenue) into a quaint and pretty shopping district and they wanted more than what they had.

What followed started a little grocery revolution of sorts.

To start with, the residents of this small San Gabriel Valley foothill city wanted a Trader Joe's. The closest location was several miles away in Pasadena and TJ's seemed like just the kind of high-quality, low cost store that would fit right in. So what'd they do? A postcard writing campaign was started, sending thousands to the company's South Pasadena headquarters.

So impressed with the gesture, not only did they open a branch in the city, the company moved it's headquarters there, too (it's in a rather unassuming, unsigned building on the corner of Royal Oaks Drive and Shamrock Avenue).

Now, Monrovia was on the map. Soon, other's would follow. Some prospered, others failed but we now remain with a trail of markets to cruise on your weekly shopping (unfortunately, it's impossible to get everything you want at any one store). Let's take a trek on the Great Monrovia Grocery Trail...

Trader Joe's - Starting on the western front, we begin at the aforementioned Trader Joe's. Since the company's headquarters also moved to the city, this is now the flagship store of the chain. With company executives liable to drop in at any time, this is the TJ's that all others in the chain aspire to.

Many people complain of not having enough parking at TJ's. That's not the case here as it's in a large shopping center with acres and acres of parking.

The lines never seem to be too long, either. This has all the quirky vibe you want in a TJs...personable staff in Hawaiian shirts, gourmet foods at bargain prices, free samples...and you'll find great prices on high quality staples like milk and eggs. We particularly like the French Roast coffee and Harvarti cheese. Beef is graded choice here but some of the lower priced steaks are only 'inspected' but, according to the company, would meet at least the 'choice' level if graded.

What's good here - cheese, meats, coffee, healthy snacks, frozen foods, good selection of wine and beer. Their Mandarin chicken is out of this world.

What could be better - no name brand sodas (sorry, Hansen's just doesn't cut it), produce could be better, can't stand their English muffins, and - just when you find something you really like - they discontinue some items that are popular.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia/Littletung

Sprout's - Where Lucky's once stood, a new shopping center was built (take a few minutes to go to the McDonald's on the corner where there is a little display on how the McDonald brothers actually started their burger empire here in Monrovia, not San Bernardino as the legend goes). First, a store called Howie's came in as a kind of Trader Joe's knockoff...located almost across the street. Howie's just couldn't compete and quickly sold out to Sprout's, who has the larger resources of a chain.

Sprout's carries a few of the larger brands...such as Budweiser...but it's still a store I can't buy a Coke in. The parking lot fills fast, street parking on the side street is a better option sometimes but the produce selection here is first rate, as are their butcher and deli sections. Prices are a bit higher here than TJ's.

What's good here - supplements, vitamins, bulk grains are sections that seem to go on forever. There is a large selection of organic, healthy, gluten-free etc, but they're not very cheap like TJs.  Very good produce department, good meat...all beef is graded 'choice' or higher...with butchers who can custom-cut, decent selection of cheese and deli products. Good, cheap sandwiches at the deli counter. Decent wine and beer selection but not as good as TJs.

What could be better - parking, lines at cash registers get long and slow...staff doesn't seem in a hurry to get more up and running either, no name brand sodas...gotta have my Cokes and Dr. Peppers, high prices on staples like milk and eggs.

Baja Ranch - This large and busy market caters to the Hispanic market in the area. It used to be called King Ranch (King is the name of the family that owns it) and it's a wonderful market. Great prices, tortillas made in-store, and a deli counter that functions more as a really good taqueria make this one of my favorite stores...and I can get a Coke!

Good, cheap meat catering to meals like carne asada, chicken mole, and menudo, but often at the 'select' grade instead of 'choice.' They seem to go back and forth on the grade, depending on if they think the shoppers are getting picky or not. Also, the store will come pick you up in their van so you can do your shopping, then drive you back home.

During a brutal grocery strike a few years ago, the non-union Baja Ranch (then King Ranch) made a killing on local shoppers who would not cross picket lines. The company plowed that cash back into its's a pretty pleasant place to shop as a result.

What's good here - anything Hispanic...Goya, tortillas, chiles, grilling meats, Bimbo bread, Mexican cheese, Salvadorean cream, tequila and Presidente brandy. Produce is utilitarian with good prices. Just about anything you can find in a major supermarket, you can find here but cheaper. The bakery's pretty awesome too (see above).

What could be better - Staff is hit and miss. Some are really on the ball, others could use a bit of an attitude adjustment. Produce could be a bit better at times, too, but the prices are low. Lines can move slow.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia/Vercillo

Pavilions - The last, major brand, union-staffed supermarket in Monrovia is a bit north of the others, sitting in a large shopping center at Foothill Boulevard and Myrtle. The store was created as an up-scale brand of Vons, who was then bought out by Safeway, and is now owned by Albertsons. Through the different ownership groups, the store has lost a bit of that up-scale burnish it had.  In the old days, you'd never see less than choice beef here. Now, frequently, they slip back into 'select' mode.

Produce is high quality, there is a large selection of fresh baked bread, made onsite, there's a Starbucks inside, and a big wine selection. The beer selection could be better for such a large store.

One thing they really excel on here is their 'Gift Card Mall', a huge selection of gift cards available for hundreds of stores, restaurants, and more. Great place for that last minute gift.

What's good here - large selection of a large variety of grocery items. Some hard-to-find items, like the Broguire's egg nog that my wife likes to get at Christmas. Lines are almost always short and they are aggressive in keeping them that way. Their house-branded sourdough English muffins are a favorite guilty pleasure of mine.

What could be better - Prices! Probably the most expensive store in town. Some items are shelved where they make no sense, such as cream cheese 4 aisles away from the dairy section. Parking can be very tight, mainly to a popular gym across the street with a small parking lot whose customers like to park here. Not really Pavilions fault, but I'm sure they can lean on the landlord to police that better.

Smart and Final Extra - Just across the city line, past the corpse of the old Albertsons at Shamrock and Huntington, the neighboring city of Duarte had a grocery drought. Albertsons had closed. Ralphs had closed. The Tesco experiment of Fresh and Easy had failed leaving the city without any major grocery outlets (not counting the Wal Mart or Target along the 210 freeway) for a year and a half.

All that was available was a small produce market, Tropicana, that does have very good produce and a small selection of groceries geared to the Halal market.

After much grumbling by the citizens, Smart and Final...a small, warehouse type of store...closed their dark and miserable location with it's terrible parking in Monrovia and took over the closed Ralph's location in Duarte.

This one, however, was not to be a small, dark, and gloomy location. The 'Extra' in the name means that this version is a full-size supermarket with lots of registers, a vastly expanded produce section, and about twice as many items as the former location.

Locals flocked to the new store, which has plenty of parking now, and reveled in having a real supermarket back in their town. Prices are low and selection is huge...including the giant, industrial sized items that the company is known for.  Don't worry, though, smaller sizes now grace the shelves as well.

What's good here - Prices.  Some of the lowest in town. Good selection of produce and pre-packaged bread. There is a 'choice' meat section to go along with the 'select' section. Decent wine, beer, and liquor selection. Lot's of household products...Smart and Final is a huge player in the restaurant supply cleaning supplies, pots and pans, etc. Good community relations...also note how the checkout lines are named after local streets such as Royal Oaks, Huntington, and Buena Vista.

What could be better - This is a hugely popular store and, even with all the registers open, the lines can be long and slow. No in-store bakery, butcher, or deli. I can get my Coke here but they often don't stock enough for the demand.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia/M.O. Stevens

Grocery Outlet - Taking over a small, independent grocer on the corner of Huntington and Buena Vista...just about across the street from the aforementioned Smart and Final Extra...sits this newcomer. Picture it as sort Big Lots for groceries.

Grocery Outlet looks for vendors trying to get rid of merchandise, cheap, so you'll find bargains on non-perishables like cereal, beer, wine, etc. The fresh food is still fresh, like meats, dairy, and produce, but you'll find deals here too such as 49 cents a pound bananas (compared to 99 cents at Pavilions), $1.89 jumbo eggs (over three bucks at Pavilions), and more. Selections can sometimes be limited. For instance, I can get Coke or Diet Coke but they don't carry the caffeine free varieties my wife likes.

What's good here - The prices are lower than most but Smart and Final, across the street, is also very competitive. The staff is very friendly and helpful. Lines are usually short. Good selection of organic products. Good selection of wine, decent selection of beer.

What could be better - Higher grade of beef other than 'inspected'. Bigger selection on some products. Better selection of produce would also be appreciated.

While we're still waiting for that mythical grocery store that has everything I need in one place, I can be sure I'll find it along the Monrovia Grocery Trail at some point.

Darryl Musick
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