Store Director, Sam Garcia Jr. gives out free cookies to customers Carlos Iriarte and Aaron Santos at the Food City in Avondale.
Bashas’ Food City normally is jam-packed in December with shoppers who need pork shoulder roast, corn husks and spices to give tamales and other holiday dishes the sabor, or flavor, of their Hispanic heritage.
This season, longtime Food City shoppers are finding themselves shoulder to shoulder with newcomers more interested in discount prices than in the stores’ specialty: imports from Mexico and traditional Hispanic foods.
The weak economy partly underlies a subtle demographic change at the 15-year-old discount grocery stores. Food City officials also say Arizona’s legal crackdown on employers who hire undocumented workers, believed to have forced many Hispanics to leave Arizona, has cut into business.
A typical newcomer to Food City is discount hunter Philip Turner of Avondale. The 20-year-old retail sales worker rarely cooks Mexican food but knows a good buy. “The prices are fantastic,” Turner said as he pushed a shopping cart around the store at 1450 N. Dysart Road in Avondale. The only traditional Hispanic food in his cart was a package of tortillas.
“Milk here is cheaper; everything is cheaper. I’d say I save $10 to $15 a trip,” he said.
Food City’s parent, privately held Bashas’ Corp. in Chandler, doesn’t release sales numbers.
But Tom Swanson, Food City vice president and general manager, said sales would be down if not for bargain-hunting newcomers such as Turner.
The employer-sanctions law “has affected our traffic,” he said.
Mike Proulx, Bashas’ president and chief operating officer, said Hispanic shoppers are still Food City’s target market. But for the moment, the chain’s key outreach is to bargain hunters of any background.
In the past 18 months, Food City has increased its English-language advertising on radio stations and in print, Proulx said.
“We are reaching out to people who are going back to basics,” he said, “to people who realize it’s less costly and more nutritional to eat meals at home made from scratch.”
Proulx said he hopes many of Food City’s new customers will continue to hunt for deals after the economy rebounds.
Myra Dominguez of Avondale is the type of shopper to whom Food City has traditionally catered. She recently strolled through the same Food City store where Turner shops. With her were her son, a nephew, her mother and an aunt. Although the family was out shopping for daily groceries, they also looked at holiday decorations and tamale ingredients.
“I’m in here two or three times a week,” she said. “I love the tortillas.”
An example of the “crossover” shopper Food City intends to cultivate is Phoenix resident Virginia Johnson.
“This is really the only place I like shopping,” said Johnson, a former nurse who now lives on disability payments. Her monthly food budget is less than $150.”You can buy small quantities here and get bulk prices.”
Johnson skips buying Food City specials, like this week’s $16.99 Virgin of Guadalupe sheet cake. She cooks from scratch and appreciates Food City’s deep discounts. Her typical purchases include “stew meat, chicken, ribs, pork chops and smoked neck bones.”
It’s not far-fetched that the chain is reaching out to a wider demographic.
Bashas’ launched the chain in 1993, after Noah Billings, owner of a half-century-old central Phoenix grocery store, retired. His store, which happened to be named Food City, primarily served area Hispanics in the 1990s, but before that was a general-purpose supermarket, Swanson said.
Bashas’ bought the store at 1648 S. 16th St., then decided to expand the concept.
The company now has 61 Food City stores throughout the state. Key features are signs in English and Spanish, music from Mexico and aisles of imports like fresh cheeses, Mexican Coca-Cola, canned menudo and mole sauce mix.
Most stores have tortilla-making machines. Some have restaurants. All have full-service meat counters with offerings like tripe, head cheese and thin-sliced marinated beef for tacos or fajitas. Shoppers who want a whole catfish or tilapia can have the fish deep fried at no charge.
Bashas’ grew Food City by converting independent groceries like the one owned by Billings and another in Avondale owned by the Garcia family, which had also run a neighborhood grocery since the 1940s. Sam Garcia Jr., son of the owner of that store, now directs the Food City store where Turner and Dominguez shop.
Bashas’ also converted stores owned by bankrupt chains Mega Foods, which closed in 1996, and Southwest Supermarkets, which closed in 2001, into the Food City format.
Not for all shoppers
Food City officials acknowledge that the format is not for everyone. Shoppers who want filet mignon or a variety of apples to choose from probably should go elsewhere.
The apples and bananas that Food City sells at two pounds for $1 are smaller than the ones Bashas’ sells for higher prices in its other formats, Bashas’ and AJ’s Fine Foods. Swanson said Food City sells 2 1/2 times the meat and double the produce sold in Bashas’ other formats. But prepared foods and products with artificial ingredients are less popular at Food City than in the other stores, he said.
One critic of Food City is United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 99. It has complained to the National Labor Relations Board about Food City worker pay and safety and criticized the stores’ cleanliness and food quality on a Spanish-language radio program.
Luis Espinosa, a UFCW campaign director, said he thinks Bashas’ treats Food City as a “cash cow” instead of a quality part of its business.
“Rather than focusing on solving the problems that come with buying older stores, they are focused on their profits,” he said. “As a Mexican and an Indian, I find that disrespectful. I certainly would not shop at Food City.”
‘Good corporate neighbor’
Bashas’ Inc. has responded to the UFCW’s criticisms with a defamation lawsuit, which has been working its way through the Maricopa County Superior Court system. “What we have done is grown stores in areas that otherwise would not have had representation,” Proulx said. “We bought bankrupt companies and saved thousands of jobs. And we kept stores in the neighborhoods that those bankrupt companies served.”
Luis Ibarra, president and CEO of social-services agency Friendly House, and Ray Arvizu, president and chief executive officer of Arvizu Advertising and Promotions, say they think Food City has plenty of goodwill in the Hispanic community.
The longtime Valley residents and community leaders say they shop there regularly, as do friends and relatives. Ibarra called Food City “a good corporate neighbor” and noted that the store makes frequent, anonymous donations to his agency’s programs. Arvizu said, “They have all kinds of things going on all the time. It’s a hub of the community.”
Proulx said despite the lawsuit and Arizona’s immigration issues, he remains bullish on Food City’s future as a Hispanic grocery.
“We are still right next to Mexico,” he said. “The state’s population is about 30 percent Hispanic. The up-and-coming workforce is going to be Hispanic, and they will have tremendous purchasing power. You do the math.”
Business: Low-price grocery store that offers a full range of Hispanic foods.
Parent company: Bashas’ Inc. Headquarters: Chandler.
Chairman and CEO: Eddie Basha.
President and COO: Mike Proulx.
Vice president and general manager of Food City: Tom Swanson.
Number of stores in Arizona: 61.
Number of employees: More than 13,000 work for Bashas’ Inc.
Best-selling product: Fresh tortillas made by Food City’s in-store tortillerias; roasted chili peppers
Local competitors: Pro’s Ranch Market, Fry’s Mercado, El Super.
Bashas’ Inc. annual sales: $2.1 billion in 2007, according to Hoover’s Inc.
Source: Bashas’ Inc.
A few examples of free community events it hosts annually
• Dia de los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day – January.
• Cinco de Mayo – May.
• Back-to-school immunizations – June, July and August.
• Fiestas Patrias – September.
• Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead – November.
Source: Food City