Milpas On The Move, by Sharon Byrne
Milpas is rapidly becoming a sort of Eat Street, THE place to go for good food. Restaurants there are amassing serious followings and winning recognition. La Super Rica was featured in Travel and Leisure recently. El Bajio won major admiration from Forbes, as well as taking home the trophy for best Menudo in Santa Barbara. Los Agaves just opened their second location and regularly wins “Best Of Santa Barbara”, as does My Place. Mama Lu’s serves up incredible Chinese buffet and Shanghai has got to be one of the city’s best-kept secrets. The Habit wins “Best Of” awards for best burger in the fast food category, while the McDonald’s on Milpas sealed its place in history when Herb Peterson invented the Egg McMuffin there.
But Eat Street isn’t just restaurants. Market choices are on the rise too. Tri County Produce has long been the anchor for fresh produce, healthy foods, fresh-squeezed juices, and more. Need gluten-free foods? Go see John Dixon – he’s stocking a lot of gluten-free products. Trader Joe’s does a whopping business at the roundabout, and Fresh N Easy is going strong after a year, though its parent company, UK-based Tesco, announced plans to exit the US market 2 months ago. Fresh N Easy stores will close, or be sold off as part of the exit strategy. Tesco gambled $2 billion on the US market, but the US press felt Fresh N Easy was not suitable for US customers, long accustomed to Walmart, Costco and Trader Joe’s. You wouldn’t know it from a visit to the Milpas location. That store is always busy. The coupons are very alluring – $14 off $70 every week via email, or $5 off $25 in weekly mailers, for example.
The company is trying to reassure shoppers. I’ve gotten several emails from them assuring everything is fine. Hulu ran an ad with a nice guy strumming a guitar singing a song that plays on the brand name: They’re staying open and they’re doing fine at “effin’ easy” (F & Easy).
Tesco is shopping the chain around prospective buyers, so no deal announcements are expected for at least three months, and hopes are that one US firm will snap up all the stores. If not, they might be sold in part, or by individual location. Billionaire Ron Burkle is one of the interested parties, hoping to relaunch his Wild Oats brand, sold to Whole Foods in 2007. Wild Oats sells branded cereals, coffee, dry beans, pretzels and other foods at U.S. supermarkets.
The closure of Scolari’s in California was a tough hit for the Milpas area, but construction on the site points to a new neighbor moving in soon. Fresh Market, a 30 year-old North Carolina-based company, has leased the spot and is constructing a new store. They’ve been expanding across the US, mostly to upscale areas. Along with the Milpas location, a store is planned for Sacramento. They already have stores operating in Palo Alto and Roseville, and have signed leases in Yorba Linda and Laguna Hills.
Looking at their marketing materials, they appear to be Lazy Acres meets Trader Joe’s. Rustic, welcoming store with emphasis on high quality products like antibiotic-free whole fryers, California-grown produce, fresh-cut flowers, samples of fresh brewed coffee, sumptuous recipes, and Tuesday $2.99 specials. This week, antibiotic free, vegetarian fed all natural chicken breasts and RBST-free milk made the $2.99 special, though not in California. We’re enjoying a $2.99 special on a dozen organic eggs.
Fresh Market supports local food banks and charities, so hopefully they will fold into the Milpas tradition of supporting the community.
I called their corporate headquarters to find out if they’ve set an opening date yet for the Milpas location. I was referred to an Atlanta-based marketing and public relations firm, Brave. They report Fresh Market has a tentative fall opening slated. They’re a specialty-type foods store, and feel the Santa Barbara area is perfect for the kind of shopping experience they offer.
We’ve noticed on Milpas that competition brought in recently by Fresh N Easy hasn’t eroded business for the long-established markets at all. In fact, it seems to bring more market patrons to the area, benefitting everyone. These days, the norm is to visit a few different markets for your needs, so it’s likely that Fresh Market will fit in nicely as a stopping point to pick up specialty items, and round out Milpas’ market offerings.
Besides, anyone that brings more good food to Eat Street is always welcome!