Don Bauder 4:30 p.m., Dec. 9
I visited the high-octane Vons that opened in Mission Hills recently. It was, bar none, the fanciest Vons in which I've ever set foot. With the massive, potted plants and elegant foyer--which houses a kind of glass fountain--that provides a passage between the indoor parking lot and the grocery store proper, I'd venture to say that this new breed of Vons has an almost Jetsonion character, "welcome to the world of tomorrow," if you will.
It's obvious that Vons is trying to move the chain upmarket, at least in some areas, in order to take a bite out of Whole Foods consumer base. Whether they will succeed remains to be seen, but the gesture that the chain is making to move into specialty markets are pretty dramatic.
The cafe that's attached to the main entrance of the store features a Starbucks--as do many Vons--but also has a series of booths and tables for customers to sit in and drink coffee. Lunch or dinner is also a viable option since the new grocery store has a well-stocked sandwich shop and sushi counter, as well as a bunch of other prepared foods.
I tried some sushi, and it was above average for grocery store sushi. Of course, this pales in comparison to what is available at a halfway decent sushi bar, but for ten dollars and five minutes of shopping it was what it was.
The Super Vons (it might be called that...) shows the move towards a more exclusive market in some of the items stocked on the shelves. The wine section is downright impressive, with a series of reserve bottles under lock and key that could compete with good, specialty wine stores. Seeing a bottle of Dom Perignon in a grocery store was a definite first for me!
Alongside the wine, a selection of 22oz. bombers of craft beer was, while not world class, definitely as good as lots of liquor stores and better than most groceries.
The move towards offering more specialty products wasn't strictly limited to alcohol sales. An entire section of the store was devoted to gluten-free products, for example. Just around the corner from that, fresh and dried mushrooms weren't limited to the conventional white button variety. Instead, two different kinds of oyster mushrooms, shitakes, and enokis were all available.
At the end of the day, the Super Vons was still a Vons. It may have been the more cultured and articulate cousin of conventional Vons, just back from a trip to Europe where it learned a thing or two, but it was still the same store at its very root. I don't want to give the idea that Vons is changing the face of grocery sales, or even that it is a replacement for Whole Foods. What I want to stress is that this new image for Vons indicates a pretty dramatic shift in the grocery biz, and retail food sales in general, towards specialty markets and upscale tastes.
The potential positive outcome of this is that such pressure from the bottom of the market, i.e. conventional grocery stores, may push the people at the top, namely the cutting edge restaurants and specialty purveyors, to either step up their game or make their products more accessible. Of course, that's a best case scenario, but perhaps we may see such benefits!
For now, the Super Vons is located at 515 West Washington Street in Mission Hills.