Neighbors had good reason to celebrate when in early 2003 a FoodMaxx grocery store opened at the southwest corner of Union and California avenues.
As southeast Bakersfield's first new supermarket in many years, the project was a big accomplishment by city officials working with a local developer in response to requests by residents. A new Albertsons opened not long after, seeming to ride FoodMaxx's momentum, at Chester Avenue and Brundage Lane.
It's no surprise, then, that neighbors were saddened when the FoodMaxx finally closed in January and its employees were dispersed among the chain's three other Bakersfield stores. Shoppers said they had enjoyed the store, not only for its prices and selection but also its unique feel and friendly staff.
But FoodMaxx's closure is not the end of the story. A new supermarket to be operated by a different company is scheduled to open at the site this summer after a series of renovations now underway.
City officials past and present have warmly welcomed the new operator, Santa Fe Springs-based Superior Grocers, which has another Bakersfield store at White and Hughes lanes.
Among those celebrating is former City Councilman Mark Salvaggio, who was among those supportive of the initial project that broke ground in 2002. At least the building won't be left empty for long, he said.
“It may be just the thing for that area," he said, adding that the new Superior will fill an important vacancy. "That’s the last thing we need on Union Avenue, is more blight."
One thing that may be important to the new store's success, according to the new operator and some nearby shoppers, is demographic targeting. That is, who will the store target, the area's long-standing African-American residents or its growing Hispanic community?
The answer is both, and more, said Superior Grocers President Rich Wardwell.
While the chain is known for catering to Hispanic tastes, he said, it's also very strong in products favored by African-American and Asian shoppers.
The company has studied the area's demographics and plans to offer fresh baking, a butcher shop and kitchen, he said.
He added Superior does well in Bakersfield and appreciates the city's helpful staff. The company also likes the opportunity to step into a location that previously served as a supermarket, as was the case when it took over the former Vons on White Lane.
"We just feel it’s the right spot for us,” he said.
"We see this as a neighborhood that has ... a strong Hispanic presence," he said. "But we’re comfortable serving all.”
Lisa Turner, a disabled woman living near the supermarket, remembers being kind of upset when the FoodMaxx shut down. She said she will definitely go and spend her food stamps at the new Superior.
Neighbor Lora Briggs was not as welcoming of the newcomer. She doesn't eat much Hispanic food and said it was her impression Superior specializes in Mexican food.
But she was pleased to learn of Wardwell's plan to offer an appropriately diverse selection.
"As long as they got something like we could get," she said.
Local commercial real estate broker Scott Underhill, a principal at ASU & Associates, called Superior's move to buy the building's lease from FoodMaxx a great development for the neighborhood.
FoodMaxx had seen better days at that site, he said, while Superior has excelled by offering personal service and a festive atmosphere.
"Superior is one of several ethnic grocers that are doing a fantastic job," he said by email.
Assistant City Manager Jacqui Kitchen wrote in an email that residents of southeast Bakersfield have long requested more grocery and pharmacy options. She said she hopes Superior's investment along Union will lead to continued development in the area.
City Councilman Willie Rivera, whose Ward 1 includes the supermarket site, said the city has monitored the supermarket's transition since late last year. Excited to see Superior open, he said by email the southeast area "needs and deserves" access to groceries "just like the rest of Bakersfield."
"I’m thrilled the community is not losing something it has fought so hard for and I’m thankful for the investment Superior Grocers is making in this area,” he wrote.