Home » ‘Crisis Took Serving To A New Level’ At Valley Fresh Market 

‘Crisis Took Serving To A New Level’ At Valley Fresh Market 

Valley Fresh Market

Store in Solvang gave away toilet paper, started selling barbecue

by John McCurry / contributing writer

As is the case for many independent grocers, Greg King has spent much of his life in the business. Now 52, he began working at a grocery store when he was 14. His father was in the business during King’s childhood, although he said it’s a coincidence that he ended up in the industry.

King currently operates Valley Fresh Market in Solvang, California, a town of about 6,000 in the Santa Ynez Valley, a region known for its wineries. Solvang is about 130 miles north of Los Angeles and 30 miles northwest of Santa Barbara.

July will mark two years since King and his wife, Teresa, purchased the store from the Nielsen family, longtime grocers in Solvang. The store traces its history to 1911 and four generations of the Nielsens operated it. 

King changed the name from Nielsen’s Market to Valley Fresh. He also is part owner of two California Fresh stores. King has been in the independent grocer business for 20 years following a stint with Albertsons from the late 1980s through the 1990s. 

“We are a crossover store, between natural/organic and conventional,” King explained. “We have a coffee bar, sushi bar, full-service meat counter and full-service deli. We create a lot of our own products. We have our own full kitchen and make our own sourdough. Our mother dough is nine years old. We started the sourdough in 2012.”

Valley Fresh also ages its beef, makes fudge and squeezes orange juice.

King said Valley Fresh and its 65 employees have been successfully navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. The store was among the first to take some of the safety measures that have since become standard in stores across the U.S.

“In the first week of last March, we put up Plexiglass in the checkout stands, put social distance stickers on the floor at the checkouts and labeled our aisles to make them one way,” he said.  “We had to change our self-service stations, such as no longer allowing customers to grind their own peanut butter. We started grinding it ahead and selling it as retail. All of our bulk items had to start being packaged. We stopped having the self-service coffee at the coffee bar. We pour every cup for them.”

Business boomed during 2020. King said the store never ran out of anything because he quickly sourced from restaurant suppliers and repackaged products as needed.

“We never ran out of toilet paper because I stopped selling toilet paper,” he recalled. “I gave away every roll. I got pallets of toilet paper from the restaurant suppliers, and it was all individually packaged rolls. I parked it up front and every customer who came through the checkout stand, we asked them how many were in their household and handed out the toilet paper accordingly. We did that for three months, until the toilet paper supply came back. I had some people cry when I gave them the toilet paper, they were so grateful.”

Valley Fresh sourced commodities such as yeast, sugar, flour, beans and rice from restaurant suppliers in 10- and 20-pound bags and repackaged them to sell in smaller amounts. As a bonus to customers, these items became cheaper because the store bought in bulk. The extra services helped draw new customers. 

“We also hooked up with some local churches here, and we gave toilet paper, packaged meals, groceries,” King said. “And in partnership with OK Produce, our produce supplier, we donated produce. 

“We took precautions early, and through the fear and anxiety of it all, we were able to turn a negative thing into a positive thing in the community. The store, when we took over, was in a tough spot. The customer counts were way down.”

King noted that the business environment remains challenging. 

“Now, there is a mask mandate, but at first there wasn’t. We told our employees, wear them if you want to,” he said. “Then after a couple of months, there was a mandate for all grocery employees to wear them, and that was an easy thing to comply with for us. But for customers, there were some who didn’t want to wear a mask, and there was a lot of anger from other customers against them.

“It doesn’t matter which side of it you are on, the grocery store is not the place to yell about it. We navigated our way though that, and now it is mandated in the county for everyone to wear masks in public.”

Valley Fresh Market’s hot food sales and deli service were among the early pandemic casualties. To offset the loss, King hired Bill Ruiz, a local caterer who runs Cowboy Flavor, to make barbecue. That resurrected the hot food business. 

“We wheel the meat out, he barbecues it for us, and we wheel it back in,” King said. “We had people lining up to get it. He’s worked four days a week for us since about June of last year. It helped him out, too. He was booked for the whole year and all his catering jobs got cancelled due to the virus.”

Located in a major grape-growing region, it makes sense that Valley Fresh does a brisk wine business. Sales have increased during the pandemic. Also boosting sales is the trend of more people cooking at home. 

“This has, in the past, been one of the big challenges of the grocery business – that people weren’t cooking anymore,” King said. “That is one of the reasons that we are doing so well. It’s good not only for the grocery business but for families in general. To sit down and have a meal together is something special…if there is anything good that has come out of the pandemic, it’s putting families back together at the dinner table.”

Solvang is a tourist town, so losing the tourist business has been tough on a lot of restaurants. 

“I’m worried for the restaurants, but I am hopeful for the country,” King said. “I don’t see it changing right away.”

King previously opened three stores from scratch but wanted to approach Valley Fresh differently. This included offering more self-serve options, so he built a 20-foot cold case for a salad bar and then a hot bar for soups and hot food. 

A couple of months later, the pandemic hit so he had to repurpose. This included pre-making salads and putting them in the 20-foot cold case salad bar and pre-packaging hot foods. 

“I’ve really been proud of my staff,” King said. “Our turnover is very low. We kept all of the former Nielsen’s employees who wanted to stay…we were all scared, of course, but we devised a plan and stayed with it. We’ve been lucky, but we’ve also been very careful…it’s easy to let your guard down, you have to stay vigilant.” 

King enjoys the camaraderie with customers and co-workers.

“We look each one in the eye and ask them if they have everything they need,” King said. “They are our friends and neighbors. When you are able to really serve the public, there is a true sense of gratification in that. I’m in a service business, but this crisis took serving to a new level. This was risking your own health to serve the community the best you can.”

Valley Fresh Market

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