Fresh & Easy's uncertain future

April 18, 2013

In the United Kingdom, Tesco is the number one grocery chain. But in Arizona, California and Nevada – not so much.

So when grocery giant Tesco announced Wednesday it was selling all its 200 U.S. stores, it didn’t come out of the blue. Fresh & Easy, its American chain, has tried for years to make a go of it in Western states.

But it’s never managed to really take hold.

Tim James, a professor at ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business, said the problem may have been in its concept. Fresh & Easy marketed itself as a neighborhood store, with an emphasis on simplicity and convenience on a smaller scale than a big-box retailer. James said that might not have appealed to enough people, especially in a place as saturated with grocery stores as Phoenix.

fresh Fresh & Easy has several locations across the Valley, including this one on Indian School Road in Phoenix. News that Tesco is selling the chain has F & E fans uneasy. (Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)

“We have almost every kind of food retailing environment you could possibly imagine,” he said, “from the incredibly cheap, ‘stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap'-type retailers — you know, the Costco, Sam’s Club, more ethnically oriented stores, as well — way up to valet parking, Whole Foods, AJs.”

Maybe there just isn’t room for Fresh & Easy, James explained. But as you might imagine, company officials are more optimistic. Fresh & Easy’s Brendan Wonnacot stressed that several possible buyers have already come forward. He said the store’s competitive prices and focus on natural food sets it apart.

“You know, ultimately, what we’ve offered has resonated with a large number of customers,” he said, “and though Tesco is choosing to exit the U.S., we remain confident that what we have here at Fresh & Easy can remain for our customers.”

Wonnacot points to the company’s Facebook page as proof of its customers’ loyalty. Right now, its wall is covered in messages of shock, hope and support for Fresh & Easy’s future.

James understands this emotion, both as a professor of economics and an Englishman.

If Fresh & Easy does go by the wayside, he’ll miss it “incredibly,” he said.

“I think most British people who live in Western U.S. will miss Fresh & Easy like crazy,” he said, “because they sell some products that are just impossible to get a hold of anywhere else.”

For now, James’ favorite British foods are safe. But he and other Britons can’t help wondering if they’ll have to find a new place to buy their baked beans, digestive biscuits and salad cream.

They sell what?

Fresh & Easy has become famous for stocking hard-to-find British items. Here’s a glossary of a few English “delicacies” you might not find at other grocery retailers — and might be disappearing once Fresh & Easy finds a new owner.

Heinz Baked Beans: On the surface, they sound plain (baked beans in a tomato sauce), but they are an iconic British food. To get the full Brit experience, serve them on toast.

Marmite: This sticky, brown food paste is the English cousin of Vegemite (though it didn’t have a Men at Work song to make it globally famous). Its main ingredient is yeast extract, and it’s extremely salty. Needless to say, it's got a niche audience. As the slogan goes, “Love it or hate it.”

PG Tips: This tea is another English staple, and has been since 1930. “Tips” refers to the fact that only the tips of the tea plants are used.

Spotted Dick: Not as exciting as it might sound, this pudding can be bought by the can by those not wanting to whip it up at home. It’s typically served with custard. It’s studded with dried fruit, which is why it’s “spotted.”

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