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Jul 27, 2008 07:08 AM

An Open Letter to the Calabasas Gelson's

How do you manage to get away with the prices you charge?

Let me be quite clear -- nobody in full possession of his mental faculties goes into any Gelson's expecting a bargain. I used to shop at the ones in Van Nuys and North Hollywood and, for a time, the one in Century City. The idea was that you would get twice the selection f brands or flavours in any product range, with excellent service, and then pay for it.

Well, I'm up in Calabasas this week, returned VERY recently from New York, and there was no food in the house. We were entertaining friends so I went to Gelson's on Mulholland Highway.

Here's the menu -- simple, easy-to-fix stuff: crostini with tapenade; insalata caprese; tortellini with marinara sauce; white bean salad with roasted red peppers, onions and herbs; cucumbers with mint, lemon juice and olive oil; angel-food cake with fresh peaches and cream.

First I had to find the bread. The pre-packaged bread is near the frozen section, and the bakery is over to the side. I found this out only after asking three separate people. It used to be that if you asked a Gelson's employee where something was, they'd put down what they were doing, walk you over, and point out the selection. This still happens in places like Valley Village. But not Calabasas, no, I had to eventually ask a cashier who gave me the answer.

I went to the bakery expecting, you know, Viktor Benes, like almost every other Gelson's, but instead it was a collection of very pretty and extremely expensive pastries, with six forlorn little loaves of bread in New Jersey suburban deli-style plastic bins behind the counter. I asked when the bread was baked and they said that morning at 9:00 (this was at 5:00). They had one baguette -- when I asked to see it, the kid behind the counter dropped it (onto the clean counter, no worries) and it went "thunk". So I bought a La Brea baguette (in baskets near the front of the store, for some reason).

Then the olives. The olive bar is on one end of the store (near the produce); the pre-packaged tubs of olives, from the SAME OLIVES, are in the cheese section on the other side of the store. The olive bar was just hellacious -- mislabelled, and with olives everywhere but where they should have been -- kalamatas spilled into the belle di cerignola, celery bits from the Sicilian marinated olives mixed into the red peppers, and pitted and non-pitted kalamatas mixed together. It all needed re-sorting and a good long stir. The prepackaged olives were so expensive ($5.29 a pint) that I ended up just buying a tub of Kronos pre-made tapenade.

There was a LOT of very good-looking fresh mozzarella. That was a happy thing. I bought two tubs of ovoline, and they were a lot better than, say, Trader Joe's. But every other Gelson's I've been to sells Gioia burrata (at a scandalous markup, but it's available) -- you don't.

I went to buy a bottle of wine. Foolish, I know, but there's not a lot over in that part of Calabasas, so I was stuck. How do you get away with charging $12.99 for a bottle of Woodbridge chardonnay? And, honestly, is that all they drink in Calabasas? There were at least 50 kinds of chardonnay, more than all the other kinds of white wine put together. I bought a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc mostly because it was $12.99 where all the others were $25 or more. The cheapest bottle I saw was a bottle of Turning Leaf chardonnay at $8.99.

I could have dealt with all of this... but then I got to the produce section and I very nearly just left my cart there so I could leave and just order food to be delivered from a restaurant.

The smarmy "Locally Grown" labels have got to go. There are no locally-grown Rainier cherries at the end of July, and if there were, there would be plenty of them and thus not $8.99 a pound. When I asked where the "locally-grown" peaches were from, I got a shrug from the person restocking the produce. If you're going to throw down that particular gauntlet you need to label where it comes from -- because I bet those "locally-grown" peaches came from Fresno or even the Imperial Valley, which is NOT "locally-grown".

The cucumbers -- your choice, wrapped English cucumbers, the usual wooden-tasting kind, or Persian cucumbers with wrinkled skins and a "long time no vine" problem. Sadly, of the three, the Persians were the best candidate, because there were some that weren't completely past it.

Tomatoes: $2.99 for a pound of Vons-quality vine-ripened tomatoes. $1.99 for salmon-coloured Roma tomatoes. $2.99 a pound for salmon-coloured "beefsteak tomatoes". It's the MIDDLE OF TOMATO SEASON! You seem to want to go for locally-grown stuff, where on earth are you hiding it? You can't drive through Camarillo without passing a tomato truck. Camarillo is less than 20 miles from Calabasas. I bought the vine-ripened ones and decided to make the marinara sauce with tinned tomatoes. What a shame.

Basil: I can't tell you how much I laughed at the stupid "basil bouquets" for $2.49. A few branches of Italian sweet basil with the stems jammed into one of those plastic water bulbs that florists use for long-stemmed roses. I bought one anyway -- it was the same price as the awful plastic boxes of assorted herbs and it looked better -- but the basil, when I used it, was starting to get papery. I'm really glad I didn't need mint (it grows abundantly here).

Bell peppers: come on. The fields are GROANING with peppers and the best your buyer could come up with was imported Holland red peppers at $5.99 a pound??

Lemons: if you're going to label the lemons as "organic, locally-grown" lemons, at least wash off the blue "Sunkist" labels. (I was going to use the zest in the bean salad -- that went out the window, who wants blue zest??)

I could have lived with the produce if I'd been at a Vons or a Ralphs and the prices had been half (or more) lower... but it would have been cheaper had I driven to Santa Monica in the morning and bought organic produce from their overpriced farmers' market (or just gone to the Calabasas one) -- but I was otherwise occupied, and I paid the price.

I bought $100 worth of food for five people that fit in three grocery bags. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves for the state your store is in, and I ought to be ashamed of myself for not walking back up the hill, getting in my car, and going to Vallarta where the produce is better and the prices are a quarter of what yours are.


Gelson's Markets
22277 Mulholland Hwy, Calabasas, CA

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  1. Sorry to hear about your absurdly awful experience. I've never experienced such horrid results at the few Gelson's that I've visited. Hopefully your justifiable (well executed) rant will not fall on deaf ears. Surely there must be shoppers in the general Calabasas/Agoura Hills area who actually care about quality and service... or are there? Or have they abandoned this Gelson's for greener pastures elsewhere? Where, I don't know...

    I was at the SM farmers market yesterday - they had most of the things you were looking for at prices that were at par if not a little better than one would pay at Gelson's and of course, the tomatoes were red where red was right, and finally the quantity of heirlooms are making the tables sag in the middle. Peaches and stone fruits in general are frickin' jammin' right now, and with avocados all over the place, I would have been very tempted to wedge in some slices with the ensalata caprese. I didn't check out the bread stand for baguettes (I personally don't care for their breads) or to see if the couple of cheese stands had burrata, and of course no wine (hop on the 10 to the 405, and go to The Wine House on Cotner). But all in all, as much as I hate the (often rude) crowds there (so I go at 0830) and the prices that are sometimes twice what you can find at other farmers markets, I make the trip there when I know produce is a major part to what I'm going to prepare for eating over the weekend and a little beyond... And if mulberries are your bag, then you can add those to - no, substitute those for the peaches in your dessert. Their short stint deserves the stage to themselves. Better luck shopping next time - maybe shoot an email to Gelson's corporate with this link attached...

    1 Reply
    1. re: bulavinaka

      Wow, certainly NOT the Encino Gelson's shopping experience that I have regularly. Sorry to hear that you had such a bad time. I agree that you should send this comment to Gelson's main office at 16400 Ventura Blvd Suite 240 Encino 91436. It's articulate and on point.

      My response: I've never experienced a problem with the Sunkist stamp when I zest. you could probably use a bit of that produce wash to get it off or avoid zesting there. The rest of the lemon is clean. I shop at different markets for different items. You think Gelson's is expensive? Try making the jump from Ralph's to Ralph's Fresh Fare! They just changed over a store near my office and the prices have skyrocketed! And, I'm not sure the food is any better quality than the old Ralph's.
      I never buy wine at Gelson's unless it's well recommended or a great buy. I prefer to pick it up here and there for better prices. It's a convenience item and you pay for it.
      I do agree that the prices of their fruits has skyrocketed. I'm not sure of the reason. It's too bad that you had a bad experience with the produceman. At the 3 Gelson's that I frequent, they're wonderful. They'll tell you what's good, offer a taste and then help you pick out a winner. Not satisfied? you can return it next trip or tell them and they'll give you something else.
      Whole Foods is the one that slays me. I shop there on a very limited basis and find that their people aren't as helpful nor the prices competitive. But in some of their stores the olive bar can be great, albeit outrageously priced. Just one side note- we discovered the balsamic marinated cipollini onions at WF's olive bar. They charge $9.99lb. Gelson's put them on their salad bar and charge $6.49 lb.!

    2. I hear ya. I find it very hard to distinguish between the "good Ralphs" on Pico near Beverly Dr. and the Gelson's in the Century City mall. I was just in the old Mayfair in Los Feliz (now a Gelson's), and found that pastry case buzzing w/ tiny flies. Mmm. And the service was a joke, as you describe.

      I guess you can do what most people do, which is to expect to buy different things at different stores, or plan your menu as you're shopping based on what looks good. It's sort of an interesting topic - the only people shopping for produce and fresh food these days are people who really care (every else eats out), so the markets are going to seem worse to us folks, and a lot more convenient to the prepared-food eaters. Lots of neighborhood grocery stores, esp. ethnic ones, seem to be increasingly specializing, w/ produce stores, bakeries, as if to take up the slack of the supermarkets.

      As for the locally-grown stuff, there doesn't seem to be any kind of standards or regulation in place as there is for organic labels (which is confusing and multi-tiered, but at least it exists), so it may be a free-for-all at this point. But really - do you expect someone stacking vegetables to know where tomatoes are grown?? Believe, me, I'm not defending this or any other store, but we as consumers need to educate ourselves (and each other) about sourcing. So yeah, send corporate a letter, read labels, and isn't there a Whole Foods in that area?

      2 Replies
      1. re: cant talk...eating

        Sounds like that store's a working disaster, in need of a management transplant. One reason for scattering items around the store is to make you walk by other items, encouraging unplanned purchases. Staff not knowing where things can be found isn't acceptable, of course.

        Locally grown=western hemisphere. Everyone knows that.

        1. re: cant talk...eating

          There is a Whole Foods, yes. I don't live here, and came flying in (literally) from New York to Orange County (where I live, and where we have exactly one Gelson's, which is in a place that's convenient for me to ignore) to Calabasas.

          The point about the produce people knowing where things are grown is that in other Gelson's, they WOULD know. If you go to Vons or Albertsons, they have no idea, but at Gelson's typically they would know -- and if they didn't, they'd know whom to ask to find out. The peaches were labelled with "California", which doesn't help.

          I arrived at Gelson's at 5 PM and had people coming at 6 PM expecting dinner, so I didn't have any time to go rooting around (Whole Foods, Vallarta, 99 Ranch, produce stands, etc.) Typically I do exactly what you're describing -- bread here, meat there, fish at a third place, wine from a wine shop, produce from the farmers' market, etc.

          If I'd known it was going to be such a farshlepta ordeal, I'd have gone to Whole Foods in the first place.

        2. i was at a ralphs this weekend and the tomates were $2.99 for "on the vine"; $1.99 for roma, the basil was $2.49, and the holland red peppers were $5.99. . . .so i'm not sure where you're going that's 1/2 the price. i would like to know.

          it is too bad gelson's was this bad -- usually people are trying to find you to offer help it seems. i've never found their selection tremendously better than a "nice" ralphs. they have a few more things -- but it's not like a specialty market.

          2 Replies
          1. re: dtud

            You need to go to Vallarta... and I didn't need Holland red peppers -- local would have been preferable. Perhaps I'm just spoiled by the Irvine farmers' market.

            1. re: dtud

              Both Vallarta and Jon's are priced well below (yes, often half) the Big Chain stores.

            2. Both that Calabasas/Woodland Hills store as well as the Pasadena store have been close to being closed as they do not do any more than minimal business, per Gelson's standards, and are both losing money.
              On the other hand, never had problems as you mention with the Encino, Sherman Oaks, or Valley Village/Studio City location. Bigger, higher volume(read better product turnover), etc. And the employees in those stores are a bit more concerned, yet not all by any means.
              Just wish the deli counter staffs at all 3 would tend to the business, rather than taking breaks every 5 minutes, talking to each other and totally avoiding the standing and waiting customers(especially problematic at Sherman Oaks and Valley Village).
              As to going to Whole Foods or Fresh Fare, forget them as alternatives, especially WFM unless it is one of the new HUGE versions, aka Pasadena or El Segundo in the LA marketplace.
              There is a WFM on Ventura Blvd. at Canoga, fwiw!

              8 Replies
              1. re: carter

                The WFM on Ventura and Canoga is TERRIBLE!!

                1. re: budlit

                  While I'm not a fan of Whole Foods I do occasionally shop there for items that I can't find elsewhere, and have found them all about the same as far as quality and service goes. You seem to have strong feelings regarding this specific location, care to share some sort of an explanation?

                  1. re: budlit

                    It's SUPERB if you live closest to Sherman Oaks East at Coldwater & Riverside!!! - Talk about a store that does not care!
                    Worst employees, many of whom have been there for many years - company probably cannot fire them, yet should.
                    The woman running the seafood dept - truly the worst disposition for someone working in a retail environment.

                    1. re: carter

                      gotta completely concur with you carter.
                      i live near the terrific whole foods in el segundo, and made the huge error of trying to actually buy food at the wf on riverside and coldwater--what a lousy market in every respect.

                      1. re: carter

                        Oh, God, I'd forgotten about the Whole Foods That Brings The Whole Chain's Reputation Down. I was so happy when they opened the Glendale one.

                        Now I live near a Henry's, which is so far superior in just about every way (except selection, and fish) that there's no comparison.

                        1. re: carter

                          It's almost as if the Coldwater/Riverside WFM isn't part of the same chain. The store was a former Mrs. Gooch's from before WFM started building their own stores. I'm not making excuses for the awful service, but a big part of the problem is that the space is so damn small for what they cram into it.

                          Given that there's another (much better) WFM less than four miles away on Sepulveda, I don't understand why they even bother keeping that branch open.

                          1. re: maxzook

                            Yes, I know, Sandy Gooch and I used to walk around her store and she would point out new items.
                            But since both the Sherman Oaks locations are vastly undersized by current-day standards, yet similarly sized, they want to consolidate them and are working in that regard, but don't expect anything for at least 2-3 years.
                            But in the meantime, why do the stores have to have such different personalities - I can tolerate the Sepulveda store, but the Coldwater store...zzzzzzzzzz!

                      2. While you are right that Gelson's is not the place to go if you want a bargain, thought I would share a price comparison experience I had a few years ago. I needed to do some major grocery shopping, as I was out of just about everything. I went to the Ralphs in Tarzana with a few coupons and my Ralphs discount card. The total came close to $300. When I got home and unpacked everything, I realized I forgot a few items. I went to the Gelson's in Tarzana, and since I still had my receipt from Ralphs in my purse and it was on the same day, I decided to compare prices. Gelson's was the closest store to my home, and I usually did most of my shopping there, so I was curious to see how much I saved by shopping at Ralphs.

                        I was not able to compare everything on my list, because there were some items from Ralphs that Gelson's did not have. But I was able to compare about half of the items using the same brands and the same size/amounts. About 1/4 of the brands I bought at Ralphs were not available at Gelson's, so I compared the Ralph's item with the brand I would have bought at Gelson's. Even taking into consideration the Ralphs discount card and the coupons (I never use coupons at Gelson's, so I didn't even calculate the coupon savings on my Gelson's total), I would have SAVED $14 at Gelson's had I bought those items there! Not only that, I would have had better produce, a nicer experience, and wouldn't have bothered with coupons and store cards.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: brandygirl

                          In general -- IN GENERAL -- I agree with you. I loathe Ralphs. However, it was this particular Gelson's that was driving me nuts.

                          1. re: brandygirl

                            When the grocery workers were on strike at Ralphs a few years ago, I started shopping more regularly at Gelsons. I'm comparing the Ralphs at Ventura/Hazeltine in Sherman Oaks to the Gelsons on Van Nuys Blvd., specifically. I actually learned that I saved money at Gelsons on many if not most of the items that I used to buy at Ralphs. Plus I like that I can get actual service at their butcher counter, and I do so regularly. Ralphs did double coupons but I guess they're stopping that? I hate the WF at Riverside/Coldwater and only go there under duress, like it's the only semi-local place where I think I can find a specific item. I'm lucky to have time to shop at Gelsons, Trader Joe's, Farm Boy, Costco, the nice Vallarta on Victory, the Studio City farmers market. Ralphs is really a last resort and I only go there for specific items, for instance I happen to like certain flavors of their Private Selection brand ice cream and it's a good deal at two containers for $6. But Das didn't have the time to do all that shopping around, whereas I know from reading his posts for so many years that he usually does, and indeed it sounds like he had a (surprisingly) terrible experience at Gelsons.

                            1. re: brandygirl

                              I also concur with this. It was about a year ago that I started to notice that not only did the Century City Gelsons have better service and selection but that Ralphs prices had drifted upward to the point that Gelsons had become price-competitive as well. Anymore, I think Ralphs is a waste of time except for very specific items and then you wait in ridiculous lines to buy them. Gelsons is certainly not perfect but it's easily the most satisfactory overall grocery experience to be had in west LA. DU's experience in Calabasas sounds quite unfortunate--in particular regarding the poor quality of the produce, which is not something I encounter at my Gelsons.