Charlie Higuera, 85, founder of Grove Market in Pacific Grove, flanked by grandchildren Sarah Staples, far left, and John Mason, right; daughters Kate Matuz, to his left, and Karen Staples to his right | David Royal
By Kathryn McKenzie
Photos by David Royal
Kristy Mason is used to taking care of people, and this morning, she’s doing just that from the meat counter of the Grove Market. “Nancy, I can deliver this to you,” she says to an older woman who wants something from the hot food area. “I got ya.”
And although the customer tells her it’s not necessary, Mason insists.
Fifty years ago, the Grove started serving customers, one of seven grocery stores in Pacific Grove in 1969. Now, of those small markets, it’s the only one left. And the chain supermarkets just a few miles away? Not a factor, according to store patriarch Charlie Higuera.
“That new store that went in where Nob Hill was — Andronico’s — it didn’t make any difference in our sales,” said Higuera.
It’s an amazing half-century of success in a business that has slim profit margins, but Higuera chalks up his store’s longevity to having not only loyal customers, but also longtime loyal employees.
The 50-year anniversary will be celebrated this Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. with a parking lot barbecue, ice cream and a raffle, with proceeds going to Pacific Grove School District and PG Pride.
In an era of big-box stores, online grocery delivery and the dominance of massive supermarket chains, Grove Market is a survivor. And yet in the Monterey Bay area, it isn’t alone.
Most communities here seem to have at least one or more beloved independent markets which have been there for decades. Shopper’s Corner in Eastside Santa Cruz began in the 1930s and is still going strong; Staff of Life, also in Santa Cruz, just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Other longtime favorites include Deluxe Foods in Aptos, Star Market in Salinas, Troia’s in Monterey, and Bruno’s and Nielsen Brothers in Carmel, just to name a few.
Like the Grove Market, local independent grocery stores have changed with the times, and yet retain the flavor of yesteryear — both in their décor and in their attention to customer service.
Higuera is obviously the life of the store, greeting customers with a handshake and a smile, with the energy of a man 30 years younger. He is still working, cutting meat behind the counter. When does he plan to retire? “Never,” he said.
Due to turn 86 in a few months, Higuera has been working in the business since age 15. He comes from a family of meatcutters — his father and his uncles were butchers, and he learned from his father — and Higuera proudly shows off a 1934 photo of his dad that’s on display in the store.
In the photo, his father is behind a meat counter on a marble base, which Higuera thinks might have been in New Monterey. “Look at those prices,” said Higuera, when people were paying pennies a pound for lamb chops and ground beef. The most expensive item is just 29 cents a pound.
Higuera, who had worked at a market that is now where the Pacific Grove Trader Joe’s is located, did a stint in the Marines. When he got out, he started looking around for his own store.
“This one came up for lease, but no one wanted it, because there were stores all over the place,” he recalled. So with his wife and another couple, “We bought the lease and a little inventory for $9,000. It was a complete wreck.” He didn’t take a day off for the next two years.
A piece of good luck then helped get the market established: being awarded a coveted liquor license, still a novelty at that point in Pacific Grove, which didn’t allow alcohol sales until 1969.
The 5,000-square-foot market — originally a Purity grocery store and still in the same curved Quonset-hut structure — has other remnants of past and present. There are vintage golf clubs displayed everywhere, since Higuera is a golfer and a huge fan of the links at Pebble Beach, as well as golf-themed banners, collectible Jim Beam decanters from past Crosby tournaments, and signs from the days when the AT&T Pro-Am was still known as the Crosby.
The Grove’s meat counter still has carefully trimmed chops and steaks, and fresh-ground meats, just as in the old days. But it also has an ever-increasing number of hot convenience foods available, something that customers like.
Kristy Mason, Higuera’s granddaughter, manages the meat and hot food department; she and catering manager Lori Taylor make the prepared foods, like chicken pot pies, lasagne and Philly sliders, and have a selection available every day.
Mason and her brother, grocery manager John Mason, grew up working in their store. “We’ve watched some of our customers getting older, and now we care for them,” said Kristy.
John points out the changes made for the modern era, like the addition of organic produce, gluten-free grocery items, and the store’s website. The market offers personal shopping and delivery to Pacific Grove, New Monterey and Pebble Beach, and may add online ordering in the future, he said.
Small grocery stores are something of an endangered species nationwide, but somehow the Monterey Bay area is bucking the trend. According to a 2017 study done by the USDA, independent grocery stores (defined as those with four or fewer outlets) only account for 11 percent of groceries sold in the United States.
But for many people, these small stores are vital. As neighborhood stores, they’re more accessible to people who walk or take the bus to get their groceries. “These stores play an important role in their local communities, helping to ensure food access for residents, especially in low-income and rural areas,” said the report by Claire Cho and Richard Volpe.
Although the number of grocery stores across the country increased between 2005 and 2015, small grocers were hurt by the 2008 recession, which stagnated sales. Competition from “supercenters” like Walmart and Target also cut into profits, as these stores added grocery departments.
The successful small markets are those that find out just what it is that their customers want, and supply it. Although they can’t compete with the sheer size of chain supermarkets — as much as 45,000 square feet — independent grocers go for quality rather than quantity.
Many small grocers invest in their meat departments, catering to people who want specialty cuts. Some have extensive wine selections. Star Market in Salinas prides itself on its cheese offerings, while Shopper’s Corner and others make it a point to carry locally made brands and gourmet items.
For many customers, though, small grocery stores are gathering places, where they see their friends and neighbors and talk about what’s going on in town. Store manager Kate Matuz, daughter of Charlie Higuera and aunt of Kristy and John Mason, describes the store as “a hub.”
“People stand around and chat, and catch up,” she said. “It’s the place where people send their children for their first jobs.”
Her first job, naturally, was in the store, where she remembers “bagging ice, sorting bottles, scraping gum off the floors — whatever needed to be done, we did it.”
The 28 employees are all either family members, or treated like family. “This guy here,” said Higuera of one young man, “I remember him when he was in diapers.”
Customers stop by to say hello to Higuera, with one woman exclaiming, “I don’t know what we’d do without this store. It’s an institution.”
Higuera said that both locals and visitors stop by the store, and the visitors often tell him they wish they had a market like the Grove in their towns.
“It’s really rewarding to do this,” he said. “It’s nice working with the grandkids, and to know they’ll be taking it over someday… We’re here to stay.”
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