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When I heard the news, I was crushed. My neighborhood grocery, QFC on NE 33rd, was closing.
QFC has been my store for all 13 years I’ve lived in Portland, despite the many choices within walking distance of my neighborhood, Sullivan’s Gulch. The grocery business is highly competitive, and demographics—education, house prices, income, density—partially explain why two Whole Foods, a New Seasons, Trader Joe’s, Safeway, Grocery Outlet, Green Zebra, and Fred Meyer are within this orbit. I shop at other stores, too, but as much as possible, I would head to this particular QFC.
Some might say QFC was redundant. (It is owned by Kroger, as is Fred Meyer.) But not to me. Why?
This QFC felt like the family-owned store that it was for most of the 20th century, first as the mom-and-pop Fernwood Grocery, then Randall’s, then Kienow’s, which owned it from the late 1930s until it was sold in 1998 to an investment company and finally purchased by QFC, a subsidiary of Kroger, one of the largest grocery retailers in the U.S. While it is true that QFC and Fred Meyer are owned by the same corporation, there were differences, at least for this QFC.
It still had a vestige of its beginnings as a small first-floor grocer in a house. More than 100 years later, it continued to be a store that was manageable in size, and staffed by regular people and sometimes odd ducks who seemed like family to one another. It was a store where flowers were sometimes a good deal, and onions and potatoes were heaped in piles—regular onions, regular potatoes. It was a store where people didn’t hang around in the aisles reading labels.
This QFC was a store where you could find what you needed without being overwhelmed by product and choice. This store was not exactly plain, but it felt simpler, local, like a store that a human had a hand in organizing and managing, not solely the result of data, marketing and growth trends.
The bakery was reputed to still use some of the old recipes from the Kienow’s era. The pace of QFC was a relief—it wasn’t jammed or harried. The checkout lines were reasonable. It was easy to park. The prices seemed fair. Kids from the nearby high school dropped their backpacks at the door to cruise the aisles.
Another great pleasure of QFC was their long-time employees, like the guy who had worked at this store just a month shy of 12 years and has been transferred to the West Hills store. If he was working, I would get in his checkout line, even if I could do self-checkout. Older, slightly messy hair, shirt a little askew, he never asked me, ‘Hey, what are you up to this weekend?’ as if reading from a marketing teleprompter on how to be friendly. Instead, he would ring up my purchases, not slow or fast, but regular speed. If he wasn’t there, I looked for the other checker who had a bit of an edge, and was maybe just a little angry. I liked that she spoke her mind about the weather or even corporate policy. What a relief.
I went to the store for the last time with a short list of eggs, milk, and crackers. It was too late. Tiered platforms that once held vegetables, fruit — organic and non — were empty. Every carton of eggs was gone. The modest mushroom corner — boxes of crimini, white, portobello — all gone.
I continued down the aisle, past the milk, turning right at the orange juice, walking past the yogurt and the empty meat cases to visit what was for me, the greatest pleasure of this store: the fish case, 18 steps from one end to the other.
With any luck, Dungeness would be in season and cooked crabs would be lined up, shell to shell, a sale sign stuck in the ice. Next to the crab and laid out on ice would be an array of fish: salmon and cod, grey sole, maybe halibut, and usually mussels, clams and a cheerful line-up of lemon, lime, fresh rosemary and butter that could be added to your package.
But no, everything gone. No crab, no fish, no ice. Gone was the guy behind the counter who carefully wrapped fish in white butcher paper. Gone was the woman with a booming voice who had worked there for more than a decade.
QFC had something important in my book, a lack of hype, an absence of preciousness about food, a down-to-earth quality, a store that I knew by heart. This store was a reflection of the neighborhood and the people who live and shopped there and, if only for this, it was of great value to me. Mostly, it’s sad to say goodbye to a familiar and reliable friend.
Jackleen de La Harpe is a writer and the executive director of Underscore, a reporting collaborative in Portland.