Palo Alto: Miki proposed as new grocer at former JJ&F market

Operator of former Alma Village market may get fresh start at College Terrace Centre

Miki Werness, whose Alma Village market shuttered in April 2013 after less than six months of operation, may soon get another chance in Palo Alto's College Terrace.

The developers behind College Terrace Centre on Monday proposed having Werness, former operator of Miki's Farm Fresh Market, take charge of the vacant grocery store formerly occupied by JJ&F Market. As part of the City Council's approval for the block-long development at 2180 El Camino Real, the grocery store must be signed before the rest of the building can be constructed. The development also includes eight below-market-rate units and nearly 40,000 square feet of office space, which would be occupied by review website Yelp.

Though the council approved the development in early 2010, the project has been in flux since then because of financial challenges and disagreements between the developer and the council about who the new grocer should be.

In August, the development team headed by Patrick Smailey proposed having his son James Smailey take charge of the new market despite the fact that he has no experience in the grocery business. The council unanimously rejected that plan, arguing that Smailey is unlikely to match the level of service provided by the Garcia family, which operated JJ&F for more than half a century before departing in 2010.

The next proposal fared little better. On Dec. 1, the council shot down a proposal in which James Smailey would lease the store but defer the day-to-day operations to Uriel Chavez, whose family runs small markets throughout Northern California, including La Hacienda, Arteagas and Mi Pueblo. After a long discussion at that meeting, council members agreed that the market lease should be between the property owner and the grocer, without a middle man.

The proposal unveiled Monday night would place Werness in charge of the new market. Brian Spiers, who is part of the development team, said the team has decided to assign James Smailey's lease to Werness. On Dec. 1, the council had learned that the College Terrace Centre team had been negotiating with Werness in prior months and had considered a joint venture.

Councilman Greg Scharff said on Dec. 1 that he had spoken to Werness earlier that day and was told that the sticking point in the negotiations was that the developers "were not allowing him to be the operator." But after the Smailey-Chavez proposal fizzled last week under accusations of nepotism, that now appears to be changing.

Spiers on Monday night called Werness a "great choice," citing his "great track record" and noting that he had already evaluated the site with his team when he considered a joint venture with James Smailey.

"He knows the project so well," Spiers said, adding that he will be returning to the council on Dec. 15 with supporting documents and a business plan.

"We'll be definitely meeting the standard for existing market at this site, if not exceeding it considerably, with the vision Miki will provide," he said.

Though Werness' venture in Alma Village ended in bankruptcy, many in the community blamed the failure at least in part to the development's design, specifically the fact that the grocery store's entrance faced the interior parking lot rather than Alma. Many have criticized the development for effectively "turning its back" to the public, a factor that some said contributed to Miki's struggles.

The Alma supermarket has since been taken over by the discount chain, Grocery Outlet.

Before opening Miki's, Werness had spent about two decades at the popular Berkeley grocery store, Berkeley Bowl. His experience in the grocery business also includes management of the former Brentwood Market at Charleston Shopping Center, which is now occupied by Piazza. When contacted Monday, Werness declined to discuss his involvement in the new development. He is expected to present his vision for the project at the council's Dec. 15 meeting.

The proposal by Spiers to put Werness in charge of the former JJ&F market is the latest twist in a tortuous saga that has frustrated council members and residents alike.

On Monday night, several College Terrace residents complained about the developer's "pre-emptive strike," referring to a tendency of applicants to release information immediately before council meetings without giving residents and city staff a chance to fully vet the proposals.

Fred Balin urged the council to make sure that any future proposal have an experienced grocer assume a "controlling interest" in the project.

Doria Summa asked the council not to rush to judgment, saying, "We need more time to get it right."

They have not proposed anything viable so far, and what we need to have is a truly accomplished grocer with the right experience, resources and commitment to provide the required public benefit," Summa said.

In approving a "planned-community" zone for the project in 2010, the council permitted the developer to exceed the density limits allowed by the area's zoning designation. In exchange, the developer agreed to provide numerous "public benefits," the most critical of which was the preservation of JJ&F. The council's approval specified that if the grocery tenant in the development is a party other than the Garcia family, the proposal "shall be subject to the prior approval of the City of Palo Alto."

The approval also specifies that such approval "shall not be withheld unless the city reasonably finds that such proposed grocery tenant is not likely to be comparable in quality of products and service as JJ&F as it existed and operated on December 7, 2009."

Related content:

Palo Alto council not sold on proposed College Terrace Centre grocer

College Terrace Centre market operator named

Palo Alto commission defends 'planned community' zoning

Palo Alto to vet new grocer for old JJ&F site

College Terrace Centre clears final obstacle

New grocer revealed for College Terrace Centre

Demolition for College Terrace Centre begins

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5 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2014 at 8:04 am

Very surprised that someone who headed a failed grocery store with only a six months attempt is now supposedly a great choice for a new venture. Unless he has enough cash and stamina to last at least a year, he would not be my great choice.

I liked Mikis at Alma, but it was never my go to place for groceries and would never have been since it is not in my neighborhood, but I used it as frequently as the Lucky/Albertsons that was there before.

However, I have never used the Grocery Outlet and can't imagine doing so. I also have not heard of one of my Palo Alto neighbors or friends using it. Even the stoplight on Alma is not red as often as it was when Mikis was there. I would be interested in hearing from local people whether they think GO is working well for them.

5 people like this
Posted by Miki? Really?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2014 at 8:16 am

Resident-- I agree with you comments about Miki being a great choice for the Ct grocery store after failing at alma plaza. And while it is nice to bash Alma Plaza and the developer, the bottom line is that the people of palo alto, for whatever reasons, did not shop at his store. If the people were really interested in his store and wanted to shop there, the fact that the entranced faced the interior would not have been an issue. I was there a couple of times--found it very overpriced and little in the way of everyday, reasonably priced staples. A typical boutique grocery store. Maybe that is why he failed-also a lack of advertising did not help either.
I go to GO almost every week. It is like night and day compared to Mikis--reasonably priced items. Items I need daily--not $40/lb cheeses and caviar. Bottom line, it works for me.
Obviously, I would love a large store like the Safeways in Menlo PArk and Mountain View, but that will never happen. I just hope that the CT residents do not demand that all local stores must not be bigger than Miki's new store and do not sell anything at lower prices. Protecting JJ&F is how we ended up with small, substandard grocery stores in Palo Alto.
Personally, I think a grocery is not needed at this location. there aretwo stores nearby.

4 people like this
Posted by Silly
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 9, 2014 at 8:20 am

Glad to hear about Miki's and I suspect it will do much better than in its previously inaccessible location on Alma. Whoever designed access there should be fired, not given raises.

Miki's had one of the best produce sections I've seen.

5 people like this
Posted by I like Grocery Outlet
a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 9, 2014 at 9:05 am

Fancy Resident says > I have never used the Grocery Outlet and can't imagine doing so

Then your imagination is limited. It's a fun place to shop if you enjoy low prices. If you enjoy spending a lot on ordinary groceries there are many alternatives. Grocery Outlet has surprising items, lots of fruits and veg., bread, drugs and cosmetics, liquor section,misc. household items, and on and on. Not the variety of Safeway, but very adequate for many items.
The only thing I don't like is the awful entry.The site designer should be forbidden from ever designing anything again. Well, maybe prisons.

4 people like this
Posted by Fan
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 9, 2014 at 10:37 am

Grocery Outlet has a great wine section. Huge discounts, and it is fun to try different brands.

As for College Terrace, I hope they have a grocery store with regular staples at reasonable prices. There is already an expensive Mollie Stone's nearby.

4 people like this
Posted by Surprised
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 9, 2014 at 10:52 am

I'm surprised by the ap[roval of Miki's to run sny grocery in this area. The major problem with the Alma store was that he misjudged the consumer market. He assumed that the area would accept another "upscale" grocery. His prices were ridiculously high and he was competing with such established upscale groceries as Piazza and Mollie Stone.
After one trip to Miki's (in our neighborhood) we declined to shop there again. Grocery Outlet is now a go to place for a growing segment of the local consumers.

8 people like this
Posted by shopper
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 9, 2014 at 10:54 am

How about putting an Asian-style market in that location? Lots of people are commenting that Chinese immigrants are buying up homes in Palo Alto. Where are they shopping? Forcing them to drive to Sunnyvale or Cupertino just creates more traffic.

I agree that another high priced boutique market that duplicates other stores that are already in town will likely not be popular or profitable.

5 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 9, 2014 at 11:22 am

As to the quality of Miki's market; it was great when the first opened, but really went downhill quickly.
Vendors of high quality items must have figured out they were not going to be paid!

This guy ran what appeared to be a beautiful business into the ground in six months, while paying no rent, then declared bankruptcy!!!

Why can't this applicant find one legitimate grocery with a past not full of business failures to operate the store?

The council should see this for the desperate cynical eleventh hour "grab" that it is and pass on this deal as well,
or residents will once again, get no public benefit just a massively oversized office building with all the negative impacts that go along with it!

5 people like this
Posted by Don
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 9, 2014 at 11:30 am

An asian market is a great idea. I'd love to see a Nijiya Market, the fabulous Japanese market in Mountain View. Web Link

Short of that, I'm all for Miki having a go. I was a big fan of his market on Alma.

5 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 9, 2014 at 11:31 am

Annette is a registered user.

Curiouser and curiouser. The City surely laid the foundation for this sorry saga when they approved a PC based on a public benefit such as a grocery. I think this one should never have been approved and the smart move is to revert to NC zoning and simply eliminate the possibility of a failed public benefit b/c the development cannot be "unbuilt" or shrunk once it goes in. Now is the time to get things right. It's no surprise me that the grocery piece of this hasn't moved forward even one legitimate pace in five years. Circumstances have changed, surrounding competition (Country Sun, the weekly farmer's market, Whole Foods, Mollie Stones, Piazza's, Safeway, Trader Joe's, Grocery Outlet, Draeger's) is established, and the magnet that might have made this location work has declined the "opportunity". Anyone wanting to support a Garcia-run grocery can go to Mollie Stones. Why is CC not willing to say "Basta"?

Also, it would be helpful to know what criteria Staff uses as the basis for approval; seems to me there's an almost automatic aspect to that. Twice now CC has not accepted Staff's approval of the grocer proposed for the CT Centre. Let's hope they do take the time to get things right this time around. If they don't and there's no real grocer with a truly good track record, a viable plan, and a credible agreement, it's time to end the game.

2 people like this
Posted by Jim
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 9, 2014 at 11:47 am

The residents of PA will be given the shaft one last time, by this outgoing city council. No wonder the developer is trying to push his project through at the last scheduled city council meeting of the year. He knows the new, incoming city council, scheduled to take the helm in January, wouldn't put up with this developer's scam on the community. The current council, recently rejected by the citizenry, will have another black mark on their tenure. They are a bunch of losers.

2 people like this
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 9, 2014 at 11:49 am

SteveU is a registered user.

I never once shopped Miki's as it was billed as UPSCALE, which like Mollie Stones, was out of my budget range. (MS is great, just not a fit for my budget)

OTOH I shop Bargain Market frequently. Decent selection at a reasonably affordable prices. Surface Parking has not been a problem (meaning, I have never needed the garage).
I believe another Miki's is bound for failure. Small markets need to fill a DAILY neighborhood, drop in, grab it quick need.

I would not rule out the suggested Asian style market. Have they been approached?

2 people like this
Posted by Don
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 9, 2014 at 11:54 am

Another asian market candidate would be Mitsuwa (theres a location on Saratoga Ave.).

Web Link

It's a great store.

3 people like this
Posted by Piazza Lover
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 9, 2014 at 11:59 am

I liked Miki's, but it was not really in my neighborhood. I never had a problem parking there. Grocery Outlet is awful. I bought a cantaloupe there once and threw the whole thing out as it was completely green, no yellow color at all. There isn't anything appealing at that place.

I can't see any reason not to give Miki a chance at the former store. It would appear he'd have less competition than at the Alma Plaza location (Piazza for one - my usual go-to place.)

And, before you throw rocks at me, I am a one-person household and thus can afford to buy really nice food.

2 people like this
Posted by Occasional Poster
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 9, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Miki's Market had a very good bakery. I got a chance to buy many items there that I had not tried before. For example, Mrs. Renfro's Salsa, Illy Coffee. Both of these items were priced lower than other supermarkets. I don't understand why people complain about the prices at the now defunct Miki's Market far more than they ever do about the prices at Piazza's.
I felt bad when Mr. Werness lost his business. I hope he gets another chance and succeeds this time.

3 people like this
Posted by Don
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 9, 2014 at 1:17 pm

"Grocery Outlet is awful."

Both it and Sprouts.

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2014 at 1:27 pm

I object to my needs being called fancy when I say I can't imagine myself shopping at GO.

I go with a shopping list of items that I need for particular reasons. If they have run out this week or not available, then I need to go somewhere else to get them. I have been told by people who live and use GO in Redwood City and San Jose, that it is not the place to go with a preconceived idea of what to buy as you will be out of luck. It is a place to go to see what bargains they have and buy them.

That is not my shopping style. As it was, I had a list of 10 items and today I used a grocery store that did not have the plain breadcrumbs needed for a fruit dessert, they only had Italian and Japanese, neither of which go well with a fruit based dessert to serve with cream.

It is a waste of my time if I cannot get the items I want in a store. Therefore, I can't imagine using a store to buy what I want, nothing fancy about it.

Now getting back to College Terrace market, I imagine that a glorified convenience store is what is necessary and what they should get. They need fresh deliveries of basic items to accommodate the last minute needs of its neighborhood residents. Anyone who wants to do major grocery shopping would want a full service supermarket.

5 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2014 at 2:38 pm

This morning's POST stated that Miki Werness walked away from the Alma Plaza venture leaving $2.1M in debt--which presumably the creditors will have to absorb. John McNellis is quoted as saying that this was "not Miki's fault", blaming Miki's demise on location.

Given that McNellis was the promoter of Miki's being the grocer of choice at that location--one has to wonder if McNellis is a voice that can be trusted about issues involving the local Palo Alto economy? One also has to wonder if the Grocery Outlet survices--why that location works for a low-end outlet, and not a high-end food emporium?

It would behoove us to determine just how much money McNellis is out because of Werness' failure, and if he thinks that somehow Werness will pay up if he gets a second chance in the College Terrace location?

1 person likes this
Posted by Don
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 9, 2014 at 3:41 pm

> One also has to wonder if the Grocery Outlet survices--why
> that location works for a low-end outlet, and not a high-end food emporium?

It hasn't been long enough to know whether Grocery Outlet will survive. They may simply have the funds to absorb losses for a longer period of time. I frankly can't imagine it'll survive in the long run.

3 people like this
Posted by shopper
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 9, 2014 at 4:51 pm

Grocery Outlet may thrive because it is different. There are already lots of high end grocery stores in the area and they compete among themselves for the high end customers. GO is going after the middle class market, which is both a larger market and has less competition locally.

2 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 9, 2014 at 5:20 pm

I want to like Grocery Outlet. I go there every once in a while, and sometimes I ever find something to buy. They have a great price on frozen hash brown potato patties, but one time I bought one that was a different cheaper brand and it was awful ... so the question is, what good is it to buy stuff that is cheaper when sooner or later you waste your money on something that is useless and all your savings evaporate?

I guess one can buy alcohol or soft drinks, but neither of those are much in my life at this point and I would not make a special trip for them. They do have some cool novelty items on occasion, but their specials on some plants seem good ... $2.50 for a blueberry plant as opposed to like $12-15 dollars at the plant nursery, but most of them are almost dead and most of them died.

I think one problem with both Mikis and Grocery Outlet besides the access and parking was the low lite environment. There is something odd about going into a grocery store that is dimly lit. We are all programmed to feel that a brightly lit grocery store is the norm and market lit like a bar doesn't resonate right.

4 people like this
Posted by Formerly of PA
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Dec 9, 2014 at 7:39 pm

Here's a thought... how about developers respond to market demands rather than have the city council nanny state it? It is absurd the level of micro-managing PA does. No wonder people leave Palo Alto to buy their groceries in Menlo Park, Mountain View and Los Altos. It's what we did when we lived there. Too few stores with too limited selection. Sole exception Piazzas.

1 person likes this
Posted by Don
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 9, 2014 at 7:51 pm

"We are all programmed to feel that a brightly lit grocery
store is the norm and market lit like a bar doesn't resonate right."

I disagree. Consider Draeger's, which for a grocery store is pretty dimly lit. I find one of the most appealing grocery store shopping experiences, partly for that reason. It's tranquil.

1 person likes this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 9, 2014 at 9:24 pm

Voter demands trump market demands.

2 people like this
Posted by Roger
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 9, 2014 at 11:38 pm

Having been in the retail business one thing is important to note.
Suppliers sell their products to the store basically on credit, you buy it, hopefully sell it, then pay for it.
Miki will not get credit from any supplier after his previous debacle, I meann would you give him money out of your pocket in the hope he will pay you back in a month. I think not.
Dumb decision if the city goes for Miki, just plain dumb.
(oh, and who is going to pay the rent?

2 people like this
Posted by Local resident
a resident of Ventura
on Dec 10, 2014 at 8:12 am

We live a few blocks away from Alma plaza.

Miki's at Alma was a non-starter. It was evident from the first time we walked in the place What the neighborhood needed was a store with the staples at a decent price and a few higher-end items. What Miki's offered however was a whole wall of olive oils and the rest of the store full of luxury items and special cuisine items. You couldn't just go there for milk, eggs, and bread.

Grocery Outlet in that location seems to be doing better, on the other hand, despite the terrible traffic flow planning. (I agree with whoever said the planner should be fired.) We go over there a couple of times a week for staple items.

That just shows that the success of a store depends at least in part on whether the owner addresses the needs and desires of the potential customers. Miki failed spectacularly at Alma plaza and I don't expect him to do any better at JJ&F.

2 people like this
Posted by Don
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 10, 2014 at 8:42 am

> Miki's at Alma was a non-starter.
> You couldn't just go there for milk, eggs, and bread.

Not to nitpick, but Miki's bread selection was outstanding. Ditto for the dairy and eggs.

And olive oil :-)

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 10, 2014 at 8:54 am

Wrong about the milk and bread at Mikis. I went there often for milk and bread, and something for dinner or a recipe. I usually came out with a lot more because the selection was terrific.

Parking was a big problem as I never knew there was an underground parking lot until it was announced it was closing. It was convenient if I was coming home on Alma and I could get in and out very quickly, if I could park.

I suspect that a CT market needs to be similar, staples with perhaps a few impulse type buys.

3 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 10, 2014 at 12:08 pm

I agree with Roger who wonders what suppliers will want to work with Mr. Werness!???

It is imperative that the city staff, developer and council take advantage of the three month extension to get it right.
It needs to be determined that Mr. Werness has the wherewithal to be successful in this venture; not just attach himself to the project for now so that the applicant can get a building permit.

That might mean revisiting the ordinance and making changes….otherwise this PC will just become yet another PC failure and the legacy of broken promises by city council to the people they represent.

2 people like this
Posted by I like Grocery Outlet
a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 10, 2014 at 2:51 pm

Isn't Tony Carrasco the developer of the entire site?
What is his responsibility in this fiasco?
My eyes are welling with tears for the shopper who couldn't use Italian or Japanese crumbs for her dessert. Yes, a genuine tragedy.
Too late to suggest that she toast a slice or 2 of bread and crush it in a plastic bag.

2 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside
on Dec 10, 2014 at 3:10 pm

The city council should have precisely the same role in the selection of a grocer as it does in choosing who can reside in Palo Alto. That is to say, none whatsoever.

2 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 10, 2014 at 7:09 pm

@I Like Grocery Outlet - Mr. Carrasco is the architect.

@Joseph E. Davis - that train left the station 5 years ago; the deal agreed to by the developer in exchange for the zone change is that a neighborhood-serving grocery comparable to JJ&F would go in the CT Centre and, if the grocer were not JJ&F, CC would have to approve the grocer. The developer used JJ&F to get what he wanted but he has not been able to find a suitable grocer. He hasn't really even come close.

@Roger - thank you; good point about the possible (probable?) impact of Werness' bankruptcy.

1 person likes this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Dec 10, 2014 at 7:52 pm

@Joseph E. Davis

You must not follow these discussions much, most of the commenters would agree with your statement, except with the addendum, that the city council shouldn't get to decide, but they should.

2 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 10, 2014 at 9:30 pm

Miki's II is going to go like the first Miki's, except with less merchandise. Probably the City Council will buy it, but few people will buy in it.

Like this comment
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 11, 2014 at 9:16 am

everyone who is interested in this issue should carefully read the staff report for Monday night.

Note that documents received ion the 8th were included for consideration in the staff report which is in violation
of the councils one procedure to not allow documents to be included if they are not received by noon five days prior to the release of the staff report which is Wednesday afternoon/evening….

Web Link

1 person likes this
Posted by FormerBerkeley Resident
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 11, 2014 at 4:36 pm

This is not a comment on politics or finances. It is a proclamation of love for Berkeley Bowl and my hope that a similar fabulous store could come to Palo Alto, a place where one can buy the basics, and then some. We are used to really amazing, well-priced cuisine in the Bay Area-- quality and reasonably priced ingredients should be available everywhere. As a recent transplant from Berkeley, where I frequented Berkeley Bowl for over 18 years, I sorely miss the quality and prices and selection of products and produce available at that store. I miss being able to find reasonably priced and extensive offerings of organic produce at a whim-- I work a lot and don't have the luxury of being able to stroll to a farmer's market regularly. I have checked out Whole Foods and Milk Pail and Draeger's on this side of the bay---while each has its good qualities, none of these compare in selection and price. Granted, I cannot speak to what Miki's was like; it sounds like it may very well have been a higher end incarnation of Berkeley Bowl, which is definitely not what this area needs.... It is so darn costly to live here. Therein lies the problem, I guess. I hope Mr. Werness gets a chance, and I hope if he does, the store is truly in the same vein as the original.

2 people like this
Posted by Yeccccccchhhh
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 11, 2014 at 4:44 pm

I, too, wanted to like Grocery Outlet, sometimes I actually do, like when they had a terrific sale on wines in November. Or for staples like paper towels.

However, their produce is abominable. Either too green to ever ripen, or half spoiled at the time of purchase, or it wilts and spoils the day after purchase. Total waste of time and money. Some products area week past their expiration date.

I will never buy any kind of perishable product here again. I think an Asian grocery would have been a better deal for the neighborhood, especially given how many Asians live in the development behind Grocery Outlet

1 person likes this
Posted by Terrance
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 16, 2014 at 10:41 am

It looks like Miki Werness is in!


Like this comment
Posted by proactive
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 16, 2014 at 11:33 am

Such a store needs a few years to grow into profitability.

What happens if it fails?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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