Mighty market | September 6, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Eating Out - September 6, 2013

Mighty market

Ambitious Piazza's remodel keeps a focus on produce and expands cheese, wine, freezer, hot-food sections

by Sheila Himmel

Keep it local and listen to your customers. That's what John Piazza Sr. of Piazza's Fine Foods, which has a newly expanded store in south Palo Alto, taught his sons about staying competitive in the grocery business. It's never been the easiest way to make a living and is now even more treacherous, with big-box discounters on one flank, supermarket chains on the other and farmers' markets nipping at the heart of what family-owned groceries provide: a sense of community.

At nearby Alma Plaza, the similarly specialty-oriented Miki's Farm Fresh Market closed in April after a six-month struggle. It is to become a Grocery Outlet, a chain store offering name-brand products at steep discounts. Piazza's other close competitors range in size and flavor from Mountain View's compact indoor-outdoor Milk Pail, crammed full of cheese and specialty products, to the new 64,000-square-foot upscale Safeway at San Antonio Center.

Piazza's Fine Foods forged ahead with its ambitious Palo Alto expansion, taking over the next-door dental offices for a total of 20,000 square feet. Finishing touches should be completed sometime in September. A recent tour highlighted the changes, which aim straight at shoppers' new attitudes about foods from kombucha to kosher. As John Piazza Jr. says, "People are very aware of what they're eating today."

Right away, entering Piazza's is more like walking into a farmers' market than a supermarket. You see cantaloupes, not candies or carpet cleaners. Handsome wooden bins of fruit and vegetables accompany visitors from the parking lot into the store, and a cheerful, non-accusatory sign reminds you about bringing shopping bags, in case you've left yours in the car.

Gluten-free products are peppered throughout the store, starting at the front window with a tempting display from Zest Bakery of San Carlos: fresh-baked muffins, cookies and bread. Back in the freezer section is a large selection of gluten-free desserts. But if you're looking for a gluten-free waffle, it's with the other waffles. Instead of stuffing all the products for this increasingly popular diet into one area, Piazza's puts them where regular shoppers would look.

The same theory of "integration" governs the produce section, where organic and just plain natural avocadoes live peacefully together. This way, items can be added and subtracted more easily, depending on what is selling rather than filling a section.

Piazza's has always been known for its produce department. A buyer goes to the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market every morning, and now the shelves have room for more from local farmers as well. Cascading "bump out" displays are easy to reach. From top to bottom, you might be looking at leeks, carrots, spinach, broccolini and fava beans. Cut fruit is a big seller.

The new Piazza's layout has loosened a choke point where people scrutinizing meat and fish used to back into shoppers reading wine labels. Now the wine bottles extend in an elegant S-curve, doubling the volume. Even more growth has gone into beer. Including sizes and varieties, there are now 850 choices, from a six-pack of Corona to a bottle of Simtra Triple Pale Ale.

Freezer space has increased by a third. Now there's room for chocolate-covered bananas and organic ice creams made from goat milk or agave nectar, but also perennial favorites Ben & Jerry's and Dreyer's. Piazza's is committed to an eclectic mix. Amy's Kitchen Light & Lean Quinoa and Black Bean dinners line up next to frozen pizzas from California Pizza Kitchen and DiGiorno, and ravioli from landmark La Villa Deli in San Jose.

Sparkling new floors, some in bright red-and-cream diamonds, shine under soft LED lighting. Now you can walk through to the restroom without navigating through arugula and radishes. The restroom is clearly visible behind the yogurt selection, which has doubled. Hummus and tofu also occupy more space, as do refrigerated vegetarian and non-dairy products. Almond milk is very big.

Wheels of cheese pile up like tires in front of the new cheese-cutting station, a hub of about 500 varieties. And the meat department features sausages made in-house by a longtime employee, and a half-dozen marinated meats ready for grilling.

Gary Piazza oversees the food service, adding a burrito bar, an extensive display of gleaming sushi made in-house and hot foods that rotate as the day goes on, from breakfast eggs and French toast to dinner entrees.

Piazza's is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day but Saturday, when it closes at 9 p.m., but it is staffed 24 hours a day, every day. Between the two stores and commissary there are 200 employees. John Piazza Jr., who heads up the corporate side, says: "We like friendly people over experience. We can train them. We hire people who will stay." Indeed, many have been with Piazza's for decades.

A previous remodel eliminated a lot of conventional grocery items, bringing Seventh Generation paper towels into spaces previously owned by Brawny. Solid supermarket shelves gave way to adjustable metal, called "metro" in the trade, to accommodate more items and a changing mix. The new Piazza's still carries Lunchables, but now only about 25 percent of the products are conventional grocery items.

Behind the scenes is a floral room, where flowers are cut and bouquets arranged, and storage for "re-packs," the items waiting for space on shelves.

The remodel adds some outdoor tables next to the building, steering clear of the parking lot. The Piazzas are very aware of the importance of a big, easy-to-navigate parking lot.

As John and Rick take a visitor through the store, they quickly rearrange anything out of order. Their father clearly taught from experience, which ranged from fruit cart to big box.

John Piazza Sr. came to the United States from Sicily when he was 12. He grew up in San Francisco, peddled fruit with his siblings and set up his first store, the size of a garage. After serving in the Army during World War II, he opened a grocery and produce department in San Francisco's Appel & Dietrich Fine Food Market. Later he went to work for Brentwood Markets, became district manager and opened the company's first Pak N Save. When Safeway bought the Brentwood chain, the smaller markets were spun off. The Piazzas bought the Charleston Shopping Center store in 1987, and ten years later they bought a Petrini's Market in San Mateo.

John Piazza Sr. died last September, three days short of his 89th birthday. His wife of 70 years, Dolores, still lives near Gunn High School.

Tall and handsome, John Sr. was the face of the store. He worked up to three months before his death. His sons clearly miss him, but have absorbed his lessons and are passing them along to their own children, many of whom also work in the Palo Alto or San Mateo store, and grandchildren.

As Rick Piazza put it, "Dad would not put up with us not getting along."

Info: Piazza's Fine Foods is in the Charleston Center at 3922 Middlefield Road in south Palo Alto. Go to piazzasfinefoods.com or call 650-494-1629.


Posted by Barbara Best, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 7, 2013 at 10:35 am

I have been shopping at Piazza's for years and love it. Two additional selling points:

* A few years ago, I made a spreadsheet of all the items I buy, then spent two months filling in prices from Piazza's and Safeway; I was surprised to see that Piazza's pricing was, in most cases, in line with Safeway's. Piazza's LOOKS high-end, but their pricing is competitive.

* Can't say enough good things about the staff. You can hear and see the camaraderie during the day; the managers are fun and efficient, and their attitude is shared by the staff. They take an interest in their customers - and they even hired a guy to help shoppers find items that moved around during the renovation.

I love the feeling of buying food for my family from a local grocer, who wants to provide me with high-quality products and a comfortable shopping experience. Thanks, Piazza's!

Posted by Big Box Lies, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 7, 2013 at 1:53 pm

A lot of the big box discount stores sell products very near, on , or after their expiration date. You have to read labels or you may end up with cupboards and a fridge full of spoiled food.

I used to go to such stores a lot, sometimes going as far as Redwood City in one direction, Sunnyvle in the other. But the savings were bogus, with food that had to be thrown out and replaced.

There are no real bargains in perishable items

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 7, 2013 at 1:56 pm

I love Piazzas and go there once a week, usually for weekend meals.

I tend to buy some of the hard to find elsewhere groceries, produce, meat, fish, cheese, bread, deli items. I am pleased that there are now more tables outside to eat a quick lunch.

I usually buy most of my staples, canned goods, non-perishables, named brands, cleaning stuff, toiletries, paper goods, etc. elsewhere because they are cheaper and have a better selection, I usually do this a couple of times a month. Costco is great for the things they sell, but again, their selection is limited and sometimes I just don't have the freezer space for shopping in bulk.

I like to have great selection and one stop shopping, a clean restroom is also a plus as groceries are often on the way home from an errand run. It is useful to be able to buy stamps, get rolls of quarters, atm, hot bread, gift cards, floral and pharmacy, all in one stop.

Posted by parent, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 7, 2013 at 4:00 pm

Piazza's may compare favorably to Safeway on price, but that is not because Piazza's is cheap. Safeway is just expensive, at least for the Palo Alto store. We try to go to Trader Joes as much as we can now both because Trader Joes has a more interesting selection and because they are cheaper. Even name brands at Trader Joes are often cheaper than the house brands at Safeway.

Posted by Jayne, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 9, 2013 at 12:00 pm

The original Piazza's was around 20,000 sq. ft. However, they applied for and were granted an extra 3,000 sq. ft. so they could take over the dental offices next door. Piazza's is now approximately 23,000 sq. ft. All done with City approval.

It is high time the City allowed other grocery stores in Palo Alto to grow bigger. The new Safeway in Mountain View is 65,000 sq. ft. how can grocery stores in Palo Alto compete when they are restricted to 20,000 sq. ft?

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 9, 2013 at 1:15 pm

Piazza's is a fantastic store and I do go there even though I don't live near them. They are centrally located within Palo Alto - I feel that area is the best, central area (including Mitchell Park Library/Community Center and Cubberley) and optimum for centers, schools, community centers AND this great store.
If the Fresh Market does not make enough revenue at the Duveneck/St. Francis location (I am not wishing ill on them), I urge Piazza's to please open a small branch there to serve our side of the city. I would go there all the time.

Posted by Not an issue, a resident of Community Center
on Sep 9, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Jayne-- i wonder then if you are right, why the weekly misreported the size of the store.
I also remember they enlarged their entry area a number of years ago. Do not forget that piazzas was completely against the proposed Lucky store at alma plaza years ago. They insisted that 20k square feet was large enough ( what the brothers really meant is they do not want any competition) . Now, I guess more than 20K is okay, wheat is totally self- serving.
Anyway, the ship has sailed on large, well stocked grocery stores in palo alto. No company wants to deal with the palo alto process-- they just build on our border and they will come.

Anonymous-- you know that mountain view is a coupled blocks away from piazzas.

[Post removed.]

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 9, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Not, when you think of PALY and Gunn, and how they are positioned in the city, then Cubberley HS (was a great centrally located school.
I think of Middlefield Rd as "in the middle" when one thinks of those of us near 101 and those who are near 280 in Palo Alto. I just think that is a great, central area and I wish I lived around there.
The other issue of centrality could be how close to Mt. View vs. how close to Menlo Park, I suppose.

Posted by Not an issue, a resident of Community Center
on Sep 9, 2013 at 5:10 pm

What's wrong, -- I cannot surmise that the weekly misstated the size of piazzas because they buy advertisement in the weekly and we have a little quid pro quo going on????
Maybe when you guys grow up and work at a real newspaper you will understand the concept

Posted by Town Square Moderator, online staff of Palo Alto Online
on Sep 9, 2013 at 5:13 pm

Town Square Moderator is a registered user.

Not an issue,

Your comment was removed because Piazza's is not an advertiser in the Weekly. Before jumping to conclusions you may want to check first in the future.

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