(Dec. 11) MODESTO, Calif. — Northern California is much like every other corner of the country. Markets belonging to retail giants anchor nearly every neighborhood shopping center. Unique to the West Coast, however, may be the proliferation in Northern California of independent markets and regional chains.

“The landscape has changed dramatically in the last few years,” said Ed Odron, president of Produce Marketing Consultants, Stockton. “When you look at the growth of independents and small regional chains, it’s incredible.”

Odron credits much of that growth to new Americans, California residents originally from Mexico, Central and South America, Asia and eastern Europe. As the ethnic groups grow larger, Odron said, someone has to play to their needs.

“They do eat differently. It’s not just hamburgers and hot dogs for them,” he said.

NEW ENTRY

Among those new to most of Northern California is Save Mart Supermarkets. The Modesto-based regional chain acquired 130 Albertson’s stores in Northern California and Nevada in February. About 70 of the Bay Area stores are being renamed Lucky, bringing back a banner that disappeared a decade ago.

Being headquartered in the agriculture-rich San Joaquin Valley is a major advantage, said Rick Smith, Save Mart’s vice president of fresh departments.

“Within three hours after we place an order, it can be at my dock,” he said.

Save Mart and its Lucky and Food Maxx subsidiaries, now 252 stores strong, lock in produce prices and promotions two weeks in advance, not the six weeks Smith said major chains require.

“If a grower has a hot item and calls me by 2 on Tuesday afternoon, we can get it on that weekend’s promotion,” Smith said.

LOYALTY

The welcome mat for new grower-shippers is always out at Save Mart. But Smith said he’s also very loyal to the relationships established with core suppliers.

“It’s not just about price,” he said.

That loyalty can be costly on occasion. Smith said many Save Mart agreements are long term at set prices. If a freeze or other disaster drives prices up, Smith said he personally contacts grower-shippers and voluntarily increases the buying price. It’s a two-edged sword. If prices plummet, Smith said he expects the growers to reciprocate.

Those Save Mart-grower relationships are so strong that for a select few grower-shippers, Save Mart opens its books for the growers and gets the same in return, Smith said.

All vendors are required to meet Save Mart’s food safety standards, which are established item-by-item.

“We started with the USDA specs and made them tougher,” Smith said. “Then we review them every six months.”

Save Mart has three buyers stationed at its Merced warehouse and five at the Lucky warehouse in Roseville, Smith said.

“The regional chains are like family operations,” Odron said. “They can make decisions quickly without lots of meetings and red tape.”

FAMILY REPUTATION

At San Jose-based P-W Supermarkets, there is one produce buyer stationed at the company’s warehouse in Milpitas. For Joseph Belli, buying for the nine-store chain is more than just a job he’s held for nearly 20 years. The family’s reputation is at stake. His grandfather, Joey Franco, founded the company.

“It’s very important that I buy fruit that tastes good and the freshest vegetables,” Belli said. “Give the customers something that’s really good and they’ll come back.”

Belli said about 75% of the company’s produce is bought directly from growers who deliver to his warehouse. To set his stores apart from the large chains, he concentrates on buying, when possible, from local grower-shippers from Watsonville on the south to Santa Rosa on the north.

Belli said growers are producing more and more good-tasting produce. When he finds something that he considers to be outstanding, he buys it even if the price is higher than he would normally pay. Such buys pay off in customer satisfaction.

“I look at it as money well spent,” Belli said.