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Headlinesn > Business > In one L.A. neighborhood, the prospect of losing ‘our little Vons’ hits hard
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In one L.A. neighborhood, the prospect of losing ‘our little Vons’ hits hard

John Tsakoumakis has been shopping at the Vons grocery store on West 80th Street in Los Angeles’ Westchester neighborhood for three decades. He lives a few blocks away, often making the trip on foot if he only has to pick up a few things.

The store is convenient, he said, but its real value comes from its role as a community hub. Nestled among residential streets, a charter school and a yoga studio, it is smaller than average and attracts mostly local customers.

“We come here and we see our neighbors and we see people we know,” Tsakoumakis, 74, said. “It makes you feel like you’re a part of the community.”

Affectionately dubbed “little Vons” by some of its regular customers, the store is one of 63 in the state that could be sold as part of a potential merger between grocery giants Albertsons and Kroger.

The proposed deal would see Kroger buy its smaller rival Albertsons, which owns Vons, and sell hundreds of stores to another company, C&S Wholesale Grocers, in order to address federal regulators’ antitrust concerns. Kroger and Albertsons have said they need to merge in order to compete with Amazon.com, Walmart and Costco.

It is unknown what the new owner, which operates two grocery chains in other parts of the U.S. and a network of warehouses, would do with the undersized Vons in Westchester.

Regardless, “little Vons” customers said a sale would be a massive loss to the community, where the store has been in business since 1952. Although there are other grocery options nearby, residents are attached to the familiarity of little Vons, they said.

“In Los Angeles, where it’s big and fast, it’s nice to have a small store that you can walk to and it’s part of the community,” said preschool teacher Cyndi Widmer, who lives in the area. “No matter what hour you go, you’re going to bump into somebody you know.”

While the store is undeniably small for a chain grocery store, Widmer, 57, isn’t bothered by its limited selection. She said the store’s customer service is so good that they will often order a specific product on request.

“My husband drinks this protein drink and nobody else has it,” she said. “I have to go hunt for it, but this little Vons always will bring it in stock because I asked for it.”

The morning after a list of the stores targeted for sale was made public, customers filtered through the parking lot and into the store, many smiling at each other and the security guard. Under the shade of umbrellas, stacked boxes of flavored seltzer sat next to crates of watermelon and other fruit.

Inside, Bob Dylan played over the speakers as customers passed through the aisles with baskets and carts. It wasn’t crowded, and only one checking clerk was on duty.

Although Vons is a chain, the Westchester location has pulled off an unlikely transformation into a local store, residents say.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

“It is our community watering hole,” said Lisa O’Leary, who has lived nearby and shopped at the store for 20 years. “Westchester is special in and of itself, and then little Vons is like the heartbeat of Westchester.”

O’Leary recently saw four different people she knew on a trip to the store. Although there are always unfamiliar faces too, O’Leary thinks the store’s location sets it up to be a community center.

“It’s kind of hard to find unless you happen to live in the neighborhood,” she said. “It’s literally a hidden gem.”

If little Vons is turned into a different grocery store, people would adapt, O’Leary said. A larger concern, both she and Widmer said, is that the new owner might sell the building to a developer who would build an apartment complex or condos.

“What we’ve been battling in Westchester is them trying to put up apartment buildings and multi units,” Widmer said, touching on a common tension in Los Angeles between residents of single-family homes and those who want to address a lack of housing with higher-density buildings. “I can only imagine somebody trying to get a hold of Vons and turning it into apartments.”

The streets surrounding little Vons are quiet and wide, lined with homes and shrubbery. The neighborhood has a secluded, suburban feel, despite being adjacent to a bustling airport.

Although Vons is a chain, the Westchester Vons has pulled off an unlikely transformation into a local store, earning its place in the community, residents say. Tsakoumakis said that the potential sale of little Vons fits into a pattern he’s seen developing for years.

“You go to any neighborhood that used to have mom-and-pop shops everywhere and now you only see the brands that you recognize,” he said. “It’s a trend that I don’t particularly care for.”

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