Richard “Dick” T. Oehrle, guest columnist in our weekly “Keepers of Our Culture” column in the 6-2-2017 issue of our local paper, Cedar Street Times, finds true Pacific Grove spirit embodied in one man, Charlie Higuera at the Grove Market.
My wife and I moved from Berkeley to Pacific Grove (PG) in 2003, so that she could assume the position of Provost at the Defense Language Institute (DLI). Among the many pleasures of living in Berkeley is being able to shop daily (parking permitting) at the Berkeley Bowl (BB), where many exotic products are available. (Our son worked as a checker there in the early 2000’s and he had to memorize all the product codes—including about 20 for different types of garlic alone.) Naturally, one of our top priorities when we moved to PG was to find the BB of the Monterey Peninsula (if there was one).
PG Market is Our BB
It doesn’t take long for transplants to PG to find themselves at the Grove Market (GM). It’s located in a distinctive building built in 1951 as a Purity Store (a grocery chain in California and neighboring states), in the heart of PG’s downtown business district. The building itself is basically a masonry Quonset hut, consisting of a masonry-block rectangle surrounding about 6,000 square feet of floor space, with the long axis parallel to Lighthouse and perpendicular to Forest, and the short axis parallel to Forest and perpendicular to Lighthouse. Geometrically, the roof consists of a long arch connecting the two long axes of the basic rectangle. Since 1969, the GM has been leased and operated by the Higuera family, and managed by the family patriarch, Charlie Higuera.
The entrance to the GM leads directly to an aisle parallel to Forest, with prepared foods and the butcher counter on the left and 4 checkout lanes on the right. On the walls are mounted certificates from the Monterey County Weekly, asserting that the GM has been voted by its readers to be the ‘Best Butcher’ and the ‘Best Local Market’, countywide, year after year, in both cases. The GM also contains a large display of sports memorabilia, focusing on golf tournaments at Pebble Beach and on GM-sponsored youth teams. At the opposite end of the GM from the customer entrance, there is a storage room and a receiving door for incoming goods. Between the checkout lanes and the storage room, the GM is divided into five aisles.
Asparagus and Home Deliveries
The GM doesn’t have either the size or the customer base of the BB and can’t possibly offer the range and diversity of products found there. But the GM does have advantages over the BB with regard, first, to its relations with its suppliers and, second, to its relations with its customers.
On the supply side, consider the case of asparagus. Asparagus grown locally is seasonally available at the GM, sourced from a local field whose yield is dedicated to the GM. Local asparagus is typically ready to harvest in late March. As soon as the harvest begins, crates of fresh, local, organic asparagus appear prominently displayed in the GM produce section. Every year, in the days and weeks leading up to this event, asparagus-loving GM customers eagerly, anxiously, even impatiently, pester the GM staff (as politely as possible, of course) about the exact timing of the arrival of the asparagus. And as soon as it arrives, the mood of both customers and staff noticeably improves. Similar annual cycles are linked to English snap peas, apples and berries, and no doubt others that I am not so attuned to.
On the customer-relation side, the GM offers many special services: charge accounts, home delivery, special butcher orders (duck, goose, prime rib). For some customers, one or another of these services might be critical: walking into town last week, I stopped to compliment one of my neighbors—a woman in her eighties—on her beautiful garden, and when I let it slip that I was headed to the GM, she immediately mentioned how important the GM home delivery service is to her, especially in the rainy season.
Charlie Higuera’s ‘People’
This leads to two interrelated questions: was my neighbor just the lucky beneficiary of a GM service? Or was the home delivery service offering part of a larger strategy of customer outreach to create as large, loyal, and satisfied a customer base as possible? I don’t have direct evidence in favor of a positive answer to either question. But I do have indirect evidence suggesting that the answer to the second is `yes’, implying that the answer to the first is `no’. This indirect evidence takes the form of an anecdote about Charlie Higuera.
After a rainstorm had knocked out the town’s electricity for over 12 hours, I happened to be in downtown PG around lunchtime. With two exceptions, all the businesses on Forest between Lighthouse and Pine were powerless and closed. The first exception was the Police Department. The second was the Grove Market, where Charlie and his staff had set up in the parking lot a portable barbeque, whose grill was full of a variety of meat and sausages, destined to be the main attraction of sandwiches to be sold to hungry members of the quickly forming crowd. Charlie presided over the event, talking softly with one of the town’s Dignitaries. One member of the hungry crowd caught a small part of their dialogue.
Dignitary: (rough paraphrase) ‘Why are you going to all this trouble, Charlie?’
Charlie: (as I remember it) ‘I have to take care of my people.’
“Thanks very much for the very welcome news [that my story will be in our PG Community Book]! Please feel free to use this essay in your Cedar Street Times column. And don’t hesitate to let me know if there’s anything else I can do to help promote the book. Sue and I are both looking forward with great anticipation to the appearance of the book.” —Dick Oehrle, Linguistics Professor and Data Analyst.
Submit Your Stories by June 25
Our 444-page community book is overflowing but I still want your PG stories—June 25 is the extended deadline to submit, which you can do right on our website: lifeinpacificgrove.com. Also submit by email: email@example.com or snail mail your stories to Life in Pacific Grove, P.O. Box 722, Pacific Grove, CA 93950. Professional editors will correct anything amiss and your story will shine! Complete details are at lifeinpacificgrove.com. You retain the copyright; Park Place Publications has the right to publish and promote your story in print and on-line to benefit the PG Library.
Thank you for expressing your community spirit! All proceeds go to benefit the PG Public Library. Book launch in October when the Monarchs return to Pacific Grove.