After a long pandemic delay, the East Lake Village Shopping Center this week will see the storied health-foods grocery brand join Coffeeville, Fruition Brewing, Sushi Qu and others which have high hopes of helping the Watsonville economy.
For more than 50 years, Staff of Life has been among the most familiar and popular health-foods grocery stores in the Monterey Bay region. And, for more than 50 years, there has only been one of them.
On March 30, that math changes dramatically, when Staff (as it’s known colloquially throughout Santa Cruz County) officially opens its new store in East Lake Village Shopping Center in Watsonville, about 20 miles from its flagship store in Santa Cruz.
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Sure, as business expansion plans go, Staff’s pace is positively glacial. Whole Foods, Staff’s Amazon-owned competitor, opened two stores in Santa Cruz in the space of a few months about a decade ago.
But even if Staff is a tortoise in an industry of hares, the new Watsonville store could revive, if not transform, the South County economy, at least for its devoted clientele and others looking for alternative products and organic produce.
The new store opens for business on Tuesday already surrounded by locally owned supporting businesses that, taken together, will create a node of complementary goods and services — specialty coffee stop Coffeeville, beermakers Fruition Brewing, Ferrari Florists, and the Japanese restaurant Sushi Qu, all on one side of the shopping center that, on the opposite side, includes an Ace Hardware, Carmona’s BBQ Deli and several others.
“This is better than anything I ever imagined,” said Kendra McQueen, who co-owns Coffeeville with her husband Michael, reflecting on the double blessing of Staff’s opening and the expected retreat of the COVID-19 pandemic. The McQueens were pioneers in this space, opening a coffee cart three years ago in hopes that an anchor grocery store would create a destination at East Lake Village.
Clark Codiga, managing partner at Oaktree Property Company which owns the shopping center, expects East Lake Village with an open Staff of Life to be a “mini downtown,” that could attract anywhere from 1,000 to 1,400 people a day.
“It’s a vibrant neighborhood center,” said Codiga who grew up in Santa Cruz and whose grandparents operated a small grocery store in Watsonville. “I see it as positive energy. We’re trying to create an open space where you can come and hang out. There’s a southern exposure with lots of afternoon sun, loads of parking, outdoor patio. There’s some (live) music coming.
“I think it’ll be comparable to the feelings you get on the Westside of Santa Cruz.”
Original hippies still in charge
Staff of Life is still owned and operated by the two men who started the enterprise way back in 1969, in the teeth of the Age of Aquarius. Richard Josephson and Gary Bascou were young guys then, self-described hippies embracing a new food ethic, the organic farming revolution that has since become thoroughly mainstream.
At a time when world-famous horticulturalist Alan Chadwick was developing the organic food philosophy from his perch at UC Santa Cruz, Josephson and Bascou started making bread from organic whole-wheat flour and selling it wholesale to health-food stores around the Bay Area.
“We had people come to the door of our bakery to tell us that we were a fad and we’d be gone in a year or two,” said Bascou, standing inside his spanking new market in Watsonville. “People didn’t have belief in the movement. They didn’t really understand it.”
“Yes, there were a number of natural food stores at that time in Berkeley and San Francisco and other places,” added his partner of five-decades-plus Josephson.
“All those natural food stores are gone,” Bascou responded.
The business bloomed into its own health-food store and in 1972, it moved to its long time home on Water Street, and then moved again to its current location a decade ago. By Bascou’s count, Staff has been through four recessions and the Whole Foods challenge, all the time working to reflect and honor Santa Cruz’s natural-food values.
But in all that time, Staff never expanded to a second store, until now. “It was just never on our radar screen,” said Josephson.
Ten years ago, Codiga and Oaktree took on the task of reviving East Lake Village, beginning with landing Ace Hardware. But the goal of landing a big name grocery store remained elusive. Eventually, the courtship of Staff of Life began in earnest.
Codiga felt that there were plenty of goods and services that people in Watsonville were demanding and not getting. He recruited businesses such as Fruition and Coffeeville with the idea that they would be supported by a grocery store with drawing power.
“It wasn’t a slamdunk, by any means,” said Codiga of negotiations with Staff. “We had to prove ourselves and our vision to them. We met with them, introduced them to our other tenants and the neighborhoods of Watsonville.”
Eventually, Bascou and Josephson became convinced that Watsonville was being underserved in precisely the arena in which they operated. With a third partner, Jason Bazarnick, the Staff braintrust was finally sold.
“Suddenly the chance was there,” said Josephson. “Here it was, possibly a really good business opportunity and a chance to serve a population that had never been served in this context.”
A place that fits its surroundings
Construction began to convert the former site of Super Max Foods into the second coming of Staff of Life. The new store, at about 20,000 square feet, is only slightly smaller than the Santa Cruz store.
It was to offer much of the same things that Staff in Santa Cruz offered but with an aesthetic all its own, drawn from agriculturally themed antiques, many of them from Bascou’s own collection, and others from the Pajaro Valley Historical Society.
They hired a number of artists including well-known muralist Art Thomae and artist/illustrator Mott Jordan to design motifs throughout the store.
They brought in other amenities: an enormous hot bar for self-serve salads and hot foods, a gelato bar, a bakery, and a smoothie bar. (“We’re going to blow them out of the water with our cheese department,” said Bascou mischievously). Drivers on East Lake Avenue passed by a big sign “Future home of Staff of Life.”
Things were looking up for an opening in March ... of 2020.
The pandemic that has crippled the world’s economies didn’t spare Staff of Life’s plans to open in Watsonville. Immediately, the original plans were shelved. And the Watsonville store aimed at a late-summer reopening.
“We were probably all ready to open in September,” said Josephson. “But we ran into some thorny issues. How do you hire people during a pandemic? How do people get sick? We really didn’t know much back then.”
And now, the long-delayed opening is here in an atmosphere that could not be more conducive, spring ripening and widespread vaccinations portending an easing of the pandemic restrictions we’ve all grown used to.
Booststrapping through a pandemic
Kendra McQueen of Coffeeville grew up in Santa Cruz and as a student at Branciforte Middle School, she was a regular at Staff. “It’s literally always been my favorite market.”
The opening of Staff is a kind of affirmation of all the long hours and sacrifices that the McQueens have endured to keep Coffeeville alive. They started with a coffee cart (“that we bought on eBay,” said Kendra), while they worked to convert their storefront, once a jewelry store then a travel agency, to a coffee bar.
“We came in with the understanding that we were really going to have to bootstrap it,” said Kendra, “and just hang on and rely on ourselves as a coffee roastery to draw our own crowd.”
The McQueens started their coffee business in Boulder Creek before moving to a location on Ocean Street in Santa Cruz. Their Ocean Street shop had its issues, so they considered moving on to Watsonville.
“What really gave me confidence (about the move),” said Kendra, “was driving up and seeing East Lake Village for the first time. I saw it immediately. You just don’t find giant pristine parking lots like that anywhere anymore. And while it is an older shopping center, it’s so well-preserved and maintained. The bones are good. And when I saw the beautiful hills in the background, I saw the potential.”
The potential is rich, indeed — a specialty coffee at Coffeeville, lunch at Staff or Sushi Qu, then hanging out over a local brew at Fruition.
“It’s just a golden opportunity,” said Bascou near his new gelato bar. “The Codigas have always been very good customers of ours and they laid out a deal that was hard to refuse. There’s a big wave moving from Santa Cruz. There’s a whole community that has moved down this way, and we want them in our store.”