Friday, October 28, 2011

Andronicos' Last Rites

by Jesse Hirsch
Fri, Oct 28, 2011 at 3:26 PM

You’ve likely heard that the University Avenue Andronico’s in Berkeley is wheezing out of business this week. As dying stores do, this one staged a deep-discount wind-down that ensured it would be a pristine skeleton by the last day of business (Saturday). Feeling uneasily similar to the deal vultures marauding the aisles, I paid a visit to Andronico’s yesterday to see if I could scavenge a bit of human interest from the wreckage.

What was the angle, exactly? The death of an independent, family-run supermarket? That process started when Andronico’s declared Chapter 11 in August. The small chain sold their assets to the highest bidder, a frosty-sounding investment firm called Renovo Capital.

Skeleton shelves
  • Skeleton shelves
Some speculated all seven stores would be gutted and repurposed, but Renovo soon announced they’d keep the 82-year-old chain intact. That is, except for the weakest link on University Ave. A beleaguered-sounding company spokesman, Adam Alberti, told me the decision to liquidate the underperforming store was made with the courts (at first I thought he said “with the corpse.”) “Shutting this store down was part of a package deal,” said Alberti. “Now they’re trying to close the sale ASAP.”

Milling about the aisles, notebook in hand, I tried to gauge the mood of shoppers. Was this a much-beloved neighborhood institution that would be missed for years to come? Didn’t seem so. Most seemed to have only a passing interest in the closure. A few car-free types rued that they would lose their go-to spot for a quick gallon of milk. But most people said they never really liked shopping there.

Blame was placed largely on Andronico’s prices, easily undercut by lower priced competitors like Berkeley Bowl and Trader Joe’s. “When Trader Joe’s moved into the neighborhood, that was the death knell for Andronico’s,” said shopper Eleni Sotos.

But of course, the real tragedy in a story like this is the employees. Alberti said the store’s 15-20 workers would be welcome to apply for positions at other Andronico’s, but “ultimately that’s an HR decision.” Translation: things are looking grim. I asked a store manager how everything was going, and he sighed and said, “really, really good” without looking up.

No word yet on what will colonize the empty storefront, though rumors of a dollar store and a Fresh and Easy chain supermarket seem to be getting equal play. Renovo’s deal with the other six Andronico’s is slated to finalize this week, right on the heels of the Berkeley store closing.

Comments? Tips? Get in touch at Jesse.Hirsch@EastBayExpress.com, or follow me on Twitter @Jesse_Hirsch.

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