Businesses who survive are businesses who change. A winning formula in 1920 wouldn't work in 1930 or 1940. If your sales are tanking you probably need to find a new angle. One of my favorite grocery stores announced on Friday that they were closing after 15 years. They've put the blame on their products being premium and shoppers tastes during the recession have been less than premium. This I find is true, but this doesn't excuse Olsen's Food Emporium from fault. At one time there were 13 Food Emporiums but eventually the Olsen's sold 12 of them to QFC for 39 Million dollars. They kept the Mukilteo Speedway store.

What made Food Emporium special was their choice of products to sell. They had the usual frozen pizzas, bags of flour and so on. They also had every single soda I ever drank as a kid including Big Red, Green River and Bubble Up. They are responsible for getting me hooked on Virgils natural cream soda. They had hundreds of bbq sauces, locally made jams and syrups and a wine section with employees that actually knew what they were doing. They were one of the first stores to integrate a Starbucks into it and they were smart enough to know that they didn't make the best doughnuts in the world so they bought them from Henry's - which is a real doughnut shop. Safeway and Albertsons could both take a hint because their doughnuts stink. If you needed some Berber spice for that special North African dish you could get it there as well as Dalmation Juniper Berries. They were never cheap but when you're the only store in town carrying these things you didn't need to be. If I needed Juniper Berries I'd go to Food Emporium. I started shopping at Food Emporium because every week they'd give away a free item in the paper, one week it would be eggs, the next something else. I wasa a water drinker as they say - I took the free item and didn't buy the overpriced stuff. At some point though I started desiring their special items and started shopping Food Emporium just for things I couldn't get elsewhere. I also started talking a walk along the north shore of the lake to Food Emporium so I could sit, drink cofee and eat doughnuts. I can't say I've ever done this at a grocery store before.

What went wrong? I have to admit I knew it was there for years but never shopped in it. I think the reasoning was that local groceries are more expensive and worse I related it to a grocery store we had in eastern WA called Food Pavilion which was very expensive. Another reason is that it has one of those excellent/horrible locations. Excellent if you look at a map but horrible if you're driving by in your car. If you were driving south on Highway 99 you never saw the store because of a slight hill. If you're driving nouth you never saw it until you were already past it with very little chance of flipping a U-turn. If you were driving by on Mukilteo Speedway you also never saw it until too late. By the time you got to the next light to turn around you were at Albertson's which is cheaper anyway. It was an excellent location but the signage was horrible. They needed to have some sort of flashy street signs to alert you before it was too late.

Another failing was the prices. For instance Food Emporium sold el Monteray burritos for $4.79. Safeway sold them for $3.79 and often put them on sale for 2/$7. Albertsons sold them for $3.50 and put them on sale for $3. Winco and Grocery Outlet consistantly sold them for $2.50 which is nearly half the price. I understand economies of scale and all of that but twice the price??? I have no problem paying a premium price for some local jam or bbq sauce but to pay a premium price for a product that's half as much down the street is hard even if the cause is good.

Food Emporium's strength was it's oddball product selection. You could find just about any gourmet product there. Unfortunately stores like PCC, Whole Foods and Central Market have to also sell other items as well because you can't live on Maury Island Blackberry syrup forever.  PCC and Whole Foods put their stores in Seattle where buyers are more discerning and also focus on healthy foods. Health nuts will pay a hundred bucks for a granola bar if they think it's healthy. Food Emporium is in an area where not too many people would care about a $100 granola bar.

The solution they missed: They should have called up Winco and asked to make a deal. Winco's prices to the customer is probably what Safeway gets it for. Since Winco is putting in a Silver Lake Store they need to truck grocery items to South Everett now. I think a deal could have been struck where Winco would bring a truck by once a week to drop off cheap products so Food Emporium could compete on the everyday items while still being able to offer the premium products.

But this is not what they did - they plodded on until they couldn't go any longer and then announced they were closing. I was there today and I have to say the overall feel of the customers was one of disbelief and sadness. Where will I buy Dalmation Juniper Berries now? I hope the best for the owners and the 75 employees soon to be out of work. I will miss my times at Food Emporium and it will be sad to see them go. I don't however, think it was necessary.