Supermarket Siren

The seductive call of a perfect beachside location coupled with exceptional service, renowned meats, seafood, produce and prepared foods lures shoppers to Cardiff Seaside Market.
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Most real estate listing do not put how far the property is from the nearest supermarket, but this is how a typical MLS (multiple listing service) ad may appear in Cardiff, a wealthy enclave (population 12,000) of Encinitas, Calif., about a half-hour north of San Diego. It is because the one-unit Cardiff Seaside Market is so unique and ingrained in the community it is just as much a part of Cardiff as the acclaimed beaches, surfing spots and tidal pools.

“The real estate agents, when you look online and they show pictures of people’s houses, they include our store in the pictures to show how close the property is to the store,” says John Shamam, general manager of Cardiff Seaside Market.

He points to an attractive younger shopper on the checkout lane decked out in fashionable jogging shorts and a tank top. “She used to live in Poway and came down once a week to shop here,” Shamam says. “Poway is 40 minutes away.” 

She is not the only fan of Seaside Market who has uprooted herself to be closer to the supermarket. “We’ve had people leave the neighborhood and move back here saying, ‘I can’t be away from this store.’ A regular customer wanted to move 15 minutes away to have more property, and he said ‘no, I can’t leave this store.’ He finally found a property close by that met his needs.”

Seaside Market has been a part of Cardiff for some 31 years, opened in June 1985 by brothers John and Pete Najjar in a 7,200 square-foot storefront that was originally a Value Fair and then Vons, until Vons built a larger store about a mile away.

The location is picture-perfect in more ways than one. Standing in the parking lot, the Pacific Ocean is in view, less than 1,000 feet away across San Elijo Avenue, the railroad tracks and the beach. Seaside Market anchors a small strip center of restaurants and clothing shops that serves as Cardiff’s unofficial downtown. The only chain store in the center is the Starbucks next door.

“A customer referred to this shopping center as her house,” Shamam says. “Our grocery store is her refrigerator, the dry cleaner is her laundry room, the two clothing stores on either side of us are her closet and the restaurants are her entertainment. The neighborhood looks at this as their second home, another place to hang out.” 

The relationship is kind of a mutual admiration society. One of the first things the Najjars did was to focus on the community. “They wanted to become a major part of the community from Day One,” Shamam says. “They figured if they supported the community, the community would support them. I feel that we are truly part of the community and the community supports us,” Shamam says, noting that Seaside Market shoppers have a different perspective than those of a chain store, like Vons or Ralphs. 

“When someone walks out of a Vons they say, ‘Hey, I am leaving Vons,” Shamam says. “They walk out of here saying they are leaving ‘my store.’ They have a full ownership in the store. Good or bad, they let us know and that is just great. It is like a giant family between us and the customers.”

Seaside Market builds that relationship by working with local vendors and manufacturers. On a recent Wednesday afternoon an official with PHIVE Bar, the organic high-energy bar company based in neighboring Encinitas, had set up a booth at the head of the health and beauty care aisle sampling the company’s wares.

“Seaside Market has allowed us to come in and sample our bars,” says Lauren Milner, PHIVE Bar’s photographer and social media director. “They are really, really cool about it. We love Seaside Market. It is obviously a great local market, and since we’re local we love supporting local. We help them; they help us.”

Some customers are so enamored with the store that they will come in every day, and two to three times a day at that, Shamam says. “Then we have the weekly shopper driving from Orange County or downtown San Diego,” he adds. “They make a trip of it, go to the beach and then come here and get food for the week before heading home. That customer used to be maybe a once a month or every other month shopper and they have turned into a weekly shopper from that far away. We’ve even become a destination for people as far as the desert two hours away.”

That is a good thing, Shamam says, because Seaside Market has a more unusual drawing radius than most stores. “We have a big challenge because to the west of us is water. Most stores have a 360-degree radius that they draw from—we have 180,” he says.

To better serve its customers, Seaside Market recently completed the first major expansion in its history. The store was able to add 5,000 feet of selling space by taking over a former gym next door. Company officials took the opportunity to give the store a head-to-toe makeover, starting with the outside.

The entrance was moved to the left where the gym was, while the space immediately in front of the store was turned into a patio. Even the old cart corral outside the front of the store was reborn. It is now covered with small stones and topped with a wooden counter and serves as a popular outdoor counter seating area.

San Diego’s pleasant weather allows fresh produce to be displayed outside, guiding shoppers into the floral and produce departments at the beginning of the store. “Most of the remodel in this section went to produce,” Shamam says. Because of its one unit and small size, Seaside Market is able to work with small local farmers that supply it with delicacies like Royce navel oranges, Meyer lemons and Carlsbad strawberries. 

“Some stores play games with local with regards to how far it is from their distribution center,” Shamam says. “We just pretty much say that if it is within driving distance it is local. Just because it is from California does not make it local. I mean Mexico is more local to us than many areas of California. In Mexico some of the wineries are getting better and evolving to the point where we might even bring some of them in.”

A popular attraction in produce is the customer-operated, squeeze-your-own orange juice machine that, when in season, uses local oranges from Stehly Farms Organics

The mezzanine level, where the gym had its cardio equipment, has been transformed into a demonstration kitchen and meeting space where beer and wine tastings, chef dinners, private events and community meeting center events are held.

Lighting was improved throughout the store with the installation of LED lighting, coupled with modernistic-looking natural light tubes. “We just did that on our own, but now LED lighting is mandatory in California,” Shamam says. “Our electricity usage is almost the same as it was before the expansion,” he says, adding only three traditional fluorescent fixtures remain in the cooler cases. 

The gym had higher ceilings than Seaside Market, so as part of the remodel the drop ceiling on the old side of the store was leveled off. “We raised the ceiling three and a half feet to make it open, airy and inviting and to eliminate that little ledge that would show where the old store was and the new addition began,” Shamam says.  

In addition to a larger produce department, the expansion made room for an extra aisle and a half. “The aisles are now shorter than in the old store,” Shamam says. “We pushed back so there is a flow through the store and people can see where they are going. They can now see from the produce department on one side of the store all the way to the meat department. We widened the aisles so they are all now five and a half feet. It just makes the shopping experience better.”

Instead of traditional steel shelving, Seaside Market uses wire Metro Racks throughout the store. “We get an extra aisle out of Metro Racks because it is narrower and you can also get an extra shelf of height. So for a small store like ours with tight spaces, it works out really well.”  

Seaside Market’s grocery selection is a mix of organic, natural, gourmet and conventional products.

“We carry whatever is best for our customers’ needs,” Shamam says. “We want the customer to come in and be able to shop our whole store and not have to go to four stores. We have a blend in our store of conventional, natural, gourmet and specialty.”

Up high-end Liquor

The remodel allowed for a much bigger beer/wine/spirits department at the rear of the store. Sales are growing daily, Shamam notes, and shoppers are particularly attracted to the high-end offerings, merchandised just below the mezzanine and accessible via a wooden library ladder. “We have some higher end stuff all through there, and that’s made people come and stop and look and see,” he says. “The other day someone bought a bottle of Louis XIII for $3,300.” 

The tequila assortment has been boosted and is doing well. The goal is to have a row for each major, artisanal and craft brand. “We want our customers to know that we do have liquor,” Shamam says. “One of John and Pete’s biggest philosophies is don’t be scared to order. Don’t be scared to make a display. Don’t be scared to get into business and show people that you are in the business of something.”

A new addition at the front of the store is a coffee bar with a selection widely different than Starbucks.

“We have kombucha on tap,” Shamam says. “We do cold brewed coffee, probiotic sodas. We have all-natural gelato, without any base or concentrate, made in Carlsbad by a local woman.”

The coffee bar is adjacent to the bakery counter where about 99 percent of the offerings are either baked in house or brought in from local suppliers, and marked with “Made Right Here” or “Locally Made” price tags. A self-service glass case above part of the service case offers items from The Curious Fork Bakery, which specializes in gluten-free products.

The higher ceilings and wider aisles made room for a new innovation installed on the wall at the rear of the frozen food aisle—four LCD TV screens are placed together creating one big screen that is bringing in new advertising revenue. One of the screens features surf videos, while another shows live feeds from the beaches, including the traffic passing on San Elijo Avenue. The other two screens feature a sponsor’s name. “The image of the beach is live right now, then after 25 or 30 seconds it will go into a big commercial covering all four screens, and then go back to the live feeds,” Shamam says.

The TV monitors are framed by surfboards lining the walls. “They are from a local surf shop called Bird’s Surf Shed,” Shamam says. “We wrote a little story behind each one since we are a beach and surf town.” While the surfboards are for decoration, the equally elaborate skateboards beneath them are for sale and made at Cardiff Skate Co., a little shop directly across the street.

Like frozen foods, the HBC aisle has also been widened. Its selection has expanded with local products—including lip balms, sunscreens lotions—fashion scarves to wear on windy beach days and Craft & Foster Candles that are hand poured in Carlsbad.

“This section is evolving for us. We just used to have conventional stuff and that was it,” Shamam says. “Compared to last year, over the past 10 weeks, our sales [in HBC] are probably up 35 percent.”

Also evolving is the cheese department and its neighboring Charcuterie deli. 

“People are excited. They are seeing new stuff,” Shamam says. “We cut all of our cheese here. We can cut to order if you want a smaller piece, but our philosophy on cutting cheese is we’d rather cut a nice size piece and charge a fair price,” he says, picking up a 1-pound chunk of imported English sharp cheddar. “A lot of places would cut this piece in half and add $5.00 a pound to it. Our philosophy is to be fair,” he says. 

If shoppers are “excited” at the cheese case, they are euphoric at the service Cuisine counter, where they are lining up five deep. Located at the front of the store, on the other side of the checkouts from the bakery counter, Cuisine is Seaside Market’s prepared foods department, featuring menu and custom-made sandwiches as well as chilled and hot entrées, side dishes and a new self-serve soup counter. 

Shamam notes that aside from the crab cakes, everything else is made in-house, including the turkey and kale meatloaf, purple orchid infused spring rolls, Mexican chicken salad, Portobello ravioli spinach salad and stuffed artichokes so big that they really should come in a bowling ball bag so customers can cart them home.

“We have night crews in the store cooking because we are so busy. It doesn’t stop,” Shamam says. 

Whole Fish

The prepared theme carries over around the bend to the seafood department where the house-made poke and seafood salads are big sellers. Shoppers may take for granted that a store called Seaside Market is the authority on seafood, but it has taken management decades to obtain that title and it is still a work in progress. The fishmongers learned to cut the fillets nice and thick so they cook up equally delicious in an oven or on the grill, while the salmon and tuna are sashimi grade.

“We’re now starting a whole fish program,” Shamam says. “That is one of those things where you just can’t give up. It is not our most successful line right now, but we’re going to push and push because it is something different and we are carrying more than just fresh, whole trout.”

Unlike some stores where trays contain maybe five fillets arranged on parchment paper, at Seaside Market the trays are stacked a good six to eight inches high with fillets.

“It will all be sold—and refilled,” Shamam says. “You can’t stack it this high and not sell it because it is going to go in the trash. At the beginning we decided that we were going to have fish piled high—and that we are going to sell it. We pushed it. And all of a sudden we became known for fresh fish. Look at the salmon piled there,” he says, pointing to two four-foot long stainless steel trays piled high with rosy pink fillets. “We used to have one row, but on weekends we could go through five trays.”

Seafood leads into the service meat counter. Self-service is limited to a four-foot case of beef in the back corner, along with some fresh chicken parts.

“Most of our sales are service,” Shamam says. “Our chop meat is sold service because we are grinding it all day fresh. There is nothing left in the back.”

Homemade sausages, including unusual duck and lamb varieties, are strong sellers, as are steaks, chops, kabobs and a tri-tip that is so fabulous it is dubbed “Cardiff Crack.” Also gaining in popularity are the Stone Porter beer pork chops.

“We take a local beer company’s Stone Porter beer, add some seasonings and tumble marinade it, just like our tri-tip,” Shamam says.

If shoppers still have room in their carts they may wish to grab a box of Godiva chocolates on the way out. There is an end cap of them across from the registers, along with bars at each checkout. “Godiva approved us to sell their chocolates,” Shamam says. “They are very picky as to who they allow to sell their product, and we are also working with two local chocolatiers as well.”

The Southern California market has been in turmoil with the sudden arrival and departure of the Haggen chain leaving scores of empty storefronts, and allowing L.A.’s upscale Gelson’s chain to expand into greater San Diego. However, Shamam does not see Seaside Market going on an expansion binge. “John and Pete’s philosophy is ‘let’s just have one store and do it right,’” he says.    

Check out some photos from GHQ executive editor Richard Turcsik's visit to Cardiff Seaside Market:

 

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