Mark McDermott

MB Local Produce Market Hit Hard by SCE Power Outage

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Owners of Grow. Kathy and Barry Fisher.

by Mark McDermott

Labor Day weekend was about to commence Friday afternoon and Grow market was bustling. Customers were readying for holiday barbeques and family feasts. Then the lights flickered and went dark,  and with them the market’s entire refrigerator system.

Owner Barry Fisher arrived at the store at about 2:45 p.m., fifteen minutes after the power went out. He told his employees not to open any refrigerator or freezer doors and just wait. The power, he told them, would likely come back on quickly.  

And so it did. The lights flickered back on at 3 p.m.

“Everything kicks on,” Fisher said. “And then kicks right back off.”

Oddly, the walk-in cooler fans were on, so Fisher and his employees started moving perishables, such as cheese and meat, into the unit. At about 3:45 p.m., the lights came back on. But Fisher soon realized that none of the refrigeration was working, not even the walk-in cooler. The four refrigeration units on the roof were not delivering coolant to the store’s coolers or freezers.

At 4:30, he called Southern California Edison. An SCE representative said it appeared the building wasn’t getting sufficient power; somebody would be sent out immediately to investigate.

Fisher waited. No one from SCE showed. At 8 p.m., he called again.

“Where is the technician?” he asked. “We are in a bad spot here.”

The SCE rep said a technician had come and investigated the Edison lines outside; sufficient power was coming through.

“The power is in the building,” the rep said.

“No, it’s not,” Fisher said. “I have no refrigeration.”

He waited a few more hours. He called SCE again at 2:30 a.m.

“Look,” the rep said. “All the power is there. It’s an electrical issue. It’s not an Edison issue.”

Fisher slept a bit and came back to work at 6 a.m. His own refrigeration people wouldn’t be available until Tuesday. His wife and co-owner Kathy Fisher told him to call local electrician Scott Rusher, a neighbor and a family friend.  Rusher’s crew came immediately, even though they generally don’t do refrigeration work.

“God no,” Rusher said. “I don’t want any part of refrigeration.”

“He jumped on it,” Fisher said. “His guys are really good. He gets up on the roof and opens up one of our units and sure enough this one piece is burned out. So basically what happened when all the power came back on, there was a surge and it overloaded the units on the roof.”

Rusher found parts in Long Beach and was able to get refrigeration going in about five hours. As bad as the incident was for Grow, Fisher said without Rusher’s help, it would have been far worse.

“It made my day,” Rusher said. “It was one of those things that just worked out. I had a guy just finishing a job in Redondo and he came right over, and amazingly we were able to find the part. It was something you just needed to do —  I’d do it for any neighbor, and they are a great family. Barry is a good guy, and every Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner his food is on our table.”

Even so, by the time the repairs were made, refrigeration had been out 11 hours.

“We lost all our meat, fish, prepared, freezer, and refrigerated product,” Fisher said. He calculated his losses at over $20,000, not including all the lost business.

So much for Labor Day Weekend, generally one of the top five weekends of the year.

“The thing is, we bulked up for Labor Day weekend,” Fisher said. “We had to throw all that away, and we lost Friday to really Tuesday in sales. We had people come in on Monday and we were quietly open all weekend for dry products. But people come to Grow for fresh product.”

The store had no meat, cheese, or produce. What was worse, many of store’s vendors wouldn’t be able to resupply until later in the week. Some customers were angry. Others were sympathetic. But all were forced to go elsewhere —  and ironically, this was the same week that Amazon bought Whole Foods Market and slashed prices.

“Trust me, we discussed that,” Fisher said.

Grow opened 11 years ago, well ahead of the farm-to-table culinary movement in basing its business upon freshness. Fisher has worked in the agricultural export business for two decades and uses contacts he’s cultivated over the years to provide the freshest goods possible. Even as competition grew, Grow became the little shop that could. It became known for the extraordinary quality of its produce, with an almost cult following for its cherries, alone. By this year, Grow was twice as big —  with a second location in Los Angeles, as well as a delivery service — and jammed with every kind of product one could expect at a large supermarket, only carefully curated with an emphasis on fresh, organic and sustainably produced goods.

The loss of business over one of the busiest weeks of the year won’t kill Grow, Fisher said, and a claim has been filed with SCE for its losses. But in an increasingly competitive market, the incident significantly impacted the store —  as well as its employees, who lost days of work.

“It’s not a small blip for us,” Fisher said. “It’s not just the loss of product, it’s the loss of sales that is going to be felt the entire week. Also, it’s just about keeping our customers happy — they come in expecting something to be there. They are empathetic, but at the same time I just lost an entire transaction, not just two or three items we didn’t have. And there’s lots of great product in the summertime —  pork chops, fish, everyone wants to BBQ. We didn’t have much to BBQ. We sit down and plan for this. It’s a very important time for us and we put in extra effort. Unfortunately it had to happen on this of all weekends.”

“There is a lot of competition in our space,” he added. “It’s changed so much the last 11 years, but anyone who goes into this market not expecting change should not be in business.”

SCE did not return calls seeking comment by press time. According to the National Weather Service, temperatures hit triple digits throughout Southern California on Friday, with many areas breaking historical records for Sept. 1 and reaching as high as 114 degrees. SCE had issued power conservation warnings going into the weekend.

Fisher was disturbed not just because of his financial losses but because so much good food was wasted. He attempted to reach a non-profit he’s used before called Finding Food that takes goods near or at expiration. Unfortunately he didn’t call until 5:30 p.m. Friday, by which point they were gone for the weekend.

“If they could have used it, I would have felt a hell of a lot better,” he said.

He did receive one very small bit of good news. A customer who’d come in looking, unsuccessfully, for a filet to grill for Monday emailed him later in the week.

“He said, ‘I just want to tell you, I bought from a competitor, and it didn’t compare. We’ll be back,’” Fisher recalled. “That made my day. Very good to hear.”

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