Michael Werness, a former manager at Berkeley Bowl and Monterey Market (both in Berkeley), unveiled on Wednesday his plan to open a store at Alma Plaza in south Palo Alto. Werness, who goes by "Miki," said the new store will be much like Berkeley Bowl in that it will focus on organic and sustainable products and carry produce, fish, meat and all other supermarket staples.
The main difference will be the size. At 19,000 square feet, Miki's Farm Fresh Market, as the new store will be called, will be about half the size of Berkeley Bowl.
Werness said that while the store will feature a wide selection of premium organic items, it will focus on keeping the prices down for customers.
"Variety will be outstanding," Werness said. "And it'll be sustainable. People will know where everything comes from."
He said he plans to listen to the community and try to accommodate customers' needs by bringing in the types of products they suggest.
Werness, 64, has been involved in the food industry for nearly half a century. He began as a bag boy in a San Jose market when he was 15 years old. He worked in a wide range of grocery stores after that, including in South San Francisco, Palo Alto and Menlo Park, before ending up in Berkley Bowl, a renowned market that opened in 1977 in a former bowling alley and relocated into a larger location in 1999.
Werness had spent about 11 years at Berkeley Bowl, where he helped stock its main store upon its relocation. He then spent another nine years as manager of the Monterey Market, another Berkeley grocer that focuses on sustainable products.
Werness' decision to bring a store to Alma Plaza provides a huge lift for the controversial development, which was the subject of dozens of heated public meetings and intense community debate before the City Council approved it in January 2009. Once fully developed, the plaza will also include 37 homes and 15 below-market-rate apartments, a small park and a community room.
Miki's Farm Fresh Market will serve as the new plaza's centerpiece. In approving the project in 2009, the council specified that developer John McNellis must find a grocer before he can proceed with the residential portion of the development, which is located in the 3400 block of Alma Street. Construction on the 4.2-acre plaza began last month.
McNellis, who joined Werness and Mayor Sid Espinosa in announcing the new store Wednesday, said he was thrilled to reach an agreement with Werness. He called Werness a "creative genius" and described Miki's Farm Fresh Market as exactly the type of business the community has been clamoring for.
"Everyone was telling us they don't want a chain market and that they wanted an independent grocer," McNellis said.
Werness said the store will provide about 50 jobs, roughly half of which will be full time. It is scheduled to open in July 2012 and will occupy one of two retail buildings at Alma Plaza.