After a year of watching construction and seven years after the old Albertsons closed, Karen Snow said she nearly cried walking into the store on Wednesday morning.
"We've been waiting forever for this because it's been a mess down here," said Snow, who lives nearby. "It's beautiful."
The relief makes sense, as the plaza in Palo Alto's Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood has been a hot bed of contention throughout the past decade. Fresh Market's opening marks the first phase of revitalization of the deserted plaza, after Redwood City-based Sand Hill Property Company spent years negotiating an agreement with neighborhood residents on its historical value (the plaza was Joseph Eichler's only commercial development).
Even after a plan was settled — to build 10 homes, a small park and a new grocery store — it was delayed when a contractor demolished a historical building that had been slated for preservation.
Putting all the fuss behind them, customers reveled at the much-anticipated grocery store on Wednesday morning. They sipped from sample cups of house-blended coffee while ogling a large produce section with labels for local (100 miles away) and regional (300 miles away) food. The bakery featured 30 different breads and 14 different pies, the cheese section more than 200 domestic and imported varieties all cut and packaged in the store. There was an old-fashioned candy aisle, a 40-foot-long freezer of freshly ground and cut meats, a bulk department of nuts, seeds, dried fruits and grind-your-own nutter butter, a wine and bar section and more.
Many also came in time for the market's traditional cheese-cracking ceremony, in which the store's cheese vendor cracked a 95-pound wheel of Reggiano Parmigiano cheese to celebrate opening instead of a ribbon-cutting.
The 132nd Fresh Market has hired 90 new employees, many of them stationed at the sample booths scattered throughout the 21,600-square-foot store on Wednesday, giving customers complete information about samples of steak, chutney and more.
Drewry Sackett, manager of PR and community relations for Fresh Market, said this is the type of store where, if a customer is hesitant about buying a certain bag of chips, the staff will pop open a sample bag just for them.
"It's a little bit different than a traditional supermarket," she said. "It's a little bit more of an intimate setting ... an old-world, European feel. We try to really serve as a true neighborhood market."
Sackett said the store hosts multiple specials, such as "foodie Friday" and "buy-one-get-one Tuesday," that customers can discover through the store's email newsletters.
Alissa Picker, who grew up down the street, has always thought that her neighborhood lacked a grocery store.
"We've waited a long time for this," Picker said. "It exceeds my expectations. It's visually lovely and it has a variety that will suit everyone and a friendly staff and plenty of parking."
She came to the opening with her two longtime best friends, one of whom has been ranting and raving about the Fresh Market she used to shop at in the South.
"I have known about this store coming for a long time, and I was super, super-excited to introduce my friends to Fresh Market," Amy Hsieh said. For her, the best part is the customer service; employees greet people by name.
"They want to come into a neighborhood and they want to be a part of the community," Hsieh said.
Jeff Gordon, regional director of operations for Fresh Market, has opened 50 stores in 25 years and said that he's found that this type of enthusiasm is common. Customers are drawn to Fresh Market because of the atmosphere and attention to detail and service, he said.
"We want customers to have a shopping experience here as if they were a guest in a home," he said. "We're really in the people business. We just happen to sell good food."
Customer Cecily Coetsee said she likes the store's selection, atmosphere and more, but has one qualm.
"I don't appreciate the prices. The prices are all much too expensive," she said.
Given that complaint, Coetsee still admitted that her shopping bag would end up filled with food.
Other customers, including Snow, Picker and Hsieh, said Fresh Market's prices are comparable to other grocery stores'.
As part of the celebration Wednesday morning 1,000 customers received a sample-sized bag of the market's house blend coffee and 3,000 received a free, reusable shopping bag. Sackett also said that customers who sign up for the market's newsletter will be in the running for a $100 gift card.
The North Carolina-based chain has one other California location in Roseville and will be opening two more stores in Sacramento as well as ones in Santa Barbara, Laguna Hills, Yorba Linda and Elk Grove.
Fresh Market is located at 2170 West Bayshore Road, Palo Alto. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.