Miki Werness, the grocer whose experience in the business convinced the Palo Alto City Council to give the go-ahead for the new College Terrace Market, is out as its merchandising director three months after the store's much-heralded opening.
By phone this week, Werness declined to say if he left of his own accord or if he was terminated as of Aug. 22. He would only say there were differences between himself and the partners, Chris Iversen and Addison Wright.
Iversen acknowledged Wednesday "a parting of the ways," but he also declined to get into details. He said he is focusing on building the grocery store's business and making it an integral part of the local community.
Some nearby College Terrace residents, who fought for a market be a required public benefit of the College Terrace Centre, expressed concern this week that Werness is out. They noted he was the only partner with experience of running a grocery store. Under the property's ordinance, construction on the block-long center at 2100 El Camino Real could not begin until after it had signed a grocer.
The development includes nearly 40,000 square feet of office space, the 8,000-square-foot grocery store, about 5,000 square feet of ground-floor retail and eight below-market-rate housing units.
Werness had owned and operated Miki's Farm Fresh Market at Alma Village, but the business folded in April 2013 after less than six months.
Iversen said he, Wright and Werness had been looking for a grocery store opportunity for about six years before College Terrace came along. Werness is listed as a partner of The Grocery Men 1, LLC, a limited liability company incorporated by Wright and Iversen in Arizona in 2014. The corporation registered in California in 2016, according to records from the California Secretary of State.
Werness and Wright had a 30-year association, Iversen said.
The search for a good grocery-store investment took them in and outside of California, including in Portland, Oregon; Albuquerque, New Mexico and Texas. Nearly all of the opportunities did not pan out because the sellers wanted much more money than the enterprises were worth, he said. A new store with a fresh start had appeal.
But Iversen said that characterizations of Werness as a "partner" are incorrect. Werness did not have a financial partnership in the store, Iversen said.
"He helped us get open and we appreciate it. The agreement was to get us open and to see from there. He was never actually a partner. He did not have a percentage ownership. He did the merchandising and brought in the vendors," Iversen said.
Iversen has 40 years of business experience, he said. He spent many years in the health industry, including consulting and software development, overseeing more than 1,000 employees. Wright is a Los Angeles film producer and director.
Although neither man has previous grocery experience, Iversen stressed that all of College Terrace Market's managers have decades in the grocery business. General Manager Ron Jensen has 35 years of experience in grocery; department managers, from the delicatessen to the butcher, each have a minimum of 15 to 20 years in the grocery industry, he said.
Werness handled merchandising for the center of the store, but each department head does his own ordering and setup, he said. Jensen oversees the overall operations.
"We've hired people with very good backgrounds — and successful backgrounds," he said, noting that employees have come from Whole Foods, Lunardi's and other stores.
Despite problems at the College Terrace Market over the opening months that have included limited signage (still an issue that Iversen is trying to hash out with the city and the developer, Greystone Development), the store is still a good opportunity, he said. The store's business is growing steadily, with more than 200 to 300 customers each day. He is hopeful the customer base will increase in the coming weeks when Stanford University students come into town.
The market has worked out an arrangement to add flyers to more than 4,000 orientation packets for the graduate students who will live just blocks away at Escondido Village; it is preparing advertising and tailgate-party packages for Stanford's first upcoming home football game on Sept. 23 and for subsequent games; and the store is doing catering for First Republic Bank, which occupies College Terrace Centre's offices, he said.
"We're going hard. We're doing what we can to bring people in," he said.
But Iversen said he recognizes the need to establish strong connections with the community. The market will soon be reaching out to College Terrace neighborhood residents with a special offer. He said he wants to have events such as barbecues and other gatherings to help make the market a destination.
"Any good business should be something that benefits everybody — that's good for the business, the customer and the community," he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Chris Iversen once lived in Arizona. He commuted there for business.