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Restaurants & Bars 40

An Open Letter to the Calabasas Gelson's

Das Ubergeek | Jul 27, 200807:08 AM

How do you manage to get away with the prices you charge?

Let me be quite clear -- nobody in full possession of his mental faculties goes into any Gelson's expecting a bargain. I used to shop at the ones in Van Nuys and North Hollywood and, for a time, the one in Century City. The idea was that you would get twice the selection f brands or flavours in any product range, with excellent service, and then pay for it.

Well, I'm up in Calabasas this week, returned VERY recently from New York, and there was no food in the house. We were entertaining friends so I went to Gelson's on Mulholland Highway.

Here's the menu -- simple, easy-to-fix stuff: crostini with tapenade; insalata caprese; tortellini with marinara sauce; white bean salad with roasted red peppers, onions and herbs; cucumbers with mint, lemon juice and olive oil; angel-food cake with fresh peaches and cream.

First I had to find the bread. The pre-packaged bread is near the frozen section, and the bakery is over to the side. I found this out only after asking three separate people. It used to be that if you asked a Gelson's employee where something was, they'd put down what they were doing, walk you over, and point out the selection. This still happens in places like Valley Village. But not Calabasas, no, I had to eventually ask a cashier who gave me the answer.

I went to the bakery expecting, you know, Viktor Benes, like almost every other Gelson's, but instead it was a collection of very pretty and extremely expensive pastries, with six forlorn little loaves of bread in New Jersey suburban deli-style plastic bins behind the counter. I asked when the bread was baked and they said that morning at 9:00 (this was at 5:00). They had one baguette -- when I asked to see it, the kid behind the counter dropped it (onto the clean counter, no worries) and it went "thunk". So I bought a La Brea baguette (in baskets near the front of the store, for some reason).

Then the olives. The olive bar is on one end of the store (near the produce); the pre-packaged tubs of olives, from the SAME OLIVES, are in the cheese section on the other side of the store. The olive bar was just hellacious -- mislabelled, and with olives everywhere but where they should have been -- kalamatas spilled into the belle di cerignola, celery bits from the Sicilian marinated olives mixed into the red peppers, and pitted and non-pitted kalamatas mixed together. It all needed re-sorting and a good long stir. The prepackaged olives were so expensive ($5.29 a pint) that I ended up just buying a tub of Kronos pre-made tapenade.

There was a LOT of very good-looking fresh mozzarella. That was a happy thing. I bought two tubs of ovoline, and they were a lot better than, say, Trader Joe's. But every other Gelson's I've been to sells Gioia burrata (at a scandalous markup, but it's available) -- you don't.

I went to buy a bottle of wine. Foolish, I know, but there's not a lot over in that part of Calabasas, so I was stuck. How do you get away with charging $12.99 for a bottle of Woodbridge chardonnay? And, honestly, is that all they drink in Calabasas? There were at least 50 kinds of chardonnay, more than all the other kinds of white wine put together. I bought a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc mostly because it was $12.99 where all the others were $25 or more. The cheapest bottle I saw was a bottle of Turning Leaf chardonnay at $8.99.

I could have dealt with all of this... but then I got to the produce section and I very nearly just left my cart there so I could leave and just order food to be delivered from a restaurant.

The smarmy "Locally Grown" labels have got to go. There are no locally-grown Rainier cherries at the end of July, and if there were, there would be plenty of them and thus not $8.99 a pound. When I asked where the "locally-grown" peaches were from, I got a shrug from the person restocking the produce. If you're going to throw down that particular gauntlet you need to label where it comes from -- because I bet those "locally-grown" peaches came from Fresno or even the Imperial Valley, which is NOT "locally-grown".

The cucumbers -- your choice, wrapped English cucumbers, the usual wooden-tasting kind, or Persian cucumbers with wrinkled skins and a "long time no vine" problem. Sadly, of the three, the Persians were the best candidate, because there were some that weren't completely past it.

Tomatoes: $2.99 for a pound of Vons-quality vine-ripened tomatoes. $1.99 for salmon-coloured Roma tomatoes. $2.99 a pound for salmon-coloured "beefsteak tomatoes". It's the MIDDLE OF TOMATO SEASON! You seem to want to go for locally-grown stuff, where on earth are you hiding it? You can't drive through Camarillo without passing a tomato truck. Camarillo is less than 20 miles from Calabasas. I bought the vine-ripened ones and decided to make the marinara sauce with tinned tomatoes. What a shame.

Basil: I can't tell you how much I laughed at the stupid "basil bouquets" for $2.49. A few branches of Italian sweet basil with the stems jammed into one of those plastic water bulbs that florists use for long-stemmed roses. I bought one anyway -- it was the same price as the awful plastic boxes of assorted herbs and it looked better -- but the basil, when I used it, was starting to get papery. I'm really glad I didn't need mint (it grows abundantly here).

Bell peppers: come on. The fields are GROANING with peppers and the best your buyer could come up with was imported Holland red peppers at $5.99 a pound??

Lemons: if you're going to label the lemons as "organic, locally-grown" lemons, at least wash off the blue "Sunkist" labels. (I was going to use the zest in the bean salad -- that went out the window, who wants blue zest??)

I could have lived with the produce if I'd been at a Vons or a Ralphs and the prices had been half (or more) lower... but it would have been cheaper had I driven to Santa Monica in the morning and bought organic produce from their overpriced farmers' market (or just gone to the Calabasas one) -- but I was otherwise occupied, and I paid the price.

I bought $100 worth of food for five people that fit in three grocery bags. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves for the state your store is in, and I ought to be ashamed of myself for not walking back up the hill, getting in my car, and going to Vallarta where the produce is better and the prices are a quarter of what yours are.


Gelson's Markets
22277 Mulholland Hwy, Calabasas, CA

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