Saturday, September 10, 2011

Former Village Foods

Village Foods back in the AppleTree days. (Picture from Holcombe of Hidalgo, used with permission)

When this post originally went up back in September 2011, it was a look at a former AppleTree that converted to something completely different...and that "former AppleTree" was a Safeway that was one of the last (if not THE last) in the Safeway Houston division. It might have even opened after the division spun off but before the name change. I really don't know. There was a brief time when the stores were advertised as Safeway, but were "locally owned", probably due to a lingering licensing deal to use the name from Safeway.

AppleTree started out with nearly 100 stores from Waco to Rosenberg, but the crippling debt resulting from the buyout forced the company into bankruptcy in 1992 and sold off its stores in late 1993. For whatever reason, six stores were purchased back and remained as AppleTree stores.

The Briarcrest store was one of these, and it was bought as part of the last six by Tony Kubicek, who bought the name and operations of the stores, with the possibility of even expanding at some point. Unfortunately, this never happened, and AppleTree started to shed stores again. By 1999, only three remained, all in Bryan-College Station. After the closure of Culpepper Plaza's store, it went down to 2. This AppleTree held its own, even having features that no other grocery store did (like making its own sausage), though despite being laden with AppleTree logos and having many of the same employees since the Safeway days (and still does) wasn't like the old AppleTree company (it was unionized, for one).

It's unknown to what exactly went on with AppleTree corporate, but in 2008, the supermarket was sold after Kubicek wanted a lower rate on rent. His landlord ended up buying the store instead, and Jim Lewis, the landlord-turned-owner, decided to make it his own. While the actual change of hands occurred in 2008, there was a "Grand Opening" in March 2009 (I've never been able to find out if the store closed for a reset, but from all I've heard, there wasn't). Around this time, the store updated its dated 1980s department graphics to new Benjamin Knox paintings, and revised the merchandise selection to include more organic (and later gluten-free) items, as well as local items.

VF heavily relied on the "local" schtick considering that the area had lacked a real "local" supermarket since the closure of independent Food Town (not related to the Houston chain) located at 600 North Main in the early 1990s (it was open in 1991, but not too much longer afterward), and the fact that no other supermarket really focused on natural and organics food like they did (gluten free wasn't as trendy when it opened). Already problems were apparent, though, as the mix didn't reciprocate well with everybody. One of the misconceptions that the store had to overcome was that it was some sort of Whole Foods knock-off, which it wasn't, and actually scared off a few loyal customers who (wrongly) believed the prices had shot up, while anyone expecting some sort of Whole Foods-type experience (or even a Sprouts-type experience) would be extremely disappointed.

For a time the original post here went down from the website due to a "conflict of interest" in summer 2013 (guess why?) and then it went back up again with a new selection of photos. For an inside look at Village Foods (including the photos that used to be here), check out the post at the Safeway & Albertsons in Texas Blog.

In 2015, it was announced that an Aldi would join the grocery mix in the area at an undisclosed place in Bryan. Some hypothesized perhaps the underserved west part of town, but instead would be at the corner of 29th and Briarcrest...the site of Village Foods! In December the store announced officially it would close in early February.

People have said that Village Foods collapsed due to competition, but despite being between a huge H-E-B and a huge Walmart Supercenter, I don't think that tells a full story. After all, this store has outlasted the bigger and nicer store at the other end of 29th (that would be Albertsons, formerly a Randalls) as well as the supermarket in between (Winn-Dixie). Heck, it even managed to ultimately outlast the Walmart Neighborhood Market off of Texas Avenue.

There were a number of factors that worked against Village Foods. In 2013, Briarcrest was plagued with construction, which ended up sealing off the main entrance of the store permanently. The remaining "other" entrance from Briarcrest was a bit awkward to turn in and out of since it was shared with the nearby Galleria Village office tower, with the other entrance being a side entrance off of 29th Street. The high school brought riff-raff and fighting into the parking lot.

Their product mix featuring organic, gluten free, and health foods began to become less important as H-E-B and even Walmart to an extent began featuring those types of items. Combined with the already-rough competition with a Walmart Supercenter half a mile to the east, a large H-E-B a mile to the west, and the addition of a Walmart Neighborhood Market within a two mile radius, it was a surprise that Village Foods was able to survive much at all.

Since Village Foods is dead and gone now (and no, despite the presence of Lewis' new Village Foods & Pharmacy at Broadmoor and 29th, for all intents Village Foods as we knew it is gone), I'd like to share a few stories regarding this store.

There are some things that I didn't like about Village Foods, but we won't discuss that (we're here to celebrate its life!)

The store was pitifully low-volume in the last few years of its life, but the upshot of that was that it was never jam-packed like H-E-B is, even during peak times (plus it was vastly overstaffed in the front end). It was still the best place to order more obscure food items, as well. They ordered Cel-Ray for me in late 2012 when I requested it, and it even carried it up until Village Foods closed down in February 2016. I won't forget that sort of service.

The rotisserie chicken was also quite good and was surrounded by delicious pectin (it always smelled great when it was being bagged). Juicy yet not greasy like so many other roti chickens are (I'm looking at you, H-E-B), I'm afraid I'll never have anything quite like it again. If I recall, the chicken did use orange juice as one of its ingredients in preparation.

Since day one, the store had a luncheon area, which for many years created its own in-house pizza (reports are that while unremarkable, it was decent). Soon after the demise of Stover Boys at Westgate Center, Charles Stover was brought on to manage the luncheon and deli area, which was merged into "Stover Bros. Café".

I only went to the pre-Stover deli once--it originally offered "Blue Plate Specials", which were things like lasagna, but Stover soon expanded the menu to include gourmet hamburgers and fries (carryovers from Stover Boys) but unfortunately wasn't able to use/brand everything due to complications from the Stover Boys bankruptcy. Stover changed some things in the deli, including vastly expanding the deli meats and cheeses to the standards of other supermarkets (I remember the part that originally faced the front of the store, which now has Boar's Head deli meats, originally had things like chips, including a brand of tortilla chip I enjoyed). While much of the traffic from Stover Boys was gone except for a small band of loyalists, Stover Brothers eventually built up a new following, enough to talk about expanding the seating (which they never ultimately did do). While Stover was free to build his menu from the stock "burgers and fries" to include more gourmet burgers and unique sliders (and we aren't talking the Krystal/White Castle fast food variety, although neither are in the area), there were some things left by the wayside: the milkshake sales went way down, so their homemade Mexican Vanilla ice cream was replaced with stock Blue Bell "Homemade Vanilla". Also killed was the "White Trash Donut" (later rebranded to "Southern Fried Doughnut"), which was amazing but hard to make (and really bad for you, but that's beside the point). Since the donuts are no longer available, you'll have to do with this description of them. See some early menus and stuff by visiting Yelp. Also, despite Stover's departed presence, many items remained permanently changed, like the potato salad.

2013 did bring the temporary addition of Hebert's Cajun Food, having been evicted of their shack at University Square, and briefly operated out of the "Southern Comfort Road Trip" food truck Village Foods had. There were plans to run it out of a food truck but the last update was close to two years ago. As far as I can tell, Hebert's Cajun Foods is gone gone (though rumors are once again abounding of its return).

Now that we're done with Village Foods, what happened next? Over 2016, the building was slightly altered, including removing the peaked roof for what would be the Urban Air Trampoline Park, but also adding ALDI to the eastern third of the ~50,000 square feet building (on the left side if you were looking at it head-on), though it completely gutted the building, down to removing even the concrete floor (I went inside the building during construction, until a contractor chased me out for not wearing closed-toed shoes). The only thing really left is the columns, and despite ALDI's fairly bare-bones nature, it is much cheaper and much nicer than Village Foods ever was. Perhaps it will eventually become grody and run-down, but for now, it's a clean, nice store. Urban Air opened over a year later in January 2018 with the new 1758 address though I don't know if they used the upper level of Village Foods.

1758-1760 Briarcrest

Last updated February 2019