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Petaluma laments loss of G&G Supermarket

A resident of Petaluma for eight years, Caroline McFarland said the variety of products at G&G Supermarket quickly made it her store of choice.

“This store – you can buy cheap things, you can buy the best,” she said.

After learning of the Sonoma County-based company’s sale to Safeway, McFarland became one of the scores of G&G loyalists to question, in conversations and across social media, what the future may hold.

“It’s my favorite store,” she said, starting an afternoon shopping trip with a cart full of colorful garden flowers.

After expanding to Petaluma with the second of two stores 16 years ago, G&G Supermarkets’ east side location is set to change hands later this year as part of the company’s sale to the Pleasanton-based supermarket giant.

G&G’s Petaluma and Santa Rosa stores will each become a Safeway location, and the sale is expected to be fully complete before the end of the year, according to statements by both companies last week. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but all 250 employees across both stores will be given the chance to continue with Safeway at their current compensation or better, including tenure, G&G CEO Teejay Lowe said.

“We’re really proud that all of our employees are going to be hired by the Safeway family of brands,” the CEO said, adding that, “When they enter into the new company, they are not at the bottom of the totem pole. They are able to take with them their many years of earned service.”

The stores are expected to close for around two weeks in either late November or early December, when employees will be trained and Safeway will embark on various work to convert the locations, Lowe said.

Opened in 2000, the Petaluma location was the second for G&G, a company that began with a first Santa Rosa store in 1963. The Santa Rosa location underwent two expansions over the decades, with the 84,000-square-foot location that opened in 1981 considered to be one of the largest supermarkets in the state at the time, according to information from the company.

The Santa Rosa store later expanded to 96,000 square feet, offering a deli, ready-to-eat Chinese food, sushi, a bakery, health foods and a floral department. The 55,000-square-foot Petaluma location featured the same departments over a smaller footprint.

The Petaluma location became the grocery store of choice for some area shoppers.

“I like the people. It’s nice. They have a lot of stuff you can’t find anywhere else,” said Dan Bricker, a Petaluma resident who has shopped at the Petaluma G&G for 15 years and said he regularly treks across town to visit the location.

Lowe said Petaluma’s appetite for products from the local producers was a major factor in the decision to open the location, which is on Sonoma Mountain Parkway.

“Local products, local companies, is what G&G did before it was cool,” he said.

The CEO declined to comment on what elements of G&G Safeway might be carrying over after the transition, but said locally sourced and ethnic food categories have been strong in both Petaluma and Santa Rosa.

“We are very confident that they will be heeding the suggestions of the customers, and listening to them very intently, and taking our suggestions of maintaining a strong local presence and a strong local selection,” Lowe said.

He also did not comment on his own future after the sale, but said last week that he would continue to be part of the community. Lowe, a resident of Santa Rosa, said that he spends much of his day in Petaluma.

Founded by Robert Gong and his father-in-law, Gee Kai Gong, G&G remained family owned for more than half a century. A number of family members have played an active role in the store’s day-to-day operations, including Lowe himself, Robert Gong’s son.

Lowe said last week that close to 25 family members once worked for the company at one time, and that he now works with six family members who are either siblings or cousins.

While the CEO said business has been strong for the company, he attributed the sale to the age of the company’s four owners, which include his father and three uncles. The owners are between 65 and 83 years old.

“It’s a good time for them to retire,” Lowe said last week. “They’ve been serving Sonoma County for 53 years. It’s a good time for them to enjoy the holidays.”

Breaking news of the sale last week prompted an outpouring of commentary on social media, where many praised the family that owns G&G for their community involvement and the store itself as a place to find fresh produce and hard-to-find items.

“My first job was at the Santa Rosa store, the Gong family was good to the community. I wish them all the best, sad to see it go but I’m happy for them,” wrote Facebook user Will Bomar, who described himself as a Penngrove resident.

Jason Gong, manager of the Petaluma store since its opening in 2000 and a member of the family that founded G&G, credited his staff for the nature of the east Petaluma store. He said Safeway has expressed a desire in early talks with employees to continue elements of G&G that have been popular with customers, and praised the company for the offer to hire current staff.

“All my employees, in the meetings, were worried about the customers,” he said.

The sale of G&G leaves Hispanic food-focused Lola’s Market as the only Sonoma County-based grocery store on Petaluma’s east side. Across Highway 101 is downtown’s Petaluma Market, the only other locally owned grocery store in the city.

Safeway operates a Petaluma store on North McDowell Boulevard around two miles from G&G’s location. A spokesperson for Safeway did not respond to questions about the future of that site or plans for G&G after the transition.

As the latest generation to lead another family-owned icon of the region, Marcus Benedetti, president and CEO of Petaluma’s Clover Stornetta Farms, recalled an episode from delivering milk to G&G as a teenager. He said last week that an owner questioned him as to why he wasn’t wearing a tie, which at the time was a key part of the G&G uniform for male workers.

Benedetti said Safeway was a “great operator” for a chain, but said the transition would still mark the loss of an icon.

“It’s not the same as having an independent, multi-generational family operating those stores,” he said last week, recalling how Gong family members gathered every day for years to eat lunch at the Santa Rosa location.

The sale of G&G marks the second for a Sonoma County-based grocery in 2016, following the February announcement by Woodland-based Nugget Markets that it was buying Sonoma Market and Glen Ellen Market.

Lowe, the CEO, emphasized that G&G will continue to operate up until the transition to Safeway, a busy period in which shoppers will be seeing promotions in its stores. G&G is well known as a supplier of fresh dungeness crab from the waters off Sonoma County’s coast, and Lowe said the expected kickoff of the season later this month was looking to be a big one.

“We’re looking to go out with a bang,” he said.

(You can reach Eric Gneckow at eric.gneckow@arguscourier.com. On Twitter @Eric_Reports. Press Democrat Staff Writer Robert Digitale contributed to this report.)

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