Jewish community dismayed at Kroger’s closure of Ralphs in Pico-Robertson
Pico-Robertson resident Zev Hurwitz is devoted to his neighborhood Ralphs. He likes the store’s kosher sushi and low prices, and the late-night hours make shopping easy for the busy father.
“I usually visit four times a week. Never less than two,” Hurwitz, 27, said via his cellphone as he roamed the store’s aisles last month.
Now, the store at Pico Boulevard and Beverwil Drive is closing, the news coming amid a political standoff between the city and grocery chain. This Ralphs opened in 1996.
Owner Kroger Co. is shutting down the Ralphs, as well as another store in South L.A. and a Food 4 Less in East Hollywood, after the Los Angeles City Council voted in February to require large grocery stores to pay workers an extra $5 an hour for about four months. The stores will close May 15.
City leaders contend that the chain reaped record profits last year and that grocery store employees should be rewarded with “hero pay” for working on the front lines during the pandemic. Kroger executives say the stores were underperforming before the pay requirement.
The pending shutdown of the Westside supermarket has sparked fierce debates on social media, with some casting Ralphs as the villain. Others blame city politicians. “Government gone wrong,” wrote one Facebook user.
Housed in the lower level of a mini-mall, Ralphs caters to Beverlywood, Cheviot Hills and Pico-Robertson and the area’s large Jewish community. The store has an extensive kosher section, one of a handful of Ralphs in Los Angeles to offer what the company calls the Kosher Experience.
Local shoppers have their favorites among the nearby butchers and bakeries and small markets, but “Ralphs is the equalizer,” said Hurwitz, who has started an online petition to keep the market open. “Everyone goes to Ralphs.”
Loyalists put up with the mini-mall’s cramped parking lot and a moving walkway and elevator that’s often broken, according to critical Yelp reviews. “The elevator to and from Ralphs is broken AGAIN, as well as the escalators!!!” one user wrote.
Some shoppers told The Times they like the one-stop shopping at this Ralphs — where they can get a wide variety of laundry detergent as well as challah.
Avram Mandell, 48, drove from his home near USC with his 7-year-old son to shop at the store ahead of Passover. “Any of the Jewish holidays, we’ll go there for the kosher specialty items,” Mandell said.
“It’s a real shame,” said Erick Hartwig, 60, as he popped into Ralphs recently.
Hartwig said his mother, who lives nearby, appreciates the store’s kosher offerings, and he likes that the deli workers give him free samples. Also, “you meet a lot of movie stars,” he said, recalling the time he saw actor Hugh Laurie.
Others weren’t surprised by the shutdown. A Ralphs vendor, who declined to give his name, said he understood that the store wasn’t making money.
John Votava, director of corporate affairs at Ralphs, said the stores’ executives had separate conversations with Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilman Paul Koretz as the city was debating the pay mandate. The company warned it may close stores.
“It’s unfortunate,” Votava said. “But the decision is being made for us.”
A Garcetti spokesman declined to comment on Votava’s statements. The mayor in March called grocery store executives’ decision to close the three stores in Los Angeles “reprehensible” and urged the grocery chains to reconsider.
Koretz, who represents the area, wrote a letter March 22 castigating Kroger executives.
“Our community does not believe Kroger when it says it cannot afford the hero pay,” Koretz said. “Instead, we know that your company is acting with strategic and malicious greed and trying to send a message to your workers, their union, and other municipalities contemplating similar policies.”
Former L.A. County Supervisor and City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky said the City Council’s move to order the pay wage wasn’t common. At the same time, the response was surprising.
“It’s unusual for a business to pull out and just selectively pull out,” said Yaroslavsky, who supports the pay mandate. “They’re walking away from a community that’s been loyal to them.”
Leaders of the union representing grocery store workers, which led the $5 pay campaign, spoke at a rally in late March to protest the store’s closure.
Maria Hernandez, a stocker, has worked at the store for seven years and knows the regular customers who buy potatoes, chickens and cucumbers on Thursdays and Fridays for Shabbat dinner.
“They’re pretty sad about it,” said Hernandez, 50, who is waiting to hear which store she’ll be moved to.
The mini-mall’s owner didn’t respond to a request for comment about the future of the space.
The space was occupied by an Alpha Beta grocery store before Ralphs took over. The grocery chain brought its kosher section to the store in 2014, an event that was celebrated with a cappella singers.
“We were very proud of the moment,” said Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, West Coast director of the Orthodox Union, who was at the opening. “It was a major move forward by the Ralphs grocery company.”
The Orthodox Union, which certifies kosher food, for years has led tours at the Ralphs before Passover to help shoppers buy food and prepare meals.
Kalinsky has watched the neighborhood emerge as a major center of Jewish life in Los Angeles after the arrival of families, businesses and restaurants in the neighborhood in the 1980s.
He called the pending closure of the store a loss to more than just the Jewish community.
“It will have a reverberating impact on Jewish families and all people, of all faith and all religions,” Kalinsky said. “The store serves the whole community.”