Food Fight!

The multibillion-dollar supermarket chain Gigante is playing the race card in Anaheim

Photo by Gustavo ArellanoIn English, gigante means "gigantic," so it's kind of weird that nobody is saying the obvious: Gigante, an immense Guadalajara-based supermarket chain, may destroy an Anaheim neighborhood.

Grupo Gigante SA de CV, Gigante's parent company, would like to build a massive grocery store at 650 N. Euclid Ave., a property in an area the conglomerate says is underserved. The city says Gigante can build its market, but can't have that sine qua non of the modern grocery business, the liquor license, because there's already an abundance of hooch merchants in the neighborhood.

"Gigante is trying to provide a service for a very significant population within the community," company spokesperson Ron Holley was quoted as stating to Anaheim's Planning Commission on June 17. "Hispanic citizens are entitled to a full-service supermarket that is user-friendly, that provides products they need in a language they can speak."

In fact, "Hispanic citizens" in the region are already well-served by a number of thriving, competitive, independent local grocery stores. Shops such as Ibero America Market (327 S. Lemon St.; it sells produce from South America and the Caribbean) and Mondragón Market (407 E. North St.; owned by a family whose daughter I once courted) lie on the outskirts of Gigante's proposed service area. Closer to Ground Zero, you'll find grocers La Rioja (929 E. Euclid St.) and González Northgate Supermarket (720 W. La Palma Ave.; an Anaheim institution that occupied a tiny storefront before taking over a former Lucky's about 10 years ago).

These markets have served Anaheim's Latino community for decades. But they don't have Gigante's deep pockets; last year, the firm clocked about $4 billion in sales. So when the Anaheim planning commission refused Gigante's liquor-license application, the company cranked up an expensive media campaign, hiring the Lake Forest PR firm Waters & Faubel.

You may remember Waters &Faubel from the war over El Toro airport, in which the firm took the anti side, declaring the county's international airport plan a neighborhood-wrecker. Working with Gigante, the spinmeisters argue that Anaheim's rejection of Gigante is racist.

"People are usually covert about their racism these days," says Meg Waters, the Waters of Waters & Faubel. "They won't come out directly and say, 'I don't want a Mexican market in the area.' They said they wanted something regional and generic, which is a euphemism for 'We don't want a Latino market.'"

She cited as proof of racism an Oct. 23, 2001, letter from Anaheim redevelopment-agency negiator Elisa Stipkovich recommending that the landowners consider another client because Gigante would not cater to a "wider demographic."

On that slim evidence—a letter planning commissioners say they never saw—Waters &Faubel and Gigante declared war.

"We are who were are, and we're proud of that," said Justo Frias, president of Santa Ana-based Gigante USA. "We're a Latino market coming from Mexico and well-known in Latin America. Other people are saying other things."

The mainstream media have followed the race issue obligingly. When it broke the story on July 15, the Orange County Business Journal insinuated that race was a deciding factor. The Orange County Register went further, producing a July 20 Page One piece with a headline that could have been written by Waters &Faubel: "Gigante is Too Ethnic for Plaza." On Aug. 5, Frias told the Los Angeles Times, "The fact that we sell tacos and bolillos instead of chicken Kiev to go, that is the reason [for the liquor license rejection]."

"Since the [press] coverage has started, we've gotten calls from people expressing support and asking how they could help," Waters said. "How we plan to get more community support we'd rather not say because it's a strategic thing."

The "strategic thing"is likely to consist of boycott threats, demonstrations and more race-baiting. And it'll probably work, too, based on Gigante's demonstrated ability to use its resources to conjure up fables of residents starving for pan dulce. But these same consumers might also be signing the death certificate for the longtime entrepreneurs who have provided them service with a smile, hard-to-find produce and love.

"To argue that this [Anaheim Latino] community is deprived of Spanish markets is ridiculous," says John Koos, an Anaheim resident and member of the planning commission. "Northgate and all of these markets are smaller and have had a presence here for years. But frankly, I think Gigante would smash them to pieces."