A new 45,000-square foot Safeway opened on College Ave. on Jan. 15. Photo: Celia McCarthy
A new 45,000-square-foot Safeway opened on College Avenue in Oakland, near the Berkeley border, on Thursday. Photo: Celia McCarthy

Hundreds of people jammed into the spanking new Safeway store on College Avenue on Thursday. Most were there to gawk at the shiny surfaces or taste a variety of free samples, but plenty of people were there to shop, happy to have a large grocery store back in the neighborhood.

The new store is 45,000 square feet and cost about $35 million to build, according to Chris Pattillo, chair of the Oakland Planning Commission, who spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The store employs about 160 people, and 65 of those union jobs are new, she said.

“We’re excited,” Bernard Hardy, Safeway’s vice president of retail operations told the crowd that had assembled for the in-store speeches. “Tell your neighbors we’re back. We’re excited about being back in the neighborhood.”

Word has already gotten out, it seems. Safeway had scheduled a preview party from 4-8 p.m. and, as soon as the doors opened, people swarmed inside.

They were greeted with a store that is very different from the 1964 store that stood on the site until August 2013. The store at 6310 College Ave. is one of Safeway’s “lifestyle” stores. It is stocked with organic vegetables, a butcher shop (that starting in two weeks will only sell “prime” beef rather than “select”), a fish shop, an in-house bakery, a pharmacy and a florist. Safeway workers will make sushi and bread on site.

The new Safeway has a large selection of organic and unusual produce. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
To appeal to busy families, the new Safeway has a large selection of precut fruits and vegetables. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
There is a huge selection of fresh sushi for sale at the new Safeway. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

One of the most remarkable aspects of the store is its liquor selection. The new Safeway has four long aisles stocked with wine, a huge refrigerated section of craft beers and a variety of spirits. The store even has its own wine steward, Rodrigo, who did not give his last name since he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Celia McCarthy was one of the shoppers Thursday and she was excited to have found “Basque sauce,” a marinade that is not stocked in a lot of stores. “They had a really nice selection of organic produce,” she said. “It’s a good combination of traditional foods that you want to have in a Safeway and the special items you would find in a more foodie type store.”

That’s the point, according to Keith Turner, Safeway’s director of Public and Government Affairs.

“The thing about a Safeway is you can find whatever you are looking for, things you find in Whole Foods, things you find in Walmart,” said Turner. “We are the vast middle, but we certainly speak to the extremes.”

The new Safeway store is in Oakland but borders on Berkeley. Residents from both cities were involved in getting the grocery corporation, which has just been acquired by the Albertson’s chain, to change the design so it was more compatible with the neighborhood. The store had been scheduled to be completed in November, but construction was put on hold for three months after members of the Rockridge Community Planning Council, a neighborhood organization, discovered Safeway had changed some of its plans without consulting them. As a result, Oakland pulled Safeway’s construction permit for a time.

A number of people from the neighborhood group were at the opening and had a jaundiced view of the festivities. They said the store was big, perhaps too big, but it was an improvement over the initial plans. Those called for parking on the ground floor and the store on the second floor. The revised plan put parking on the roof and the store and an ancillary cluster of shops on the street level.

“It would have been awful,” said Joel Rubenzhal, who lives in Berkeley right near the rear of the store. “It’s Safeway. It’s way too big for the neighborhood. It’s a suburban store in an urban setting. It’s out of place, but it could have been worse.”

Traffic is a big concern, said Rubenzahl, and he pointed to a clogged College Avenue as proof of the store’s impact. “The traffic situation would have been 10 times worse. It’s awful now.”

Safeway installed a new traffic light on Claremont and Mystic avenues, right near the loading dock. In the old store, which had a large surface parking lot, trucks could pull in to unload. Now trucks will have to back into the loading dock and briefly block traffic.

Safeway installed a button that truck drivers can push to turn all the nearby stoplights red for 18 seconds, according to Daryl Winnick, the store manager. That should give them enough time to back into the loading dock. There will be fewer than 10 trucks a day, she said. That translates into a three-minute delay to drivers in total, said Turner.

Merchants across the street from Safeway said they were glad construction is finally over. The sales clerk at Vino!, a wine store that has been on College for around 30 years, said she was not worried about competition from Safeway. Vino! sells a more discriminating selection of wines. While Safeway’s wine section is vast, “it’s still the same wine as before,” said Sylvia, an assistant buyer who did not want to give her last name. “I don’t think it’s going to impact our business,” she said.

That may not be true for the coffee vendors on the block. There is a Starbucks in the store, and a Philz Coffee plans to open on the corner, directly across the street from Cole Coffee, a neighborhood favorite. There is a Peet’s Coffee & Tea at College and Alcatraz.

A hair salon, savings bank, and the popular Berkeley ice cream sandwich store, Cream, are going in next to Philz.

But all the choice didn’t seem to faze those in the store Thursday. They eagerly lined up to sample wine, cheese, Chinese food, olive oil, pasta sauce, fruit, red velvet cake and more.

“I am really looking forward to the premiere foods,” said shopper Donna Frieberg. “We are so excited.”

Safeway executives cut the ribbon to officially inaugurate the new store. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

As part of Thursday’s celebration, the Safeway Foundation gave $2,500 to two community organizations, The Friends of the Rockridge-Temescal Greenbelt Park and the Peralta School Parent-Teacher Group. The Safeway Foundation has given out $1 billion over the last five years, according to Turner, the director of Public and Government Affairs

A website for the store contains additional information, and past Berkeleyside coverage appears below. Connect with the store on Facebook and Twitter.

Construction halted at Safeway on College and Claremont (12.06.13)
Demolition starts on Safeway on College Avenue (08.06.13)
Safeway on College to close July 8 for major rebuild (07.02.13)
New Safeway on College green-lighted, designs revealed (12.20.12)
Residents air concerns about College Ave. Safeway plans (12.17.12)
Safeway on College needs all-new design after mediation (11.15.12)
Breaking: Neighbors, Safeway agree on College Ave. store (11.13.12)
Op-Ed: Why I support plans for the Safeway on College (11.12.12)
Revamped Safeway opens in heart of Gourmet Ghetto (10.05.12)
Oakland Planning Commission approves Safeway plans (07.27.12)
Berkeley council unites in opposing Safeway project (07.18.12)
Berkeley City Council to hold hearing on Safeway project (09.20.11)
Locals protest scale, traffic of proposed Rockridge Safeway (08.01.11)
Safeway buys Berkeley’s Chimes Pharmacy, to consolidate (07.12.11)

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...