It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday in early March, and I am sitting in the produce section of Casa Lucas on 24th Street, wondering how many people sifting through the avocados and tomatoes will be watching the Oscars tonight. After all, they are shopping in a store that was featured in Blue Jasmine, one of the nominated films.
As I perch under the piñatas and fluorescent lights, the rain and lack of sunshine is making the produce section at Casa Lucas even colder. The store’s employees–the men who constantly stock the vegetables and fruits–look at me with pity. One of them is Shaul, who becomes my friend when he brings me a folding chair to sit on instead of the plastic fruit crate I had found earlier. They can’t seem to understand why anyone would want to sit by the blackberries all day. They keep asking if I am cold. I say yes but laugh so they don’t feel too badly about it. I’m here to see what can be learned about the changing Mission District from the shoppers who frequent Casa Lucas.
Arturo Felix has owned and operated the store for 35 years, according to his nephew Daniel, who now manages the store with Arturo’s son. The elder Felix usually comes to the store on weekdays, so I don’t expect to see him at all today.
This early, the only other people in the store are old men who probably still live by that mantra involving early birds and worms. A street cleaner moves along outside 24th Street, and inside the cooling machines hum.
7:50 a.m. A classic hipster walks in. He refuses to use a basket, juggling his bananas, milk, and coffee mug between two hands. He moves slowly through the produce section. I imagine that he was out all night and is now repenting with wholesome grocery choices.
8:25 a.m. A small Latina woman who looks like she’s ready for church is buying some Chips a’Hoy cookies and grapes. She greets the clerk cheerfully with “Hola.”
A younger Latino man wearing a beanie is checking out across from her. His loot? Many individual Coronas looking lost without being in their traditional six or twelve pack.
As the morning wears on, mostly Latinos come in. On occasion, white couples will drift through the stands of fruits and vegetables, and they always appear the same: The woman is almost always wearing yoga pants and running shoes. The man usually looks like he’s just paid a visit to REI and is wearing his new purchases.
One of these women–holding a crate of Philz Coffee and a green smoothie–tries to grab some berries from behind my perch. She apologizes as if she is trespassing.
At 9 a.m. I hear the church bells across the street. Shaul, who has been singing to himself while stacking Valencia oranges, tells me to brace myself for the later church crowds. “They are hungry when they get out of there,” he warns.
Shaul has worked at Casa Lucas for nine years. He wakes up every morning at 5 a.m. to get here from South City for the 6 a.m. opening. Sundays are the only day they open at 7. He likes his job and the people who come into shop. He’s proud to know everyone who works around here on 24th.
While we wait for the church crowds, we talk about the piñatas. They sell well, he says, adding that he has to restock them every two weeks. He laughs when remembering the time he filled one with cornstarch to play a joke on his friends. He took a video of the incident and wants to post it on YouTube. He hasn’t yet.
Customers here tend to discuss their purchases with one another. For one middle-aged couple, the large carrots become a point of contention. They quietly argue over them until the woman feistily grabs the shopping basket away from her befuddled spouse and starts throwing carrots into it. Her husband sulks away.
For two very large, boisterous male friends, who look either like little league coaches or members of a motorcycle gang, the shiitake mushrooms become a topic of discussion. In the middle of their lazy gossip about mutual acquaintances, one announces, “I just don’t have a love for shiitake mushrooms.” The other says he quite enjoys them in soup as he tosses them in his basket.
Out on the street, two worlds collide. Young couples with babies in expensive strollers meander by, sharing the sidewalk with teenagers in packs of five or six with wide-rimmed caps and gold teeth.
Church is over
10:00 a.m. A large crowd of well-dressed Latino families rushing into the store interrupts my street watching. The first church service of the morning has finished. Adolescent boys in slacks and shiny shoes zip around the store, picking up different items on their parents’ grocery lists. The grandparents tend to the babies. The kids in the ages in between are clearly impatient and want to go home. One young boy is banging the wooden tip of an umbrella on the floor in an anxious pattern.
Among all the Latino families is one lone male shopper in an American Apparel hoodie, the weekend uniform of the 20-something professional. He goes straight for the onions, grabs a few, and then makes a hurried exit for the check out.
While the store is full of Spanish-speaking children of all ages, I have yet to see a single non-Latino child in the store. Some of the kids reply in English when their parents address them in Spanish. One girl speaks English to her mother but then switches to Spanish when her grandmother approaches.
Every now and again, Spanish will blare out of the loudspeaker system as employees at the cash register call for help. The smell of fresh buns wafts into the produce section from the warmer section of the store.
10:45 a.m. The first round of church-goers has died down. Shaul tells me another rush will come when the later service lets out after around 1 p.m. “It’s for the people who sleep in.”
Not long after, a man with a cowboy hat comes in for the first time. He’s also wearing cowboy boots, has his shirt tucked in and secured with a southwestern-style belt, and has a mustache that makes me think he belongs in a rural saloon rather than a city grocery. He buys a single red pepper and walks out. He’s not the first of his kind. Earlier in the day, I had noticed a man–who also wore cowboy boots and a thick mustache–slowly swagger through the store without buying anything. I wonder about these vaqueros.
Now that the late morning has arrived, the crowds diversify a little bit. One blonde girl spends a lot of time examining what feels like every single item that is for sale. She weighs two grapefruits by putting one in each hand and holding them next to each other in a futile effort to get an accurate read on their individual properties. She then smells some tomatoes as if this sensory test will give her hidden insights into what is inside the red skin.
Giants and 49ers clothing is ubiquitous. One young hipster comes in with his girlfriend to discuss the firmness and meatiness of the heirloom tomatoes. He is wearing a gold lamé 49ers jacket from the 80s with horribly stained white jeans. He stands in stark contrast to an older Latino man wearing a more modern-looking and respectable Giants windbreaker. This man interrupts his conversation with his wife to smile at me while the other two fight in front of the spice racks.
I need a break from the refrigerator, so I wander outside. It’s near noon, and the sun is now shining. A homeless man named Sandy is pushing a cart along the street. He stops to introduce himself and to say that it is nice to see me here. Later, I wonder what he meant by that.
Back in the store, Shaul is stacking carrots. He came to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico when he was nine years old. His family lives in L.A., but he prefers the Bay Area. I ask if he likes the Giants, pointing to his cap, to which he replies that he tries to go to games twice a week.
Like anyone who works at a shop that specializes in one thing, Shaul gets tired of eating fruits and vegetables. But he still likes Fuji apples–mostly because they are crisp and sweet and “can fill you up just as much as a burrito.”
Moving back to the oranges for the umpteenth time today, he tosses them casually on top of each other as if playing a game. I ask about when Blue Jasmine filmed here. They got off work for five hours. That was his favorite part.
As he is telling me this, a woman parks a stroller nearby. Inside is a little boy eating a tortilla. While his mom shops, he stares longingly at the piñatas above. Outside, a large family has stopped to grab some produce. Another little baby grabs a grapefruit and starts biting at it.
A man in a worn sweatshirt that reads ‘Sonoma’ approaches me and says, “This is not your typical Safeway or Whole Foods. It’s a lot of fun. I like it.” He starts pointing out all the different families making an event out of what others consider an errand.
His name is Horatio, and he has come from St. Francis Woods to shop here.
A New Group
3 p.m. The scene at Casa Lucas starts to dramatically change.
While Shaul was the only person to really speak to me before Horatio, I now have many people coming up to me to ask why I am sitting on a chair in the middle of the store and scribbling in a notepad.
One hip, Asian girl asks me if I’m doing research–a now common question. She’s been coming to this store since she moved to San Francisco three years ago. “It’s the spot,” she announces nonchalantly.
There are far less Latino customers now.
I witness the first piñata purchase of the day. A bunch of young guys–one with dreadlocks, another with thick black-rimmed glasses, and so on¬–choose a large Hello Kitty. I ask them what they intend to do with it. One tells me it’s for his girlfriend’s birthday party. Another declares that they “are going to whack the shit out of it.”
A software engineer from Salesforce stops to chat. He also thinks I am doing research. He lives in a rent-controlled apartment just around the corner and usually orders his food online through Safeway. “It’s easier to do that with no car.”
He’s been here a year and a half and loves the Mission, even though he considers himself to be part of the gentrification. He has felt largely accepted, however, and thinks this might have something to do with the fact that he is Egyptian and looks more Latino than other newcomers.
He shops at Casa Lucas when he can because of the fresh produce. “It’s the only place in the city you can buy prickly pears.”
An older white woman approaches me a few minutes later. She’s lived in Portrero Hill and has been shopping here since the 80s. Without prompting, she tells me there are a lot more white people in the store now. She regales a time when she once asked the employees if the changes in clientele were good for business. They said yes because white people like organic, fresh foods.
“You see more kale around here,” a neighborhood activist tells me after the woman has left. He moved to San Francisco in 1980 from Denver and only noticed organic foods showing up at Casa Lucas a few years ago. “The market has changed, but it’s better now. The produce is better.”
Daniel Felix, the owner’s nephew, used to work at the store when he was a kid, but left to run his own business, and came back to Casa Lucas as a manager three years ago. He tells me that he and his cousin were a big part of the changing the inventory.
Like all good businessmen, when they noticed that a new demographic was moving into the neighborhood, they decided to stock new foods and organic produce that would appeal to these people.
“When my uncle ran it, we had a lot of Central American products,” Daniel says.
Many of these products can still be found on the shelves. However, hidden among the jars of Peruvian and Colombian sauces, are new additions. Daniel points to a glass jar that has Arabic writing across it.
“Anglos eat things like Tahini,” he states matter-of-factly. “Hispanic people don’t even know what this is.”
Some of the old customers–the people Daniel calls his uncle’s customers–can also still be found in the aisles like the sauces they buy, especially on weekends. Many of the people who lived in the Mission and shopped here in decades past have moved to Richmond, but they will often come make the “field trip” here on Saturday or Sunday.
4:30 p.m. The man with the cowboy hat is back. Shaul tells me that his name is Pablo and that he owns a few restaurants around here.
“Would you like spinach or kale?,” a blonde girl asks her friend as Pablo picks out some dried herbs spices across the room.
Shaul can always tell when someone is not from San Francisco–they are usually the ones who take photos of themselves in front of the fruit and piñatas.
Pablo leaves and then comes back about a half hour later. This time, he collects an entire bags-worth of jalapenos.
5:30 p.m. There is an influx of white families. They all have very young children–none past the age of five. There are also more yoga mats and Herschel backpacks.
As the evening church bells ring, I notice a Latino family dressed all in black. I’m getting ready to leave¬–the evening air is making me even colder, and the Oscars are starting soon. I can tell they’ve just come from a funeral. The young son is draped over his father’s shoulder and is fast asleep. It’s the kind of exhaustion that comes from pleasing older relatives all day. They move slowly and somberly through the aisles picking up last-minute dinner items.
Shaul is long gone. He gets off at five. I have no one to say good-bye to.
I go home and make a kale salad with items I bought in the store’s organic section. It’s delicious.