Aldi makes business on Mooney its specialty

Planning commission says grocery chain is a specialty food retailer allowing it to locate along Mooney Boulevard

By Reggie Ellis

VISALIA – Aldi, the no-frills discount food store, will be the latest location on south Mooney Boulevard in Visalia to sell groceries. But don’t call them a grocery store. They are a specialty food store, according to the Visalia Planning Commission.

At its April 13 meeting, the planning commission upheld Aldi’s appeal of the city planner’s denial of the project to build a 21,000-square foot store in a new shopping center being built on the southeast corner of Mooney Boulevard and Visalia Parkway. 

City planner Paul Bernal told commissioners his department was recommending denial of the project because only specialty food stores are allowed in the regional commercial zone on Mooney Boulevard. Grocery stores have been precluded from Mooney Boulevard since the 1991 General Plan when the city created the zoning for retailers, including those selling food, that draw customers from a larger market than the city limits. 

He said he visited the Aldi in Hanford to see if they met the criteria but said he associated its model more with a grocery store and less with a specialty food store. Commissioner Sarah Peariso asked why other food retailers were allowed to locate on Mooney when Aldi was being recommended for denial. Bernal explained that Walmart and Target were allowed because they offer just as many merchandise as food items and that Smart & Final and Costco are considered bulk retailers, which makes them unique to those selling groceries. Grocery Outlet is located in a mixed use commercial zone outside of the regional commercial zone.

“This item appears to be just a grocery store,” Bernal said. “I could not identify this as a specialty food store.”

Similar to the Sam’s brand at Walmart and Kirkland brand at Costco, Aldi representative Aaron Carpenter said about 90% of the products on Aldi’s shelves are brands unique to the company, such as health food, organic and gluten free brands. The no-frills grocery store focuses on low prices and a quick-and-easy shopping experience. Aldi stores are smaller than a traditional supermarket with just a few aisles compared to 30 elsewhere. The company also prides itself on being a green business. The German-based store also offers a large selection of gourmet cheeses and products imported from Europe. Aldi also sell non-food items such as kitchen ware and appliances as a food retailer. Carpenter said the municipal code defined specialty food stores as having a bakery, delicatessen, meat market, butcher shop, health food, gourmet, imported foods, etc. 

“We feel like, in the points of the municipal code, we can find support that Aldi meets requirements for meat market, gourmet, health and imported foods,” Carpenter said. “We are asking you to uphold the appeal and find Aldi to be a specialty food store.”

Peariso agreed, saying the company’s online circular included things like bedding and housewares. 

“There is no location of this store in Visalia,” Peariso said. “That in and of itself makes it a specialty store in that you can’t get any of these items in Visalia right now.”

Commissioners Marvin Hansen and Chris Gomez asked how Aldi was any different than Trader Joe’s, a sister company of Aldi, which was part of a 2004 plan to bring the popular food store to town. Bernal said city staff did not consider Aldi a regional draw for customers.  

Matthew Bacca, director of real estate with Aldi, said like Trader Joe’s, Aldi does not plan to open a second store in Visalia and forecasts it will draw customers from Tulare, Farmersville and Exeter.

“What makes us unique from Trader Joe’s is some of the non-food items,” Bacca said. “Lawn and garden equipment, a lot of kitchen appliances, cooking items, pots and pans. The only other real distinction is that Trader Joe’s carry liquor and Aldi only carries beer and wine.”

Developer Matt Graham said he was excited about having Aldi as a junior anchor store in his retail center, a multi-phase 96-acre project which includes two fast food pads, a convenience store and a 126-unit new home subdivision. Graham said Aldi offered several specialty items and 

“Retailers targeting 20,000-square foot uses is the new wave of commercial now,” Graham said. 

Gomez argued that Mooney needed a store like Aldi to help fill the void of gourmet and imported items created with the closing of World Market. Gomez made the motion to uphold the appeal of the city planner’s denial and allow Aldi to operate as a specialty food store in the regional commercial zoning on Mooney Boulevard. The motion passed unanimously. 

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